Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Updated: September 30, 1:31 PM ET
Owners hold the keys in the lockout

By Stephen A. Smith
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The prolonged NBA lockout that's officially threatening to cancel the 2011-12 season has never been about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, because neither exists on either side. This is all about what both sides perceive as their fair share.

Derek Fisher
If Derek Fisher doesn't get a deal done quickly, it may cost his constituents the season.

But the second the players realize that fairness does not exist -- primarily because it isn't relevant when the opposition possesses insurmountable leverage -- is the second we can all get back to dismissing the notion that LeBron James deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Kobe Bryant or any other champion at this moment in time, and all the other kinds of basketball issues we actually care about.

The time for all the pugilistic rhetoric has officially come to an end. For such banter to be valid, a legitimate fight is supposed to be taking place. What's happening now is shadow boxing. The players should have a legitimate argument against the owners' proclamations they have lost money.

They don't. The players are supposed to avoid conceding to a lower percentage of revenue. They haven't done that.

So now that players have acknowledged their average salaries have increased for decades, particularly at a time when owners claim they've lost $300 million in the last year alone, to say it's mind-boggling that they think they have a leg to stand on is like saying Metta World Peace can't dance.

Tell us something we don't know! Especially if you see Derek Fisher.

"Our game has never been more popular and we're poised to see tremendous revenue growth over the next five to six years," said Fisher, the president of the players' association, in his latest letter to players. "We must share fairly in the continued growth of our business. Any deal that decouples us from a fair share of the revenue growth in the years ahead is a deal we cannot accept. Period!"

All righty, then!

Don't blame Fisher for a thing. It's not his fault. Throughout this process, he has said and done everything he possibly could to represent the NBA players. But Fisher is at a gunfight with a pocket knife, armed with too many players with shallow pockets and minimal resolve in the end. But if he doesn't get a deal done quickly, it may cost his constituents the season, along with $2 billion they'll never ever get back.

Squashed beneath the pomp and circumstance is one reality that Fisher has yet to acknowledge: In 1999, when a lockout translated into a fragmented 52-game NBA season, more than $800 million was lost by the players.

Owners, through the game's soaring popularity, made up for the losses over time. So has the league, as a whole. But the players, whose life-span in the league amounts to about five years, never recouped those dollars they lost.

And that was at a time when there wasn't 9.1 percent unemployment preventing folks from patronizing the NBA brand.

Players can talk all they want about what they will not give up, but what they need to consider are their choices. Or, the flagrant lack of choices that actually exist.

They can negotiate a deal with a league that generated $4.3 billion last year, or they can hold out while trying to avoid surrendering to owners' demands for a hard salary cap. If the latter is chosen, they can watch as 30 or 40 players get jobs overseas while the other 400-plus wonder what they're going to do for the next year without that NBA income in their bank accounts.

Everybody has heard Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBPA, scream about the unfair proposals of the NBA's Labor Relations Board. We know what Fisher is trying to say when he retorts: "The same way our max players sacrificed for the larger body of players in the last collective bargaining agreement, it's time for our large-market teams to share some of the wealth with each other."

But as commissioner David Stern put it to me a few months ago, "How do you revenue-share your way out of a collective $300 million in losses? No matter who loses what, or how much they lose, how does revenue-sharing address a loss?"

Stern didn't need to expound on his question. Especially after uttering these last ominous words: "The players do have a right to state their case, to pursue whatever they believe is right. But at the end of the day, ultimately, they have a right to collect whatever the owners are willing to pay them."

And so it goes.

In 1998-99, the same owners who wanted a rookie wage scale, a maximum limit on players' salaries, an escrow system, a luxury tax and players receiving no more than 57 percent of basketball-related revenue, ended up with exactly what they were pursuing before a single game -- and hundreds of millions of dollars by the players -- was lost.

The owners' aim now is no different.

Are the owners being fair? Who cares! It doesn't matter anymore. It actually stopped mattering the minute the players' union conceded the owners have lost money and agreed to trim their percentage of revenue for the next few years.

So why jeopardize a season by continuing to fight now? When you know the alternative is, basically, nothing at all?

Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.