Commentary

Sideshows sidelining major NBA issues

Battles amongst owners, not players or the union, the real threat to getting a deal done

Originally Published: November 1, 2011
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Fisher/HunterAP Photo/Julie JacobsonStories of union squabbles have taken center stage, but the clash between owners is the real show.

You know things in the NBA are headed in the wrong direction when we've gone from talking about the lockout instead of the games, to talking about union intramural squabbling instead of the lockout, to talking about decertification threats from the bottom of the union instead of friction at the top of the union.

Kind of makes you nostalgic for those marathon meetings that produced no results, doesn't it? At least when the two sides emerged from the room there was the slightest of chances they would announce an agreement.

Suddenly it's starting to feel a lot like October's season finale of "Breaking Bad" (spoiler alert).

As one agent said of the lengthy legal process that would result from the players decertifying: "At this point, you're forfeiting the season."

The thing is, there could be just enough owners who would be fine with that.

Renegade players vs. the union isn't the problem. Derek Fisher vs. Billy Hunter isn't the most pressing issue. The more relevant battle remains within the owners' side, because that's the one that could lead to cancellation of the entire season, even if that merely means taking up the players on their offer.

The last chance the doves had to prevail was in June. Once July 1 arrived and the lockout kicked in it was the hawks -- the "whiny teams," as one source put it -- that took control away from those who would prefer to play the season.

Now this story was related to me second-hand, not by an eyewitness. But according to the source, when some owners discussed earlier this year the possibility of missing the entire season, one owner said he was willing to miss two seasons. An incredulous David Stern asked him, in effect, "What will you come back to?"

A barren landscape is what.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesDiffering opinions between small- and large-market owners has put commissioner David Stern in a bind.

In a society that can't even remember hour-old tweets, how many fans would be willing to perform the equivalent of an archeological excavation to bring the NBA back to the place it enjoyed in the sports world as recently as June? It's not that missing the season is the prevalent opinion on either side. But what is the wisdom of trying to use the same threat the owners have been wielding themselves, when they're the ones who thought of it first? Not only did they think about it, they prepared for it and plotted for it.

For now, the more immediate threat comes from the owners. That's because it would take only 16 of them to force the negotiations into a darker place, to insist on terms so onerous that if the players stick to their current mindset they would have no choice but to turn them down.

"I think we've reached a really ugly stage," an NBA team executive said. "I was the biggest optimist going, but I sense a gravitational pull toward, 'Let's keep taking money away from them.'"

That pull comes from the small-market owners -- the ones who are in no rush to start the season without a radically different economic structure -- and it's not just a pull, it's a vortex that could increasingly expand the reach and drag down an entire year of the NBA. They're the ones who not only aren't willing to give the players more than 52 percent of the revenue, they don't even want to go to the 50-50 split Stern has publicly discussed.

"David's going to have a hard time selling 50," another team executive said. "I don't think it's a slam dunk, but it's doable."

The problem is, the players aren't trying to hear 50 percent either.

"We're trying to wait it out and stick together," Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant said Thursday. "We've got to get a fair deal. That's what it's about. How much money have we given back? Almost a billion dollars, right? More than a billion? I don't understand why we're considered selfish."

The longer they remain at an impasse, the larger the losses from this season get. Then comes the irony: If games are lopped off the schedule, the small markets get fewer opportunities to capitalize on the big-market teams. As much as the teams in the smaller cities might despise the Miami Heat and what they represent, they sure love it when the Heat come to town and sell every ticket in the arena and then some. (The Heat played to an average road crowd of 100.9 percent of capacity last season). But if the schedule shrinks they won't be able to stop everywhere -- and you can count on the league preserving the juicy matchups like Heat-Lakers, Heat-Mavs and Heat-Knicks to keep the TV networks happy. That means the small markets lose out.

As the losses mount and it becomes harder for them to recoup the hit within this season it could strengthen their resolve to make it up by extracting more money from the players during the course of the new labor agreement. That means proposing a deal that the players are less willing to accept. And on and on it goes.

A vicious cycle.

Just as endless is the need to peek in on a power struggle. It's an issue that will never go away in sports, just like sex scandals will never leave politics. The reported rift between Fisher and Hunter grabbed the headlines this week. It's because negotiations aren't sexy; power struggles are. It's why we're still talking about Shaq vs. Kobe more than seven years after they played together.

Fisher was there for the entire run of the Shaq-Kobe dramatic series and often provided the best insight and perspective on it. Now he finds himself in their exact position: fighting for credit. It's not that Fisher and Hunter have wildly divergent philosophies, it's that they have conflicting agendas over who will be seen as the face of the union. It wouldn't make sense for Fisher to sell out the players because he is a player. This new deal has a direct impact on him; it doesn't for Hunter.

Dobbs I think it's about standing up. We've given in so much. Guys are doing this not just for the players we have now, but for the future. Seven years from now, are we going to take 47-53? Seven years after that are we going to take 40?

-- Kevin Durant

I spoke to Durant, Ime Udoka and DeMar DeRozan on Thursday after they finished playing some full-court runs at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. They said they still believed in Fisher and they all felt the players have already given enough in stating their willingness to drop from 57 percent in the old agreement to a proposal to go to 52.5, and they don't want to go any lower.

"I'm all for standing up for what you believe in," Durant said. "I think that's what we're doing as a union. We're playing in these games, these charity games, because we love what we do. We're not going out here getting insurance, we're not going out here getting paid. We love the game. Guys can get hurt playing in these games. But people don't see that."

No player has been as active as Durant during the lockout. He has played in games from playgrounds to college arenas, from coast to coast. He acted in a movie. He even played flag football with some Oklahoma State students this week, something he said he did because he needed to take his mind off the lockout. He says he plays -- basketball, that is, not football -- so much because he loves the game so much.

That begs the question: If he loves the game so much ...

"Then why don't we take the deal?" he said, not waiting for the rest of the sentence. "I think it's about standing up. We've given in so much. Guys are doing this not just for the players we have now, but for the future. Seven years from now, are we going to take 47-53? Seven years after that are we going to take 40? So why not stand for something now, so we'll be better 10 or 15 years down the line. If they're going to keep taking from us every six years, every seven years it'll get to the point where we have nothing to fight for anymore."

It's getting taken from us, as well. Durant arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He was supposed to play against Bryant and the Lakers that night. Who wouldn't want to watch that game? But instead of going to Staples Center, Durant hung out with his buddy and Thunder teammate James Harden.

I wound up watching old "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episodes online on HBO Go. On Wednesday, instead of a heavy slate of 13 games I watched "Some Like It Hot." In it, there's a scene where Tony Curtis "borrows" a yacht to impress Marilyn Monroe, but he can't quite figure out how to operate the little boat to take her there, so he drove it in reverse. That's the metaphor for this week in the NBA. Headed backward, rapidly, away from the main issues.