Commentary

Lockout FAQ: Is season in jeopardy?

Breaking down frequently asked questions heading into crucial period of labor talks

Originally Published: October 14, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The NBA's ongoing lockout has engulfed the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule and continues to generate new questions or rekindle old ones on a daily basis.

The following file, which will be updated regularly, will break down the most pressing of those issues via our trusty FAQ format, with contributions from TrueHoop's Henry Abbott and ESPN.com's Larry Coon and other ESPN.com correspondents along the way.

Read on to answer burning questions about next week's introduction of federal mediation, NBA commissioner David Stern's latest doomsday talk about the schedule and a state of the union for National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter ... and check back for frequent addendums:

Q: How real is David Stern's suggestion that the entire 2011-12 season is in jeopardy if significant progress isn't made in next week's session?

It's not the first time this fall that Stern has tried to sell the notion that the owners and players are already in real danger of letting the entire schedule slip away. Yet it's safe to say that persuasive as Stern was Thursday with a lot of his case-making on a multistop media tour, folks are tuning out the rhetoric when Stern launches into his 82-game doomsday routine.

Halloween is still a couple weeks away. Memories of the 1998-99 season are still fresh. Only a handful of players who went through the NBA's first true lockout are still active, but every union member by now has been schooled to know that a deal that winter didn't materialize until Jan. 6, 1999, with the regular season starting exactly one month later.

So no matter how many "I'm turning this car around right now!" threats Stern issues, union officials will always believe that the only true deadline in this saga doesn't arrive until the calendar flips to 2012. The union's only discernible strategy to this point, in fact, is the highly optimistic notion that NBA owners will start turning on each other if the players can just hang tough and #StandUnited through the rest of 2011.

The real worry there, of course, is the more believable threat of neither side harboring any intention to introduce its best offer to proceedings until around Jan. 1. Injecting urgency in these talks has been a constant problem since the lockout started July 1.

And that's where you can understand why Stern has been making these claims. Widely broadcasting an unfiltered message to try to influence the rank and file to put pressure on Hunter is part of it, but Stern is likewise clearly in no mood to play out the exact same script that unfolded in Lockout '98-99. This is a commish, remember, who absolutely revels in his rep for innovation. No surprise, then, that he quickly diverted from the lockout script of 13 years ago to announce that to "have a season or not have a season" was at risk as early as Sept. 28.

As reassurance for those of you who, like us, will be reduced to unspeakable misery (and probably worse) if there isn't an NBA game until after the 2012 Olympics in London, be advised that strong rumblings continue to be conveyed to ESPN.com about the league preparing a secret schedule that starts Dec. 1 and still manages to pump out 82 games. The New York Post has likewise reported that NBA schedule-maker Matt Winick has quietly drafted a variety of contingency plans spanning anywhere from 50 to 74 games.

It's thus probably not an accident that Stern, upon telling WFAN Radio in New York on Thursday that "my gut is that we won't be playing on Christmas Day" without a major breakthrough at Tuesday's mediation session, threw in the following disclaimer: "This is not in my official capacity of canceling games."


Q: Can a federal mediator's involvement make a significant difference?

History says no.

The same George Cohen of the FMCS (Federation Mediation and Conciliation Services) who has been drafted in to resuscitate the NBA's labor talks -- known in his business as a legit "heavy hitter" -- was also summoned to work on the NHL's season-consuming labor dispute in 2005 and the NFL's lockout this past summer.

To say he had a modest impact on either of those impasses would be grossly overstating matters.

However ...

There's a chance, maybe even a decent chance, that Cohen can be a legit difference-maker when it comes to the NBA lockout. And here's why:

1. If both sides truly want to make a deal and show a willingness to compromise, then a neutral third party can facilitate movement.

2. Although he'll have no binding authority when he joins the negotiations, sources say Cohen has a solid working history with the union, which translates to a trust factor with union chief Hunter. Cohen was also appointed to his post by a certain hoops-loving president named Barack Obama, who has already let the country know that he's "a little heartbroken" by the NBA lockout and eager to see a resolution.

One scenario, as laid out to me this week, is that Stern quite conceivably consented so quickly to allow a third party into the negotiations -- despite the fact that third party has no legal authority to impose his will -- because Cohen could operate as a potential face-saver for Hunter.

