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With owners split, NBPA aims to unite players, turn corner


NEW YORK -- The point guard has the ball in his hands, and though it isn't quite 0.4 seconds left against the Spurs for Derek Fisher, it is unmistakably the fourth quarter -- the final push for an NBA labor deal that saves a full season.

NBPA president Derek Fisher is dealing with both owners in labor talks and players mulling decertification. (Getty Images)  
NBPA president Derek Fisher is dealing with both owners in labor talks and players mulling decertification. (Getty Images)  
Negotiators for the NBA and its embattled players' union will meet in some fashion Tuesday, with the goal being to force overtime Wednesday and finally turn the corner in talks that have been stuck on two key points for two years. But before they do that, Fisher needed to draw up another play in the huddle, one that was as sound strategically as it was calculating. Whether it will be successful -- whether it will work -- is something that won't be known Tuesday or Wednesday, but will be put to a high-stakes, potentially bloody test over the next 2½ weeks.

In a second letter to union membership, Fisher's words Monday were as important for their intended targets as for their content. Point No. 1: The owners are divided, Fisher reiterated, with enough of them not willing to lose an entire season for the privilege of instituting a hard salary cap. Point No. 2 was a more subtle, better crafted version of what Fisher delivered in his first letter to his fellow players: Despite what your agents might be telling you, Billy Hunter and I will not sell you out for a bad deal.

This is the rhetoric being perpetuated at all levels of the player hierarchy: that Fisher and Hunter are incapable of delivering a fair deal, and will cave to the owners' demands. Not true, Fisher wrote to the players Monday. Not true, despite what you are being told.

"You ultimately have the voice and the power in these negotiations," Fisher wrote to the players Monday in a letter first obtained by "Those of us that are in the room negotiating with the NBA cannot agree to any deal or deal points, good or bad, without taking your vote. Despite what you may hear, we don't have the authority to sell you out or sell you short."

For the second time in as many weeks, this was a carefully worded shot at the agents representing enough players to force a vote decertifying the union -- and perhaps even enough to reject a deal negotiated at the bargaining table -- from Fisher, the point guard who senses the time is now to begin controlling the game. Sources told Monday that some of the same agents who've privately been pushing for decertification -- the nuclear option in collective bargaining -- are beginning to make noise that they will urge their clients to reject a deal presented to them by Hunter and Fisher if it doesn't meet their clients' needs.

"This has never been about getting a fair deal to the owners," one high-profile agent said Monday. "This has been about waiting the players out, waiting for them to miss paychecks and then forcing a bad deal down their throats. [The owners] haven't negotiated through this whole process."

These were the potentially destructive forces Fisher was addressing again Monday. And yet these also were the well informed advisers representing Fisher's constituents -- no, teammates -- in a high-stakes bargaining game against billionaires who are hellbent on winning this negotiation in the kind of spectacular fashion that, in Fisher's view, mistakes who is the driving force behind the NBA's success.

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Somewhere beneath all the rhetoric, they are all supposed to be on the same team.

In its simplest form, Fisher's argument is that Steve Nash and Carmelo Anthony -- not Robert Sarver and James Dolan -- have generated record revenues, TV ratings and fan engagement for the NBA. And yet Sarver and Dolan -- not to mention Dan Gilbert and Peter Holt, labor relations committee members all -- want that pendulum to swing to the owners' side with a series of proposals that seek to shift the lion's share of revenues to them. The league's latest proposal last week, according to two people with knowledge of it, called for an average of 46 percent of basketball-related income (BRI) going to the players, who were guaranteed 57 percent under the previous deal.

The union's latest proposal, according to a person familiar with it, called for the players to agree to a salary freeze for the 2011-12 season -- no less than the $2.17 billion they earned last season -- and then reduce their share to 54 percent of BRI as a starting point in the rest of a six-year deal. Hunter has previously indicated a willingness to negotiate downward from that percentage, a gesture commissioner David Stern characterized as "on the road" to agreement on the economic terms of the deal.

By my math, the two sides are about $1.9 billion apart over six years based on their most recent positions -- a divide that seems incalculable to the average fan, but one that is difficult to imagine being enough for either side to walk away from more than twice that by canceling next season entirely. A deal on the economics is within reach -- "there for the taking," as one source put it -- if only the real negotiations would begin.

Despite an offer that seems irretrievably bad for the players -- 46 percent of revenues with hard-line owners frothing to add a hard cap in the fine print -- this is what Hunter believes happened last week. He believes it was the starting point in negotiations that have dragged on with meeting after meeting signifying nothing for more than two years.

"This is the beginning," one person familiar with Hunter's take on the state of negotiations said.

But the beginning of what?

This is where Fisher's gamesmanship and innate sense of when and how to take over the game come into play. At first, I didn't understand the union's strategy of having Fisher, a basketball player and definitely not a lawyer, do all the talking for the players instead of Hunter, who for 15 years has served as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. Now I do.

About the only thing a pro sports union has in common with work-a-day counterparts -- teachers, plumbers, electricians -- is that the members have to vote on a new CBA or there will not be one. And fair or not, the majority of players looking at a deal that, in any shape or form, will be worse than what they're used to will see Hunter as having more in common with Stern and the owners than with them. True? Not at all. But it's human nature.

But Fisher? He's a player. He's one of us, his "teammates" will say. And he will be the one to garner support for a new deal, if as expected, there will be one to support before an on-time start to the season goes down the toilet on or about Oct. 14.

So Fisher has cleverly run a trick play in an attempt to screen off the power brokers who also have more in common with Stern, Hunter and indeed the owners than they do with the players: the agents, the men who have the power to torpedo a deal. They may very well represent the most difficult opponent Fisher has ever faced, but he is the only one in the room capable of being on the same floor with them.

"We drive this game," Fisher wrote to the players Monday, the point guard who is driving these negotiations for the players and for pro basketball now. "We must share fairly in the continued growth of our business."

Fair, as Fisher is only beginning to find out, is in the eye of the beholder.

Before joining, 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

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