The NBA Lockout End Game - How Late is Too Late?

Staffers for both the NBA player's association and the league met in Manhattan today to try to arrange a Thursday meeting to be attended by the big boys in this dispute, David Stern, Adam Silver, Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, et al. Is the Thursday meeting a last ditch effort to save the season? Can Stern rein in his more militant owners? Can Hunter stave off the agent-led coup? The clock continues to tick... but when is midnight for our Cinderella story?

I'm not talking about training camps that are supposed to open Oct. 2, or pre-season games that are scheduled for about a week after that. Those things are already delayed in every way save for the official announcement - and frankly who cares? I'm talking about regular season games starting on November 2. When is it too late to start the season on time and play all the games?

A lot has to happen between an agreement in principle and an actual, official NBA basketball game. The details of the agreement, ratification by the players and the owners, an off season's worth of free agency negotiations and roster moves, some semblance of training camp beyond "Here's your new team, let's play" - all of these steps have to be taken before the regular season can start, and they all take time. No matter how compressed or accelerated you make the steps, no matter how many lawyers you have burning the candle at both ends to write CBA clauses, it will take a not insignificant amount of time.

Now I could put an guesstimate on all of those steps and come up with some amount of total elapsed time, but truthfully it would be pretty inaccurate. Besides, why bother when we have an historical analog to use?

The last time the NBA experienced a lockout, a portion of the 1998-1999 season was lost. In that case, Stern and Hunter finally agreed on the basics of the agreement long after the season was to have started, so we can assume that the schedule for starting the season in 1999 was as compressed as is reasonable. So how did that work?

  • The basic agreement was reached on January 6.
  • The agreement was finalized and ratified on January 20, at which point the lockout officially ended.
  • Teams began conducting business on the 20th - this was pretty much a mad frenzy of everything at once. Training camps opened, free agency negotiations began, even pre-season games followed within the week.
  • A truncated, 50 game regular season started on February 5, 30 days after an agreement was reached. 

It's worth noting that when the agreement was first announced, some sources reported the plan as being a January 18 start to camp and a February 2 start to the season. So the plan was even more aggressive, but reality delayed the season by a couple of days.

If we use 1999 as a template, then we still have about 11 days to the zero hour - October 2 would be the magic 30 days prior to the scheduled start on November 2. Obviously, with camps already inevitably delayed, the pressure is already on, but using the 30 days it took from handshake to tip off in 1999, we need that handshake to happen by October 2, a week from Sunday.

Beyond that there are too many variables to consider. The NBA could easily play an 82 game schedule this season even if negotiations drag on into October. Back in 1999, they extended the regular season to May 5, almost three weeks longer than is typical in the NBA, so they could do that again. They also compressed to schedule: in order to play 50 games in the available time the schedule included some back-to-back-to-back games and far fewer off days in general. They managed to squeeze 50 games into 88 days in 1999 - a similar game frequency over the course of 82 games would require 145 days. Even allowing for an All Star break, a 150 day season would shave almost three more weeks off the current 170 day slate. So with 1999 style season extension and schedule compression, an 82 game season would still be technically feasible, even if the negotiations went on another 5 or 6 weeks beyond the beginning of October. 

But it won't work that way. The incentive to negotiate, the real pressure to make a deal, comes from the fans. After the last lockout, NBA attendance declined significantly during the shortened season, and it took several years for the popularity of the league to return to pre-lockout levels. With the league currently riding a wave of popularity created in part by a new generation of stars, the owners know that they will take a major financial hit if the season is delayed. If regular season games start on time, then all the posturing and bad behavior of the off-season will be forgotten. Everyone involved will be heroes if the season starts when it's supposed to, but if they miss the start of the season, even if they jump through hoops to play a full schedule, the damage will already be done. 

Which means that the pressure will be off again. The pressure is on from now until the beginning of October. But if no deal is reached by then (or as a corollary, if the sides find out tomorrow that they are still miles apart), then it's too late to save the start of the season, and just like 1999, the owners will likely decide to just sit back and let it play out for a couple of months, on the assumption that (a) a partial season is a partial season, and missing a couple of months isn't that much worse than missing opening day in the big picture and (b) the players will be more likely to blink once they start missing paychecks.

So while it's late, it's not yet too late. But if there's no deal by the beginning of October, I would expect a significant chunk of the season to be lost.

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