The union, as you've undoubtedly heard all summer, is struggling to manufacture any semblance of leverage in this fight and is widely perceived to be losing leverage with each passing day. Yet if Cohen advises the parties next week that an agreement should be made now based on many of the elements that the NBA has proposed over the past two weeks, Hunter can go to the players and present Cohen's recommendations as the justification for accepting a deal closer to the league's terms, based on the premise that an impartial and trusted observer has made those suggestions.

If that's indeed how things play out, Cohen's introduction potentially sets the union up for an honorable surrender after all its hard-line talk ... if the union is ready to capitalize on this "out." Such advice from the mediator theoretically deflects responsibility from Hunter and would presumably be accepted by a number of players because A) it's believed that dozens of rank-and-filers recognize the union's lack of leverage and would rather get back to work as soon as possible rather than try to fight on without leverage, and B) it's a strategy presented by a respected, Obama-sanctioned voice.

Perhaps all that's expecting way too much impact from someone, even with Cohen's reputation, whose only hint of jurisdiction as a mediator is the license to try to persuade the parties he's meeting with. If both sides have drawn lines in the sand and prove to be intransigent, Cohen's present won't achieve anything. Yet you'll note that it was Stern -- not us -- who on Thursday labeled Cohen's involvement as "a really big deal."

At worst? Even if he doesn't make such pointed recommendations to the union -- or even if he surprises everyone and ends up focusing on Stern and telling the owners things they don't want to hear -- Cohen can keep prodding both sides should the first round of mediation go nowhere. That is a bigger deal than you might think. Sometimes the hardest step in negotiations is getting one of the two parties to pick up the phone and ring the other side. Cohen will be ready to dial next week and beyond.


Q: How strong is Billy Hunter's voice these days within his own union?

After hearing for ages how it couldn't muster anything close to the togetherness and might of baseball's union, this is a new day in many respects for the NBA Players Association. You could legitimately argue that pro basketball's union, with Hunter still at the controls after some 15 years, has never been this unified.

Hunter's supporters would thus tell you that he has done a pretty solid job this summer for a union chief with precious little leverage. Even while inspiring virtually no confidence among the game's most influential agents, many of whom have maintained since the start of the lockout that the NBPA should have decertified immediately as their NFL counterparts did, Hunter has largely kept some 400 players -- despite their varying pay grades -- reasonably close to the same page.

Hunter's critics, however, are growing in number and rising in volume after the union's abrupt departure from the negotiating table Oct. 4, shortly after Stern unexpectedly resuscitated an earlier union idea of a 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income based on the same calculations used in the league's previous labor agreement. Hunter left the distinct impression that day that famously intense Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was suddenly in charge after participating in zero meetings to that point, thanks to a string of reports in the wake of the dissolved talks that union officials ended negotiations at the urging of Garnett's passionate/furious insistence that the NBPA accept nothing less than 53 percent of old BRI. The union hasn't backed off the 53 percent figure since.

That sequence of events spawned the follow-up perception that Hunter was determining policy based on the wishes of his most vocal and/or most decorated constituents as opposed to establishing the course of action as the union's lead voice. And that feeds right into the question that has been privately posed for months by various agents as well as a handful of players: Is Hunter willfully avoiding tough stands and simply sticking to his "stay strong" and "prepare for the worst" preaching mantras in hopes that the players themselves force a resolution while he retains a job that pays him a reported $2 million annually?

ESPN.com's Henry Abbott, quoting a source close to negotiations, reported earlier this week that Hunter "has his hands full" dealing with players like Garnett and Dwyane Wade who are taking a harder line than he has. During a wide-ranging round of TV and radio interviews Thursday, Stern only amplified those concerns by insisting that Hunter wasn't even in the room on Oct. 4 when Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver were summoned behind closed doors to hear that the NBPA had decided that it couldn't attempt to sell a 50-50 revenue split to its members and that, according to sources, there was nothing left to discuss.

Hunter returns to the spotlight Friday, when he hosts a regional players meeting in Los Angeles before meeting Monday with federal mediator Cohen in advance of Tuesday's bargaining session with the league that will be overseen by Cohen. Yet it was at one of those regional meetings earlier in the summer that sources say another Celtics player -- Paul Pierce -- loudly challenged Hunter to enlighten the assembled audience on the details of "our plan" to withstand the owners' push for a far more restrictive financial system that enhances competitive balance.

No one ever said Hunter's job was easy, given the heavy odds in the owners' favor of getting many of the changes they want, but a lot of players out there are still waiting to finally hear some specifics from that plan.


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics