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With CBA talks looming, owners committed to spending less

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Six weeks before a crucial bargaining session scheduled for All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, there has been precious little progress since players submitted their counterproposal to owners at the end of June. With the clock winding toward a potential lockout, it's worth sharing some opinions provided this week by a person who has wielded enormous clout in past NBA labor talks.

In an intriguing if contradictory prediction, the person said that despite a steady stream of lockout rhetoric, he has come to believe that owners and players will reach an agreement and avoid a work stoppage at the 11th hour before the current CBA expires on July 1, 2011. However, if cooler heads do not prevail, the owners will be so entrenched and determined to make a work stoppage pay off that they will push to cancel the entire season to cripple the National Basketball Players Association and implement the drastic changes they are seeking.

Basically, if a lockout is the only way to get the players to cave, then the owners are really going to make them cave. If there's a lockout, the participant in past negotiations predicted, it will not simply be for show. It will be Armageddon.

"After a year, the players will come back with $2.1 billion less in their pockets," the person said. "Who has more leverage now?"

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Owners and league negotiators believe they can compel the players to give enough ground without a work stoppage because it should be obvious to the players that the union [and thus many of the players] will run out of money after the first pay period of the 2011-12 season. More to the point: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would lose a combined $30 million next season in a lockout that wipes out the entire schedule. How will they ever get it back? They won't. As for an owner losing $30 million a year, he'll be happy to shut down the sport for a year -- and sources say there are at least seven or eight owners with that posture. Probably more.

If locking the players out is the only way for the owners to achieve their goals, there will be no point to a short, symbolic lockout that results in only minor tweaks to the current system. If there is a lockout, it will be long and bloody and will dramatically change the economics of the sport in the favor of the owners.

"Once you go through the initial pain to shut it down," the person said, "they're out for the year."

So in the interest of avoiding such a calamity, which would kill all the momentum the NBA has built in the past 3-5 years, here are some solutions the person suggested: Reducing roster size from 15 to 12 and splitting revenues 50-50 [as opposed to the 57 percent of basketball-related income players currently are guaranteed]. This would save the owners nearly $300 million a year without even touching the current pay structure. Average player salaries would remain at current levels with fewer players dividing a smaller share of the pie. Essentially, it would be contraction through eliminating players instead of teams, which quite honestly is still an idea that shouldn't be ruled out. None of the ideas for a labor solution exist in a vacuum. "Sadly, this is like LeBron negotiating with Cleveland," the person said. "There are no tradeoffs. They're going to have to take a lower percentage or fewer jobs."

Or both.

Mark Cuban says  labor uncertainty won't limit willingness to sign another big-money player. (Getty Images)  
Mark Cuban says labor uncertainty won't limit willingness to sign another big-money player. (Getty Images)  
Such a concession might seem like a doomsday scenario for the players, but they'll get a worse deal after they've lost a year of income and owners have skipped a year of losing money. Instead of digging in and trying to save jobs and mid-level salaries, the union could use this as a negotiating chip to achieve other goals, such as forcing the owners to include revenue sharing in the CBA negotiations and leaving many elements of the current soft-cap system in place. [Besides the mid-level exception, which will "absolutely and categorically" be eliminated, the labor expert predicted.] In return, the players should say to the owners: If you want to continue to count depreciation among your costs, then you must set aside a percentage of proceeds when franchises are sold and put the money in the pension fund. Why? "So guys like Eddy Curry don't wind up homeless," the former bargaining participant said.

Mind you, my labor expert believes that all of the above will simply be window dressing -- that the owners have all the leverage, and the players have none and will have to accept whatever the owners offer. Frankly, I'm a little afraid to find out if he's right. The players should be, too.

But to mitigate the job losses -- which would be opposed by a union whose executive committee is dominated by the kind of role players who might be affected -- the players could play a triumphant role in dramatically improving the sport by proposing to expand the draft to four or five rounds. Each team would select two players for its NBA roster and two or three for its NBA Development League affiliate. In theory, some of the players whose NBA jobs would be lost through reduced roster size would find jobs in the D-League -- albeit at reduced salaries. Same goes for coaches; NBA teams could further reduce costs by sending their top assistants to coach their D-League teams. By coaching the same offensive and defensive systems in the D-League, teams would have players at their disposal who could actually come up to the NBA level and contribute in a meaningful way.

"It should be like Triple-A," the person said. "A really good league for guys who are really capable."

