CBSSports.com Senior Writer

All-Stars hold key at upcoming owner, player meetings

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NEW YORK -- The NBA owners and players will meet next week for their first negotiating session since All-Star weekend, three people familiar with the meeting told CBSSports.com Wednesday. It's a key step in what has been a futile process thus far, with both sides tempering the rhetoric in recent months but still far apart on a deal that would avoid a work stoppage at the worst possible time for the league.

Owners, such as Cleveland's Dan Gilbert, have much to discuss in New York next week. (Getty Images)  
Owners, such as Cleveland's Dan Gilbert, have much to discuss in New York next week. (Getty Images)  
But it's not so much who will sit at the negotiating table on Aug. 11 or 12 in a swanky Manhattan hotel, but who won't be there that sends the strongest message about where these negotiations are headed. The last time owners and players sat down, two days before the All-Star Game in Dallas, you'll remember that the session was charged by the presence of 10 All-Stars -- led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony -- who were sufficiently offended by the owners' rabble-rousing.

In particular, the star players were rankled by comments in a CBSSports.com article Jan. 29 in which an NBA team executive ridiculed their objections to owners' desires to slash the length and value of maximum contracts, as well as impose a hard salary cap. The quote that prompted James, Wade, Anthony, and other All-Stars to blow off their "day of service" activities and attend the meeting in an act of defiance to the owners was the following:

"If they don't like the new max contracts, LeBron can play football, where he will make less than the new max," the team executive said in the article. "Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won't make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years."

At the time, National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said such rhetoric had "inflamed" the players and united them in their opposition to the owners' draconian proposal, which Hunter said the owners rescinded at the All-Star bargaining session.

"The players came in there and said, 'We don't want a fight,'" Hunter said at the time. "But if we're not given any other choice, we won't run from a fight."

But assessing the significance of the All-Stars' presence at the bargaining session required the answer to one very important question: Will they show up at the next one? As one person with experience in previous CBA negotiations told me, "You can't walk in once in six years and have the owners think that's some big show of solidarity."

Sure enough, sources familiar with the protocol for next week's bargaining session say there are no indications that players other than those on the executive committee will be present. No James, no Wade, no Anthony -- and no Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Chauncey Billups, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson or Al Horford (the other All-Stars who showed up at the February session). Wade, for example, will be in New York for Team USA appearances but doesn't plan to attend the bargaining session. As it turns out, their show of muscle at All-Star weekend was just that: a show. I say that's a mistake, a missed opportunity on the part of the players at a time when all the momentum in the labor debate has been going decidedly in their favor.

After spending the summer holding the owners hostage in free agency, scaring the bejeebus out of them with demeaning recruiting visits and clumsy, tone-deaf appearances on national TV to announce their "decisions," the players have gone back to thinking like, well, players. They got theirs, and now they've moved on to more important matters -- such as tweeting about what a great workout or lunch they had, or in James' case, further eroding his public image by taking out an ad in the Akron newspaper but ignoring Cleveland, the city up the road where he played for seven years.

In politics, strategists say you never want to let a good crisis go to waste. In the case of NBA players trying to preserve their lucrative salaries and keep the game growing for the good of everyone involved, they're about to let an awful lot of positive momentum go to waste by allowing their bargaining appearance in Dallas to go down as nothing more than a cameo. "These guys are grossly underestimating the owners," said the person involved in previous CBA negotiations.

Neither Hunter nor any executive from the league office has commented publicly on the players' proposal since it was submitted to the owners last month. Suffice it to say that when both sides get together next week, the owners will maintain their inflexible stance that it's not revenues, but rather player expenses that have so many teams struggling financially. The players will point out all the good news this summer about the health of the NBA -- including rampant free-agent spending by owners -- as proof that the current system is working. Of course, neither position will fly.

