“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to read last week’s edition.
Well, that was fast.
The NBA will be back in action by Christmas after the league and players' association agreed to a Dec. 22 start date and slightly truncated 72-game season.
Basketball fans are certainly rejoicing. After the sudden four-month hiatus due to COVID-19, we essentially get an entire calendar year’s worth of NBA action –– the bubble started in late July and this upcoming season will finish around the same time. It’s like the nonstop, 24-hour news cycle, but with only good feelings.
But before the first ball is tipped off, there’s an entire offseason of transactions to work through in the two weeks before players report to training camp. Prospects have to be drafted, free agents signed and disgruntled players traded. The popularity of the trade machine suggests the offseason is just as much a part of NBA fandom as the actual season.
And this offseason will be as messy, chaotic and jam-packed as ever.
Along with the announcement of a new season, the NBA and NBPA also agreed on stipulations regarding salaries and the financial landscape. This news was mostly hidden behind the big headline but will be incredibly important for the league moving forward. It included information about the salary cap and luxury tax line –– both numbers will stay the same even with steep revenue declines and salary withholdings from players –– a maneuver used by team owners to mitigate financial crises like COVID-19.
Why does this matter? Among many other effects, this means: Free agents will get their fair share of money, teams will be operating under similar salary cap restrictions and players won’t be losing a substantial chunk of their paycheck, as previously feared.
These new provisions are written in legalese and are filled with technical jargon, which explains why most fans won’t bother to read through and process them. After all, we enjoy and root for sports as competition, defined by winning and losing. All the other stuff is too administrative. And if we do understand that professional sports are businesses, we separate the more fun aspects of it from the mundane.
Free-agent signings and trades are enjoyable; talking about luxury taxes and revenues, not so much.
But however boring or impersonal these provisions may seem, it’s important that basketball fans understand what they are and how it impacts different groups within the league. Yes, that means you should care about collective bargaining agreements, salary escrows, TV ratings and revenue streams.
For example, starting the season near Christmas Day gives networks a viewers boom, thereby limiting the potential salary withholdings from players. Sure, it’s in the league’s interest to play games, but players also want to get paid and broadcast partners also want to reach the greatest audience.
The essence of professional sports is that of fantasy, but everything about it is grounded in messy, overbearing and sometimes good reality.
Player empowerment shaped the idea of a “superstar” from a source of entertainment to a powerful agent of change. The league and owners often want to uphold the sanctity of sport, but have to make real-life decisions with good or nefarious motives. Players, owners and the NBA offices are always looking to make more money, wrest more control and dictate more narratives, often at the expense of the others.
Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, the NBA was embroiled in a geopolitical conflict (see: Daryl Morey and China), at the forefront of an impending international crisis (see: Rudy Gobert) and leading efforts for social justice. If it wasn’t clear before that basketball was more than a game, last season made it painfully obvious.
And the not-so-distant future only offers more conflict. Less attendance and lost revenue are putting owners on edge, and the next round of CBA negotiations will only get more contentious; we may even be headed for a dreaded lockout.
We may enjoy the NBA for its hardwood product, the high-flying dunks and magical sharpshooters, but the league has become so much more. It’s necessary that we at least understand what happens off the court, for as much as we emotionally invest in the action on it.
“Trading Baskets” typically runs Fridays.