Commentary

Players, owners come to their senses

A canceled season would've been a disaster, so both parties did what they needed to do

Updated: November 29, 2011, 2:01 PM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

After 149 days of pettiness, bickering and bloated egos gone wild, the NBA players and owners gave the world the ultimate Christmas present: basketball.

On Christmas Day, no less.

We will have basketball because Derek Fisher, the players' union president, came to his senses. Because Billy Hunter, the union's executive director, came to his senses. Because commissioner David Stern and the owners remembered to exercise common sense -- instead of their enormous leverage -- for a change. And by deciding that harsher luxury taxes, shorter guaranteed contracts and diminished use of the mid-level exceptions were ultimately more important than humbling players, it's now time for everyone to utilize our basketball senses.

"All I know is ... I can't wait," free-agent forward Tracy McGrady said upon learning a deal had been reached. "Every player I know misses the game. I know I'm speaking for all of us when I say, 'Let's get this party started.' Can't wait!"

When the dust settles, despite the enormous concessions forfeited, Fisher and Hunter should receive some credit for getting a deal done. At odds weeks ago -- regardless of what rhetoric they spew -- over Fisher's desire to take the 50/50 split of basketball related income while Hunter insisted on drawing a hard line, they came together when it counted most in the interest of the NBA brand.

Fisher and Hunter recognized what the rest of us instinctively knew: Most of the rank-and-file players could ill afford to miss an entire season of paychecks. They realized the posturings of superstar players were primarily echoes emanating from agents whose clout will be severely minimized by the new tentative collective bargaining agreement.

More importantly, both Fisher and Hunter were fully aware that with the National Football League -- America's passion -- flourishing like never before, and Major League Baseball -- America's pastime -- thriving, having reached an agreement a year before its CBA even expired, there would be no justification for a missed season. Especially with $2 billion on the table for players, including the highest average salary in North American sports history.

A canceled season would have taken years for the league to recover from.

"We were never on strike, we were locked out," Fisher said weeks ago, accurately pointing out what position the players were put in by the owners. "We want to play. But the commissioner is right. At some point we need to make a deal. Yes! Even more for the players than the owners. We're just trying to make it as fair as possible."

Achieving one of two things isn't that bad.

Fisher, indeed, got a deal done. But as the saying goes: Fair is a place where they judge pigs.

Translation: There's no such thing as fairness at the negotiating table. Just leverage.

The best anyone can hope for is that both sides walk away with a smile and a grimace, indicative of concessions coming from both parties.

It's folly to expect Fisher to smile profusely when the players were forced to surrender in excess of $300 million annually over the next 10 years (opt out for both sides after six years) of this deal. Particularly with stiffer penalties with the luxury tax restricting player movement to higher-spending (large market) teams. Fisher also took a public hit weeks ago when it was learned he was cornered by officials for the union for allegedly trying to make a deal with owners behind Hunter's back.

Fisher has categorically denied such things. In hindsight, however, he should not have since that deal would've been better than the one they just agreed to.

Hunter, on the other hand, should be smiling because, by saving the union from having to spend millions on lawyers involved in litigation, he will in all likelihood keep his job until he chooses to retire.

And is there really a need to get into how much the league itself should be smiling right now?

Restrictions on teams over the luxury tax will limit player movement. If players don't end up going to teams over the tax, they'll need to go somewhere else. That alone will create more of a competitive balance for the NBA, which never hesitates to inform us that six of the last seven NBA champions were luxury-tax payers, substantiating its concerns about competitive balance, which is precisely the problem it was ultimately able to eliminate.

That, combined with a diminished percentage of BRI for the players, amounting to approximately $1.5 billion for the owners, has management blushing ear to ear.

"Who cares about all of that now," McGrady said.

Exactly!

On the slate now is Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and the New York Knicks.

How well will they gel? Will they embrace the challenge of ascending the Knicks to heights LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, evidently, believe belong to them in the East?

Will either Anthony or Stoudemire play any defense? Can we expect them to do so as long as Mike D'Antoni is still the head coach? Will the hiring of Mike Woodson as an assistant help the Knicks at all?

These are the questions now officially being entertained because the labor impasse has passed and it's time to talk basketball.

Approximately one month before Christmas. But so special, nevertheless, that presents are not even required.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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