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Postups: NBPA braces for report that could mar director's tenure

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The analysis of how the National Basketball Players Association has spent its money and conducted its business took roughly as long as the human gestational period, but the law firm that has conducted the exhaustive study is almost ready to release its results.

The business review at the crux of an NBPA power struggle is expected to be released by the end of the week, league sources told CBSSports.com. Despite indications that no illegalities were uncovered in the union's business dealings, there are deep concerns among those close to the union about how damning the report will be and how it will be perceived.

The law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison was retained in April 2012 to analyze how the NBPA has conducted business during the tenure of executive director Billy Hunter. The hiring of outside counsel to conduct the review was handled by a special committee of six players, headed by the Heat's James Jones. The hope was that union president Derek Fisher -- whose curiosity and post-lockout clashes with Hunter put the NBPA's business practices under scrutiny -- would agree to resign as president. He did not. Now, the end game is near for the future of the NBPA, its leadership and how it will be run from now on.

Given the detractors in the agent community that Hunter has accumulated during his 16-year tenure as executive director -- especially during the most recent lockout, when powerful agents began to undercut his leadership and question his negotiating strategies -- it is hardly surprising that the war on Hunter is in full effect. Without even knowing what is contained in the Paul, Weiss report, several prominent agents already have begun the process of reaching out to potential replacements for Hunter in the event the executive director steps down, CBSSports.com has learned.

Among those contacted by agents seeking a replacement for Hunter is Steve Mills, the former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, league sources say. Mills, 53, left MSG in 2009 to work on business ventures with longtime friend Magic Johnson. He is now CEO and founder of a wealth management company for athletes and entertainers. His tenure at MSG was controversial, mostly due to the actions of one particular hire. It was on Mills' recommendation that the Knicks hired Isiah Thomas, whose reign as president of basketball operations was marred by on-court futility and a sexual harassment lawsuit that cost the Garden $11.5 million in a settlement.

But Mills has a long history of engendering the trust of players, and worked for the NBA for 16 years. Beginning in 1984 -- the same year David Stern ascended to the commissionership -- Mills worked in various roles and ultimately became the league's point person for its basketball relationships with the NCAA, international federations and the NBPA. He reported to then-deputy commissioner Russ Granik; Adam Silver, now the commissioner-in-waiting, reported to Stern.

Mills participated in negotiating three collective bargaining agreements -- one as part of the NBA's bargaining team, one representing the Knicks and another representing the WNBA. Like Silver, who will take over for Stern in February 2014, Mills is viewed by players and agents as a consensus-builder who would vigorously represent players' interests but also have the savvy and awareness to work more in concert with league officials to grow the NBA's nearly $5 billion business as a partnership. Despite a deep respect for one another, Stern and Hunter maintained a routinely combative relationship that set the tone for the league office and union to rarely interact publicly on business matters until it was time to negotiate a new CBA.

It is not known whether the findings of Paul, Weiss or the firm's recommendations for how the union should be run will be damaging enough to compel Hunter, 70, to resign with three years left on his contract. But there are serious concerns among those close to the union about what kind of picture it will paint of Hunter's tenure. The report is expected to be as long as 250 pages, one person briefed on its contents told CBSSports.com.

Whatever the evidence or its impact, there are those close to the executive director who have discussed privately among themselves and with prominent players their hope that Hunter will realize, "It's time for him to go," according to one person privy to the conversations.

"They think something needs to happen," the person said, referring to conversations with several players who believe the union needs a change in leadership. Even if the report exonerates Hunter of wrongdoing, some of his detractors have expressed hope that Hunter will use the opportunity to make a graceful exit.

Hunter has repeatedly professed no wrongdoing to those close to him, and has fully cooperated with the Paul, Weiss investigation and a criminal probe by the U.S. Attorney's office.

Sources familiar with the NBPA's current constitution and bylaws told CBSSports.com there is no process specified in the document for the ouster of an executive director. A procedure is set forth for the hiring of an executive director, but not for his removal.

Such vagueness in the union's bylaws was among a litany of problems uncovered by the Paul, Weiss investigators, according to multiple people familiar with the probe. But even if the union adopted the law firm's recommendations to firm up the vague aspects of the NBPA's governing language, it isn't even clear how many players would be needed to execute a no-confidence vote against Hunter -- much less who would be on the executive committee itself.

