The ending: Bad, or ugly?

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
11:57
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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These CBA talks have had several memorable blowups, perhaps the most spectacular of which came a month ago, with the Oct. 4 Kevin Garnett show, which coincided with David Stern's showy display of the league's willingness to give players half of all basketball-related income.

After that happened, there were three ways this could end: 1. Quickly. 2. After some missed paychecks. 3. Who knows when?

In other words, good, bad or ugly.

The first of those is out, of course.

A glimmer of hope

There is hope for the second. Billy Hunter has said several times that his players will accept what the owners want only after some missed paychecks, and the first of those won't come for another two weeks. Maybe he should be taken at his word. Maybe now is just not the time for the players to concede. Through all the hard rhetoric, Hunter has always left open the possibility that players might accept 50 percent of BRI.

To that effect, after Friday's blowup, ESPN's Mark Schwarz asked Hunter whether his players would, under any circumstances, accept 50 percent of BRI.

"No," he replied, walking away. "Not right now."

So, if Hunter means maybe soon, well, then, this show could get back on the road quickly.

The worst possibility

Stern made scary noises last Friday. Moments after saying he'd never call the league's current offer "best and final" -- seemingly allowing it could get better -- he then said this:
We've lost approaching $200 million in the loss of the preseason, and we're going to lose several hundred million dollars more. So the NBA's offer will necessarily ... reflect the extraordinary losses that are starting to pile up now, and you can assume that our offer will change to reflect the changed economic circumstances.

In other words: The NBA's next offer will be worse.

And quite frankly, if that's true, we're sunk. It'll be a long time before the players accept an offer worse than the one they have already rejected.

But that could happen.

Worth noting: Stern had said this before, on Oct. 4, and it proved to have been an empty threat then, as it could be again. So maybe it's just more saber-rattling.

On the other hand, maybe it isn't.

Stern is not facing Hunter's struggle to save his job, but he still is facing a leadership challenge in these talks. Stern's are born of the reality that a number of sources confirm a good number of his owners (a majority?) think the offer he has already made was too generous.

This pause in negotiations has provided a nice opportunity for those Paul Allens to pipe up behind the scenes.

There always have been owners, several owners, who thought Stern had overreached in making the players an offer as high as 50 percent of BRI. It was bold of Stern to do so without the explicit permission of his owners. Had it worked, had it secured a deal and an 82-game season, it's likely all would have declared victory and moved on. These are the risks a dealmaker takes.

However, Stern's bold move failed, leading to these silly word games, in which Stern at times has fuzzed up whether or not he has already offered 50 percent. Even if he won't say it, it was his best and final offer, and making that a month too early was a fumble that exposes Stern to criticism within his own camp.

Meanwhile, Hunter has had to go through various shenanigans to bolster his leadership position. He is under attack by agents, some players and others who would rather have a new head of the union than the concessions it'll take to do a deal now. Hunter might know the NBA's offer won't get better -- but reviews of his negotiating skills might improve if he appears to have bargained as hard as possible. All these suggestions that Derek Fisher is the softie on the players' side have done wonders to cement Hunter's tough-guy credentials. If we get to the point at which players are begging Hunter, the last holdout, to take a deal, nobody will ever be capable of calling him soft, and his union job might be secured for the next several years.

Owners might pull more than money off the table

The owners aren't skittish just about the cash. There also is dissension about the stiff luxury tax that has been negotiated.

This tax is seen as the league's method to ensure that rich teams such as the Lakers stop vastly outspending poor teams such as the Kings. This tax is the meat of how the league will address the competitive balance about which it has been talking so much. If the Lakers spend huge amounts on players, they will be taxed far more than ever before for doing so, which, the thinking goes, ought to dissuade them.

But will this tax really do that?

Small-market owners are worried the new system might be worse than ever.

Here's why: Most teams know they simply will never pay the highest levels of the new tax. For more than 20 owners, a 3-for-1 tax or anything like it will never be in the budget. Meanwhile, a handful of teams either are in such lucrative markets (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago) or have such deep-pocketed owners (Paul Allen, Mikhail Prokhorov, Mark Cuban) that they might wake up one day and decide to spend $120 million on salary and tax just because.

It would defy sense, and it's unlikely to happen much.

But if you own a team in Minnesota, Memphis, Charlotte or the like, you might have decided, once in a while, under the old system, to spend in the luxury tax with the big boys such as Jerry Buss, James Dolan and Paul Allen. The option was there.

In the new system, however, the richest owners might be entering a club most teams can never enter. The super teams might end up with rosters (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard!) the regular teams could never afford.

And that's just one of the complaints about the luxury tax.

Another one is that it might lock the stingiest teams in the basement. It used to be that six or seven teams would pay luxury tax in a typical year. Under the new system, big increases in revenue sharing and a softening of penalties for going slightly into the tax might double that number by some analyses. In other words, those middling teams that would have never paid the old tax might go there fairly routinely to keep up with the Joneses under the new contract. Which is good if you happen to be one of those teams capable of doing that.

But for teams unwilling to pay tax, they might now be left behind by not just the huge spenders, but almost half the league.

There are good reasons to question the connection between payroll and winning. However, owners seem to think it matters mightily nonetheless, and that's what matters in getting them to support a deal.

Which is why some owners are agitating for not just the NBA to reconsider walking the offer down from 50 percent, but also reintroducing what the league calls a "flex cap," which the union calls an over-my-dead-body "hard cap."

If the NBA's next offer is anything like that, things will get incredibly ugly.

In other words, while the league and the union are busily not making a deal, they could be busy destroying one.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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