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Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Tough talk misses the point

By Henry Abbott

Who will concede?

The easy answer is the players, for whom the passage of time inflicts more obvious financial pain. They make about two billion, with a “B,” in salaries per season. In two-week chunks, until somebody caves, that’s all gone. Forever. Money lost to canceled games will never come back.

Ouch.

The normal bet, then, is that players will do most of the conceding.

That assumption is frustrated by some recent realities, however.

The main one is that players are currently invigorated and strident. That the union has recently taken a harder line (for instance fighting for 52 or 53 percent of revenues, instead of the 50 percent sources say they angled for earlier) is due not so much to the union leadership, but to players stiffening their negotiators’ spines. What started as agents attacking Billy Hunter’s positions, and Dwyane Wade’s yelling at David Stern, has continued with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant rejecting the league’s offer of a 50/50 split of revenues. And Monday’s Twitter campaign by many players, most notably Steve Nash.

One source close to the talks said, going into Monday’s session, that Hunter "has his hands full" dealing with players who are taking a harder line than he has. What’s clear now is that Hunter has moved to meet his players, rather than vice-versa.

Looking forward, you have to wonder if Billy Hunter has a capacity to meet the owners' current position and hang onto his position. Any deal needs the support of players. If he makes a lot of big compromises, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to get that. And with agents still sniffing around the idea of decertification, which could cost Hunter his job, he has a limited ability to sell the idea that it’s good for players to cave.

Also, there are those out there who insist the NBA is secretly fabulously profitable for owners, despite the league’s claims of $300 million in losses last season. The real truth is lost in a financial thicket nobody has ever really sorted through perfectly. However, if the league is indeed booming, then lost games will be hurting the owners’ side, too.

Meanwhile, Stern has not exactly said that the league has already made the best offer, but close enough. Asked if the offers would get worse from here, Stern’s entire answer was: "Well, our economic situation gets worse, and we have to begin accounting for that."

In other words, strong signs from both sides that they'll be staying on their respective sides of the "gulf," even though we know it can't be true.

There are a lot of really smart and fascinatingly subtle aspects to these negotiations. The people involved are incredibly capable. The process is in some ways rational. This is how $20 billion deals go, there is a lot of posturing and delays.

However, now that the costs get real, lost revenues, disenfranchised fans, tough times for those who rely on the NBA to pay the bills, it’s worth noting that when this is all done, in addition to paying the price of change, the two sides will also have paid mightily in idiot tax.

When success hinges entirely on compromise, how smart is it to build statues to inflexibility?