Among the other issues discovered by the law firm were lack of player involvement in the union and a preponderance of players on the executive committee who are no longer in the NBA, sources said. Of the nine executive committee members, only four -- Jones, Chris Paul, Matt Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. -- are active players. Of the three players whose terms as committee members are not up, only Paul and Bonner are currently under contract with an NBA team. Fisher, the union president, is not.

So if the union were to hold executive committee elections next month at All-Star weekend in Houston, it isn't even clear what the criteria would be -- or frankly, how many players without competitive or promotional responsibilities at the event would bother to attend. In the end, that sense of ambivalence among players has pushed the union to the crossroads it finds itself at now -- and will complicate any efforts to remove Hunter against his will.

"It all centers around the players and how they feel about it," said a person familiar with NBPA dealings. "It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, because they're the only ones who can effect change. The media can write what they want, the agents can be as pissed off as they want, but unless the players are motivated to make a change, nothing is going to happen."

And with the NBPA leadership hanging in the balance, on to the rest of this week's Postups:

The Bank of Cuban

Mark Cuban's statement this week that the "bank of Cuban is open," signaling a return of his willingness to make bold moves and take on money, prompted a yawn from some rival executives. "Open for what?" one general manager said.

Perhaps Cuban felt compelled to put everyone on notice that he's back in the game after a two-year aberration of trading Tyson Chandler and assembling a team of expiring contracts in the face of punitive measures for tax-paying teams in the new CBA. But short of trading Dirk Nowitzki, which Cuban has vowed not to do, rival teams see little in the way of a franchise-shaping move the Mavs can make between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline.

"I don't think anybody is in a hurry to get [Chris] Kaman or [Elton] Brand and all that stuff," a rival executive said. "Unless he's trying to take a contract that's loaded."

 At least in this early feeling-out period with more than a month to go before the deadline, Memphis has been unable to find a team willing to give up comparable talent and let the Grizzlies off the luxury-tax hook at the same time. The Grizzlies' new front office led by CEO Jason Levien is determined to make a basketball trade, not a salary dump. Unless the posture of potential trade partners changes in the next five weeks, there's a growing sense among teams dealing with the Grizzlies that they will hold onto Rudy Gay and deal with the problem around the draft or during the summer free-agent period.

 Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in 2007 who hasn't played in an NBA game since 2009 due to a litany of knee injuries, is aiming for a comeback. Part of Oden's plan is to sign with a team in the next month and get into a training and conditioning program with an eye toward returning to the floor next season. The Celtics are among the teams monitoring Oden's progress, and sources tell CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman that the Spurs and Cavaliers have expressed interest, too.

 One under-the-radar name to watch in the run-up to the deadline is the Sixers' Nick Young, who has a $5.6 million expiring contract. Young's scoring punch could help a contender that might utilize him differently than Philadelphia, where Young is averaging only 23 minutes -- his lowest total since the 2009-10 season.

 The Hawks got a much-needed blowout victory over the Nets Wednesday night, without Josh Smith, who was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. What could be even more detrimental to the team is the gathering storm with Smith's free-agent future. As reported here, Smith's agent spoke with Hawks GM Danny Ferry on Wednesday to express his client's frustration with the team's recent slide; Atlanta had lost six of seven before a 109-95 victory over Joe Johnson's new team. Agent Wallace Prather stopped short of making a trade request, but multiple sources said the Hawks have engaged in some trade conversations regarding Smith.

Ferry finds himself in a similar predicament as he faced in Cleveland with LeBron James, and the Smith dilemma could result in conversations with Smith about what kind of changes -- personnel-wise and with the coaching staff -- would compel him to re-sign with the Hawks when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Ferry, having given James a tremendous amount of sway and leeway within the Cavs' organization only to watch him leave anyway, may be understandably hesitant about surrendering such power again.

Much will depend on whether Ferry intends to take a win-now approach with a roster that is projected to have a league-high $36 million in cap room next summer, or build slowly with picks and young players. One rival executive familiar with the discussions said Ferry would not be inclined to take on 32-year-old Pau Gasol and the $19.3 million on his contract next season, but another said Ferry is seeking a veteran All-Star in any potential Smith deal.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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