While top National Basketball Players Association officials were trying Thursday to establish a convincing sense of unity heading into this weekend's resumption of labor negotiations with the league, another group of players was laying the groundwork for the decertification of the union, according to sources briefed on those discussions.
At least 50 frustrated players convened on a conference call Thursday with an antitrust lawyer to discuss the ins and outs of the decertification process, sources told ESPN.com. It was the second such call this week, sources said, after a similar call Tuesday.
The most vocal player on both calls, sources said, was Boston's Paul Pierce. Those same sources identified Miami's Dwyane Wade as another vocal participant Thursday, with Orlando's Dwight Howard and Boston's Ray Allen also speaking up Tuesday.
Sources told ESPN.com that other participants on Thursday's call included Russell Westbrook, James Posey and J.J. Redick, with Grant Hill featuring prominently in Tuesday's call. Some of Thursday's participants named by Yahoo! Sports on its website were Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Spencer Hawes and DeAndre Jordan.
Although it was not immediately clear which players or agents arranged the calls, one source close to the process described them as "player-driven" and "player-centric."
Sources said that players' association executive director Billy Hunter was aware that at least one of the calls had taken place this week, and he is neither anxious nor alarmed by a movement that would appear to deal yet another significant blow to the level of unity on the players' side.
Numerous agents and an increasing number of players have privately questioned why Hunter didn't give stronger consideration to decertification in July -- especially because Hunter has said on numerous occasions he anticipated the ensuing hard-line negotiating stance from the owners for "years." But Hunter has countered for months that decertification is in the back of his mind as a last resort.
The two conference calls, sources said, represent the first formal step toward a decertification vote if this weekend's negotiations with NBA owners don't bring the sides any closer to a deal.
The NBA's 30 owners will meet Saturday morning to discuss revenue sharing and the state of negotiations, sources said. Following that meeting, the owners' labor committee will reopen talks with the players Saturday afternoon.
Optimism heading into the latter meeting is not high. The players' growing interest in decertification almost ensures that the union will not retreat from its demand for a 52 percent revenue split, and league sources have said a significant number of owners are growing resistant to offering the players a 50/50 split.
"That meeting on Saturday is headed straight for disaster," said one general manager who has spoken with a few owners.
The New York Times reported on its website that the group of dissatisfied players, frustrated with both the pace of talks and the many concessions made by the union to this point, intend to push for the dissolution of their union if a new round of labor negotiations fails this weekend -- or if the talks generate what is deemed to be an undesirable deal.
The conference calls, according to one source's estimate to ESPN.com, have mobilized close to 100 players either in favor of or giving strong consideration to signing a petition to request a formal decertification vote. The rules in place dictate that 30 percent of the union -- roughly 130 players -- sign a petition to request a vote. The case would then be taken to the National Labor Relations Board, which would have an estimated 45 days to decide on whether such a vote should be held.
During those 45 days, Hunter and union president Derek Fisher can continue to negotiate with NBA commissioner David Stern and the league's owners. The belief among many agents, sources said, is that a deal with the league would be struck during that 45-day window, based on the idea that decertification -- while by no means a guaranteed successful strategy for the players -- could create sufficient uncertainty and legal threat to convince the owners to get a deal done before it gets to that point.
If a new labor deal was not completed within that 45-day span and a second vote is sanctioned by the NLRB, decertification would then require a simple majority vote of the league's 450-odd players to pass. At that point, players would have the freedom to sue the NBA under antitrust law and attempt to bring an end to the lockout via court system.
Yet there are widespread fears around the league that if decertification gets that far, any hope of playing even a reduced schedule in 2011-12 would be lost.
The so-called "Big Seven" agents who pushed for decertification throughout the summer -- Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose, Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem and Henry Thomas -- have long believed that the league's desire to keep this labor battle out of courts via the decertification process would force Stern and the union's owners to bargain more fairly during the 45-day "grace" period.
Although it is not immediately clear whether all seven agents were involved in organizing this week's conference calls, sources said at least a few of them were involved.
Negotiations broke down Oct. 28 in dramatic fashion, one day after Hunter announced that a deal was "within striking distance." Stern responded to the collapse by canceling the rest of the November schedule and also revealed that there is no longer time to play a full slate of 82 games no matter how much tweaking is done to the original schedule.
Fisher, Hunter and executive committee members met for three hours Thursday, then insisted to assembled media members that days of reports about a rift between the union's top two leaders were false.
"We've had no problems, and that's the reality," Hunter said, adding that he has come to regard Fisher like "a son" during a long summer working side by side.
Hunter also revealed that this weekend's talks were initiated by federal mediator George Cohen, despite the fact that Cohen is not expected to be involved Saturday. Hunter said the conversation earlier in the week with Cohen prompted him to call Stern on Wednesday about resuming talks.
It remains to be seen if the mere threat of decertification can convince the owners to move away from their longstanding insistence that they will not go higher than a 50/50 split with the players on annual revenues (known as Basketball Related Income or BRI). The implied threat from the disgruntled players is that the union itself could trigger a decertification vote by agreeing to a 50/50 split or making further concessions on the various "system" mechanisms that enable teams to exceed the luxury-tax threshold and stimulate player movement.
"The battle is not within our union," Bucks guard Keyon Dooling said before news of the decertification faction went public. "Derek Fisher's the best president our union has ever seen. We'll stand as committee members -- I'm the first vice president and I stand behind him."
Hunter said union leaders had spent the last several days cautioning their membership that the two sides were still far apart on several system issues, so completing a deal was not as simple as a compromise on the revenue split.
"Our guys are in a position of they still want us to negotiate a fair deal," Fisher said. "They've given us that power. They've given us that support.
"Obviously we're going to have individual members in individual sets of circumstances that want to get back to play. We want to get back to play. But we realize the ramifications of agreeing to a bad deal at this moment."
Chris Broussard is a senior NBA writer for ESPN The Magazine. Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN.com senior NBA writer Henry Abbott, ESPN The Magazine senior NBA writer Ric Bucher, and The Associated Press was used in this report.