Since All-Star weekend, when commissioner David Stern unveiled the bombshell that the NBA was projected to lose $400 million last season, one piece of evidence after another has contradicted the owners' claims of poverty. Stern has since backed down from his loss figure, reducing it to $370 million, which the players association still disputes. In early July, the league released surprisingly positive news when it set the 2010-11 salary cap at $58.044 million -- up from last season's $57.7 million and $8 million more than the worst-case scenario estimated a year ago, when the league was projecting as much as a five percent decline in revenues. However, revenues didn't decline, but in fact rose during the recession-ravaged 2009-10 season to the highest level in league history. Player salaries, the bane of the owners' existence if you ask them, declined.

Like partygoers ordering the last few rounds of drinks on the Titanic, owners doled out more than $1 billion in salary commitments during free agency. Five-year deals north of $30 million for the likes of Channing Frye, Drew Gooden, Amir Johnson and Travis Outlaw were among the head-scratchers -- or, as one person on the players' side of the debate called it, "the height of stupidity" for owners heading into a labor fight.

The spending spree came on the heels of Stern commenting after the Board of Governors meeting July 12 in Las Vegas that teams have sold more new season tickets for the 2010-11 season than at any time in league history. Those comments were bolstered by a recent report in the Sports Business Journal stating that the season-ticket renewal rate for next season is 80 percent, up five percent from last summer. According to a person familiar with the data, 16 teams have already sold more than 1,000 new full-season ticket plans this summer, up from 11 a year ago. And the sales aren't due to lower prices, either; season-ticket revenues are up, too.

Armed with these gifts from the basketball gods, the All-Star contingent could've returned to the bargaining table next week -- not for effect or for news headlines, but to show owners that they're united with the rank-and-file players and committed to getting this right. Instead, it appears that they're willing to squander all the momentum they have built since All-Star weekend and let the likes of Theo Ratliff, Adonal Foyle, Roger Mason, Maurice Evans and Keyon Dooling -- the other members of the executive committee along with union president Derek Fisher, and "middle-class" earners in the NBA's salary structure -- speak for them.

Another fatal mistake, according to a person with a stake in the labor impasse who spoke to CBSSports.com on the condition of anonymity.

"Is it meaningful for a union to have guys like Derek Fisher and Adonal Foyle making rules for guys like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant?" the person said. "In the NBA, you have 10 guys like Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade -- and you're stretching it to say it's 10. And you've got 300 guys like Derek Fisher. So the question is, does Derek Fisher really care whether LeBron James is making $30 million or $40 million? If I'm Kobe Bryant and these other guys, I'd have my ass in every meeting."

The only high-profile member of the executive committee, Chris Paul, presumably will attend next week's session after missing the Dallas negotiation as he recovered from knee surgery. Either way, a person on the players' side of the debate, also speaking on condition of anonymity, questioned whether the presence of other star players would be productive. At the Dallas meeting, the person said, the All-Stars put the owners on their heels by showing up and charged the debate with emotion during a process that is best handled by emotionless lawyers and accountants.

"If they're really going to try to get some work done, the players are a distraction," said the person, who is not authorized to comment publicly on bargaining issues. "It has a tendency to polarize opinions because the owners get uncomfortable. They feel like they have to be as tough and macho as the players."

But despite all the news flowing in the players' direction, the owners are far from uncomfortable with their bargaining position because "the longer the players go, the weaker their position is," said one of the people involved in bargaining. "[The owners] are not remotely worried. They're fully prepared to shut the thing down."

And that is the one area where people on both sides of the lockout debate -- the hawks and the doves, if you will -- can agree.

"There's a concept known as the self-fulfilling prophecy," one of the people involved in bargaining said. "When you have both parties saying there's going to be a lockout, the likelihood of it happening is very high. ... My interpretation is, I don't think either one of these guys is ready to move."

Would the presence of James, Wade, Anthony and others make a difference in this round of bargaining? That's debatable. But you can't play the shock-and-awe card at one negotiating session and then walk away from the table entirely. If they do, the superstars of the league are committing two tactical errors: 1.) As the highest earners in the sport -- deservedly so -- they're turning over their interests to players who make a fraction of their salaries; and 2.) They're playing a dangerous game of self-fulfilling prophecy with Stern.

"If you're Stern," said one of the people involved in bargaining, "you know these guys aren't going to come to too many meetings. So I don't think you're going to worry too much about that."


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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