Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The NBA reaches a labor deal while the NHL is still closed

The NBA on Tuesday announced that they have reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union. The announcement ends the massive speculation that the NBA would join the NHL in locking out its players, and it ends the strange dream hockey fans apparently had that the 2005-2006 NBA season would never get off the ground. The new deal in the NBA includes a minimum age of 19 (or one year out of high school) for any player who wishes to enter the league's annual draft. Nobody seems to care about the changes to contract length, the rookie contracts, how the salary cap is calculated, or how the NBA moved to toughen their drug-testing policy. So we'll just talk about the minimum age.

This issue has been debated for quite a while - pretty much ever since Commissioner David Stern announced his intent to negotiate a minimum age for the new CBA. Stern is rightfully concerned about the flux of teenagers who aren't ready for the NBA, but are jumping into the NBA draft anyway. Stern is rightfully concerned about how tough it is for those young players to get better when all they're doing is sitting on the bench listening to teammates tell jokes and fans yell at opposing players. Stern is rightfully concerned about those young players taking roster spots away from established veterans who are better players, but don't have the "long-term upside" (union head Billy Hunter should be, and apparently is, concerned about this, too).

Stern knew he needed to get a minimum age into this CBA for the sake of his own credibility. For a while now, he has been front-and-center in the argument for a minimum age. He also knew (in all likelihood) that he wasn't going to get the minimum age he originally proposed (20). The odds are that Stern proposed the minimum age of 20 with the knowledge that he would eventually have to negotiate it down to 19 to get a deal done with the union, because while the union should have been 100 percent in favor of such a rule, they didn't want to alienate their younger members by not putting up any kind of fight against Stern.

The minimum age is a good thing. In reality, it's a good thing for everyone involved, even if they all don't realize it today. It's good for the NBA's public relations machine, as most sports fans appear to be in favor of some sort of age restriction. It's good for the NBA in general, as the players who enter the draft will be more NBA-ready than those who come in straight out of high school. The fans will be happy, because they've been begging for this for a few years now. And they don't realize it now, but the young players who are affected by this rule will appreciate the extra year (or more) to develop and improve as basketball players. When they enter the NBA, they'll be more mature (both physically and mentally), and they'll be better suited to contribute immediately in the pros.

For those who want to prop up Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, and others as examples of players who came straight out of high school and made it in the NBA, I would offer this: How many players have come out of high school and made a major impact as an NBA rookie? I can count one (LeBron James). One exception does not change the rule. Most of these players, regardless of their overall talent, won't be ready to start at the NBA level until they're 20 - and they're better off honing their skills in college for at least one year. You'll get better playing 35-40 games and practicing three or four times per week than you will by sitting on the bench for 40 minutes a night and barely practicing over the course of an 82-game season.

The NBA has to feel good about this. Both sides gave up things they wanted to make this deal, and now they have not only saved their sport from what could have been a crippling lockout, but they've also made the NHL look even worse for the fact that they haven't had a CBA in place for over a year now, and we haven't seen an NHL game for over a year as a result. Rumor has it that the NHL will get their deal done before July 1, but Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow have to be kicking themselves now. Any chance they had of using an NBA lockout to their advantage (a chance that barely existed if it existed at all, by the way) is out the window. Any chance they had of having someone else's labor problems to distract their ticked-off fan base is out the window. The longer the NHL goes without a deal, the less relevant they become. And let me tell you, they probably couldn't be less relevant right now if the league folded altogether.

(On a side note, the Spurs will win tonight. And that was still a charge by Big Shot Bob on Rip Hamilton, even though the world refuses to acknowledge the possibility.)

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