Players who didn't survive in the new NBA would stand to benefit from enhanced retirement benefits achieved through a portion of the owners' previously unshared windfall profits when they sell their teams. If 90 jobs lost are too many to stomach, make it 13-man rosters for a net loss of 60 NBA jobs and tweak the BRI split accordingly. At the end of the day, as long as commissioner David Stern cuts costs to the point where his owners want them cut, everything else is negotiable.

Most owners would win, the players who survived the new system would win, and we would win because the product would be better. Eliminating the 60-90 worst players in the league, enhancing revenue sharing, and tweaking the salary structure so it doesn't grossly overpay mediocre players at the expense of those who deserve it, would improve competitive balance and grow revenues even more.

And on that lone note of labor optimism, we move on to the rest of another ever-improving product, the Post-Ups:

 The Mavs are taking a patient approach in their evaluation of what, if anything, needs to be done in the wake of Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury. Team officials, including owner Mark Cuban, believe there is no need to panic and want to wait until Dirk Nowitzki and Rodrigue Beaubois return from injuries before making any major moves. It is clearly understood, however, that Cuban has no interest in carrying an $85 million payroll into the postseason only to get bounced in the first round for the fourth time in five years.

Two names that are expected to be on the Mavs' radar if and when Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson decide they need to add a piece to make a championship push are Andre Iguodala and Stephen Jackson. Each would be a useful addition, but someone will have to convince Cuban that taking on such a financial commitment would all but guarantee a trip to the Finals. Iguodala, though a solid wing defender who would thrive on a team where he wouldn't have to be the primary scorer, is a long shot considering the $44 million he has left over the next three seasons. The Sixers thus far have found no takers for Iguodala, who could use a fresh start with a contender.

 The plan in Phoenix upon shipping Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark to the Magic for Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Vince Carter was to make the Suns a better defensive team and give the new group time to show some results. Well, the outlook is decidedly unsunny; the Suns have lost five out of six since the debut of Pietrus and Gortat on Dec. 26, and four out of five since Carter joined the lineup. Phoenix has allowed fewer than 100 points in three of the six games but has scored fewer than 100 in four of them. Despite the embarrassment of a 121-96 blowout loss to the Knicks -- led by former Valley residents Amar'e Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni -- it's not time to hit the reset button just yet. "We have to be satisfied that we've let it settle in and let it take its course before we do anything," GM Lon Babby told CBSSports.com. "We need to have a steady hand. The last thing we need right now is more change." But owner Robert Sarver, who in an email referred all questions to Babby, has limits on his patience.

Despite all the denials about trading Steve Nash, it isn't difficult to imagine the soon-to-be 37-year-old point guard being dealt by the trade deadline if the Suns don't show some signs of turning it around. It's too early, Babby said, to put an expiration date on a roster that has been turned over dramatically from last season's conference finalist team. "We're trying to get the team better for now, because that's our job and that's what our mission is and that's what our community expects," Babby said. "But we have to have one eye on the future as well. The trade was really designed to do both. I believe it will help us in the long run, but so far it hasn’t helped us in the short run."

 Minnesota had internal discussions about making a trade proposal for Memphis guard O.J. Mayo, but decided against it prior to the infamous mid-air fight involving Mayo and Tony Allen on the team charter last week, sources said. Rival execs say Mayo remains available. The Wolves remain interested in Knicks benchwarmer Anthony Randolph, believing the "third team could be a charm" for the talented but raw big man, according to a source.

 The Trail Blazers remain in evaluation mode with regard to Andre Miller, who would be a valuable addition to a contender needing an upgrade at point guard. As has been the case for several weeks, Portland's trade posture is directly linked to Brandon Roy's immediate and long-term medical future. Roy is contemplating an experimental meniscus transplant procedure on both knees, and it's difficult for GM Rich Cho to make any significant moves until Roy's course of action is determined. Meanwhile, the plucky Blazers have managed to win five out of seven since a Christmas night loss to Golden State.

 The NBA will announce Monday that Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, and David Lee will join the Hoops for St. Jude initiative in March, adding some All-Star clout to a growing and successful program aimed at finding a cure and better treatments for childhood cancer. The trio will join returning ambassadors Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Kevin Love, Steve Blake and coach George Karl -- a two-time cancer survivor -- in promoting the annual Hoops for St. Jude Week March 4-11. The nationwide initiative, which will be part of the league's "NBA Cares" charitable arm, raises awareness and funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.


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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