Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala, and Why the NBA Is So Screwed Up

Please settle this labor dispute and spare basketball fans from the biggest horror of all

Judging by the sagging attendance figures for the Sixers this year, the prospect of a prolonged NBA work stoppage is not going to trigger demonstrations by irate fans who can’t get enough of watching Spencer Hawes do battle in the post with Dwight Howard. And the arrival of Nikola Vucevic hasn’t exactly triggered a run on the box office, either.

Times are tough for professional basketball here and in many NBA outposts, where franchises are hemorrhaging money, and the prospect of title contention is about as real as civil political debate. When David Stern and the owners who employ him cry poor, we actually have to believe them -– to a point. Unlike the NFL labor imbroglio, which features a group of owners trying to reverse a bad compromise made earlier in order to grab greater profits down the line, many of the NBA troubles stem from legitimate business woes.

Simply put, unless things change drastically, the NBA has no chance of surviving in its current, 30-team state.

This is not your typical, “millionaires versus billionaires” sports labor dispute. That’s the NFL, where it’s hard to muster any sympathy for False Face Jones or Little Danny Snyder, and not just because they own the Cowboys and Redskins. When you’re raking in about $9 billion a year, and your next TV negotiations are going to yield revenues obscene enough to make even a hedge-fund manager blush, you can’t expect to win the hearts of disgruntled fans.

Despite a season that featured high TV ratings and highly entertaining playoffs, there are teams losing real money in the NBA, both in annual revenues and in terms of dwindling franchise values. Things aren’t as dire as Stern makes them seem, because creative accounting methods enable teams to make small profits look like giant losses. But it isn’t a stretch to say about a third of the league’s teams were in the red for the 2010-11 season. And according to a 2010 study by Forbes Magazine, 17 of 30 were worth less than they had been the year before. In other words, Ed Snider hasn’t had to feed his family beans every night because of the Sixers’ plight, but it’s clear the league has some big financial problems that need fixing. Unlike the NFL, which can count on collecting baskets of cash from TV networks, the NBA is on a fixed income. It makes out all right, but it’s not near the NFL’s good fortune.

For instance, the NBA gets $930 million a year from ABC and ESPN for its national rights, while ESPN will begin paying between $1.8-1.9 billion a season for Monday Night Football alone in 2012. Though NBA teams can negotiate local rights for their games -– the Lakers will start a 20-year, $3 billion deal with Time Warner in ’12-13, the richest in the league -– they still fall way short of the average NFL team’s tube take.

What the NBA’s owners have to do is find a way to save themselves from themselves. Doing that will be quite unfortunate for players, who have benefitted for a couple decades now from a soft salary cap that lets teams go way above the league’s limit, so long as they pay a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax, and from owners who shower ridiculous contracts on marginal players and serial underachievers. In order to get their business affairs under control, the NBA needs a hard cap and some sanity when it comes to free agent contracts. (See Iguodala, Andre.)

But that’s not enough. The league must also come up with a way to stop its top players from holding franchises hostage throughout the season. Last year, we saw Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams torment Denver and Utah, respectively, before they were traded. Give the Jazz credit for exiling Williams to Jersey as soon as he started acting up. Next is Howard, who has made it clear he wants no part of life in Orlando any longer. If basketball ever starts up again, the Magic must find a trade partner who can give them something worthwhile for the interior standout. If the league is going to survive, it must make sure each of its franchises has a chance to prosper. If that means establishing guidelines that prevent stars from getting contracts with new teams that approach what they could get in their current homes, so be it. We can’t have every All-Star looking to team up with two elite buddies in New York or L.A., while Portland and Detroit become barren wastelands. A hard cap will do part of that, too, since teams won’t be able to blow through the salary ceiling to add another top player.

NBA players deserve to make a lot of money. And their guaranteed contracts must be preserved, so that they can’t be dished off the way NFL performers are when they are not of use. But it’s time for a real change in the way the NBA does business, and that isn’t going to be too popular with the players. They don’t want a new way, and the owners most certainly aren’t going to open their doors without one. So, hunker down basketball fans. Until paychecks stop and posse members start complaining about an end to premium cable and having to use flip phones instead of Androids, we’re not going to have too much action at the negotiating table. For many sports fans, this is not a bad thing, since the NBA regular season doesn’t matter that much to them. But a prolonged professional basketball absence could have one incredibly damaging repercussion:

More Dick Vitale.

For the love of God, please settle this quickly.

* Vance Worley is one weird looking dude. And anybody who gives himself a nickname (Vanimal) is to be watched closely. But the man can pitch. A couple more outings like Monday night’s seven-inning, two-hit performance in Florida, and Joe Blanton can spend the rest of the season in the Green Grass League, for all I care.

* Jaromir Jagr is 39. He plays zero defense. He hasn’t been in an NHL uniform in three years. Yet, the Flyers thought it was a good idea to spend $3.3 million on him for 2011-12. What, Guy LaFleur didn’t want to come out of retirement?

* Competitive eating is no more a sport than beer chugging is, but watching Joey Chestnut throw down 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes on Coney Island Monday was big fun. Talk about making the most out of a gimmick.