CBA Talk: Where the Threat Lies

What a difference a week makes.

Last Friday saw an explosion of anger as the talks fell apart. This time it was the owners, rightly or wrongly personified by Paul Allen’s awkward silence and Peter Holt’s easy Texas manner, who derailed the negotiations. With David Stern out of the room – for reasons either innocent or engineered – the owners put the cart before the horse by reportedly insisting the players accept a 50/50 split of BRI before negotiations on the system could proceed.

It was a profoundly foolish ultimatum, and it brought predictable results.

So, a week ago, we began the countdown to the cancellation of Christmas (at least for the NBA). It was already less than 30 days to the first day of remaining schedule games, and it was practically impossible to get those games in even with almost immediate agreement. Announcement of cancellations, perhaps even an indefinite postponement to the start of the season, was imminent.

But it never came.

Instead, the two sides teleconferenced on Monday, and the owners held another meeting on Tuesday to discuss revenue sharing. These led to the meetings of the last two days. And now, as’s Steve Aschburner writes, optimism abounds:

Wait, no snarky “Or not” qualifier? Nope. If only for a night, the content and tone of the key negotiators’ comments to reporters after another seven-plus hours of collective bargaining talks deserved to stand on their own. As did the fact that, as Hunter and union president Derek Fisher spoke publicly first at the end of this session, Stern was seated in the back of the room. He was smiling, he was acknowledged a couple of times by Hunter and he even answered a question for the union chief, who had been asked when the difficult moves in this labor dance would get made.

“Tomorrow,” the commissioner said.

Stern and Hunter both dropped big doses of optimism on NBA fans and followers, suggesting that the lockout, as long and damaging as it has been, might not see its fifth month.

“There are no guarantees that we’ll get it done, but we’re going to give it one heck of a shot,” Stern said.

Said Hunter: “I think we’re within striking distance of getting a deal.”

However, as Stern said in the wee hours Thursday morning, “Until we have an overall deal, we don’t have a deal about anything.”

Though we lack details, we can guess that both sides are close to agreement on a system, and the range where the BRI split will fall has been discussed ad nauseum. If this was just a deal between two guys – between David Stern and Billy Hunter – agreement today would be a certainty.

But it’s not. This is an agreement between 29 owners on one side and 400-some-odd players on the other.  And, since this is an agreement that has been/will be shaped by these disparate parties, it will not make everyone happy. In his interview with Steve Aschburner, NBPA Economist Kevin Murphy said this:

 “If there’s a deal here, it’s going to be a deal that nobody likes. That’s what deals are. Nobody walks out feeling like they got a complete victory. That’s initially. But then you get back to playing and you realize, geez, I can live with this.”

So, today (and the days that follow), the hope lies in finalizing a deal that the two sides can “live with.” However, even such a deal is certain to leave some feeling left out. And that is where the threat lies – within the people who see no value in agreeing.

The threat is greater from the owner’s side, but that’s largely a function of numbers. It’s just easier in a smaller group. And if you want to see how much it still exists, simply look past what Stern is saying, and watch Adam Silver in last night’s press conference.

However, there is still a tough sell on the player’s side. While the agents have been portrayed as the wolves here, the people who are “left out” are really the super stars – LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade. With the advent of max contracts, these players have seen their earning potential cut significantly – and they know it.

For all of the attention paid to the BRI split by the media, it’s the stars (and their attached agents) who are really the only BRI warriors in the fight. They can see the direct impact of each point of split on their paychecks, and the system issues don’t mean all that much to them. They are the wild cards from the union, but fortunately, as illustrated by the ESPN’s recent #NBARank project, they are wildly outnumbered.

If talks break down today, it will be framed around BRI. The most likely scenario will be the owners refusing to go past 50, and the players standing firm at 52. Though this will prompt howls of “$80 million ?!?!?!”, it won’t really be about those two points. It will be about the fringes on the two sides not liking the deal as a whole, and using that difference as as excuse.

To keep this from happening, David Stern and Billy Hunter will have to earn all of their money. It seems apparent that these two men are ready to make a deal. Now is the first time in this process that the two sides may be in position for one man on each side to push them together. The task, however, remains herculean.

Five years ago…hell, five months ago…I would have had absolute confidence that the deal would be done once Stern and Hunter started rowing in the same direction. However, neither has ever looked less in control than they have over the course of this lockout. For both, this is almost certainly their last go-round.

Let’s hope they both have one more good day in them.


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Tags: Billy Hunter CBA Talk Collective Bargaining Agreement David Stern

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