LAS VEGAS -- The NBA lockout makes for some strange situations, such as the predicament Rashard Lewis found himself in Monday night at the Impact Basketball gym in Las Vegas.
"They got me at center," he said, pulling on his jersey and preparing to go to work in the paint against Derrick Caracter.
We all know Lewis as a forward, a 6-foot-10 forward who likes to shoot 3-pointers. As the tallest player on his team Monday, he was a center by default. And maybe for the time being, we should think of him as being at the center of the NBA lockout that has stretched beyond two months.
The owners can't stand the fact they've been operating under a system that calls for Lewis to make $22 million next season, when he'll be three years past his last All-Star Game appearance and coming off a knee-injury-shortened 57-game season.
And after reading this David Berri analysis of the NBA's economics in The Huffington Post, ask yourself whether it makes sense that the system doesn't allow LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki to make more money than Lewis next season when they clearly brought more value to their teams than he did last season.
Just keep in mind how we got to this point: After the players agreed to a salary cap, a rookie wage scale, a maximum player salary and a luxury tax designed to slow the escalating contracts, can they really be expected to just say no to whatever money the owners kept offering?
Or, as Lewis puts it, "You sign me to a deal, you think I'm going to say, 'No, I deserve $50 [million] instead of $80 [million]?' I'm like, 'Hell, yeah.' I'm not going to turn it down. You can't blame the players. If anything, we don't negotiate the deal. We've got agents that negotiate the deals with the team. Y'all need to go talk to the teams and the agents."
Kinda makes sense, doesn't it? Sometimes you find the most logic the farther you get from the labor negotiations. Out here at the hastily assembled Impact League in Las Vegas, which will lasts through next week, there are healthy doses of common sense and optimism. Of course, the towers in this city were built on optimists. But in this case, the NBA players aren't wagering their money; they're investing their time and energy, hoping for a season that might or might not be played.
Guys fully capable of drawing an NBA salary -- including Corey Maggette, J.J. Hickson, Tony Allen and Jermaine O'Neal -- are out here playing for free ... but if you think about it, the stakes are higher than at any casino on the Strip. If there's no season, Lewis misses out on $22 million he'll never get back.
"But the lockout is not just about me losing a lot of money," Lewis said. "The [2010-11 season] we had in the NBA was a great season. The Memphis Grizzlies got in the playoffs ... and you didn't know who was going to win in the playoffs. From the Memphis Grizzlies to the Lakers, you had no idea who was going to win. Miami didn't win the championship. I'm sure fans are anticipating to see how they're going to do next year. The Boston Celtics, the Lakers, Kevin Durant, [Carmelo Anthony] in New York. 'Superman' [Dwight Howard] -- is he going to be in Orlando or L.A.? So much going on. I'm anticipating it myself -- and I play in the league."
The logical approach would be that no group of businessmen would want to halt that momentum. But you also realize there's no way rich men would keep putting up $300 million buy-ins to a league the NBA insists is losing money if they weren't confident the rules weren't about to change drastically.
That's why my level of optimism that the season will start on time sits below that of the players, who sounded pretty upbeat.
"There's going to be a season," Sebastian Telfair said. "The reason for me saying that is the players want to play and the owners, they enjoy the game just as much as we enjoy playing. At the end of the day, that will overshadow all of the business."
Jared Dudley, the Suns' player representative, took heart from the latest round of talks between the NBA and union leadership.
"The process has finally started," Dudley said. "This is the first time I've basically heard that both sides are saying: 'Let's try. Let's at least attempt it.' That's not saying that it can't turn sour by Tuesday , but the good thing is they've met a couple times, they know that we're having a meeting Thursday. I'm personally expecting, hopefully a proposal [from the owners] Tuesday, and that could hopefully be a start."
Some 70 players are expected to meet in Vegas on Thursday, to get a sense of where they stand. Right now, with a $190 million dispersal from the escrow account headed their way, and before their first pay date comes and goes without any money deposited into their accounts, the players are on firm ground. They have overseas options that weren't viable in the 1998 lockout. There's no reason to capitulate to the owners' demands at the moment.
The owners have had season ticket renewal funds sitting in their accounts all summer and don't have to issue any refunds or credits for missed games yet. So there's no urgency on their part. That's why I don't see a major breakthrough occurring this week.
Lewis has a much better sense for the business side of the game during this lockout than he had in the last one, when he was just out of high school, still staying at his home in Houston, awaiting his entry into NBA life. It would be in his best interest to push for the quickest deal possible and resume collecting paychecks. But he doesn't view this lockout as being about his own best interests.
"Guys before me or before us made the way for us to be successful, and I think we have to do the same thing for the young guys," Lewis said. "We can't say, 'Forget them.'"
On the other end is Isaiah Thomas, the rookie from the University of Washington. He's still waiting for his first NBA game -- and first NBA paycheck. He's here, but it's not like he hasn't played with NBA players before; he regularly hoops with locals such as Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson in his hometown of Seattle. They look after him enough to provide for his travel to Las Vegas for the Impact League. Right now he doesn't quite feel like he's left college yet. He is staying at home and even enrolled in a couple of courses this fall. He can't wait to become a professional.
"It's frustrating," he said. "But at the same time, I've just got to be patient. Usually with basketball players, you know what's next. With this, you don't know when you're going to be playing or if you're going to be playing at all."
He admits to not being versed in the details of the labor negotiations, much like Lewis 13 years ago. But Thomas knows enough to realize he can't expect the lavish paydays of the past.
"They were giving money away," Thomas said. "That's one thing. Being around the NBA players up in Seattle and just looking at guys' contracts, they were giving it away. I guess they're definitely not going to do that anymore."
You know what I can't wait to see? The new Isaiah Thomas in the NBA. In person he looks shorter than his listed 5-foot-9 ("That's what everybody says," he lamented), but every time the ball is in his hands, he makes good things happen, whether he's knocking down jumpers or driving the lane.
The games got more competitive as the day turned to night and the caliber of players improved. It culminated with a jumper at the buzzer by Mo Williams in the fourth game of the night, one that was energized by the antics of Damon Jones (yes, there was a Damon Jones sighting!).
The players are working out in the morning under trainer Joe Abunassar's program and then working on different things in the games at night. There's shape and then there's basketball shape.
Those who came out Monday night even witnessed Rashard Lewis making moves in the low post.
"It's really important to stay in shape," Lewis said. I remember last lockout, there were some guys who came in overweight."
Um, Shawn Kemp, anyone?
If nothing else, I can guarantee you Austin Daye won't get heavy. He could do continuous laps through the In-N-Out Burger drive-through and not gain weight.
There actually are some side benefits to the lockout. Lewis has had extra time to rehabilitate his knee and says it feels 10 times better than when his season ended. He has been able to spend extra time with his wife, whom he married Aug. 13. He took their daughter to her first day of school this month. He's spending time with their 1-year-old.
But there are the reminders that he won't get many more opportunities to be an NBA player. There are flecks of gray in his hair.
However, when you're around basketball players who are actually playing basketball, everyone seems a bit younger. Inside the gym, there is energy, enthusiasm and optimism.
"Once the lockout ends, it's time to go," Lewis said.
He framed it in terms of when, not if. The rest of us can only hope.