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Season won't be lost; whether games are is simply a matter of ego

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Derek Fisher and the players already have conceded more than $1 billion. (AP)  
Derek Fisher and the players already have conceded more than $1 billion. (AP)  

As we wait to see if common sense will trump ego in time to avoid the cancelation of NBA regular-season games Monday, an important fact has gone almost completely unnoticed in the past 72 hours.

Remember the possibility that the NBA owners and players could be so stubborn, so shortsighted, that they'd be willing to scrap the entire 2011-12 season just to prove a point? That frightening prospect disappeared Tuesday, along with $1.6 billion of the economic gap between the two sides.

A lost season? The nuclear option, which seemed all too plausible when the two sides walked into the negotiating room this week with a $2.5 billion ax to grind, has been all but voided. What are the chances now that the whole season is lost? Zero percent, I say. Zero.

As simple as it would be for negotiators to build on Tuesday's progress, pass a few offers back and forth this weekend and arrive at the number where these negotiations are now squarely aimed -- a 51.5-48.5 percent split in favor of the players -- there are more than a few wild cards. Most of the posturing has been squeezed out of these talks, but not all of it. The only thing that can trump the deal that is ready to be made is ego, and well, we just happen to be dealing with some of the biggest egos in the world.

It's a game of chicken among the owners, a group that includes 12 of the 400 richest people in the United States, according to Forbes Magazine, and the players, who have been trained virtually since birth not to flinch under pressure. But even as you look at the numbers and see the deal that is right there to be made, you have to wonder: Having spent months staring down the barrel at the cataclysmic loss of an entire season, do both sides now look at two weeks -- a comparative drop in the bucket -- and say, "Go ahead, make my day?"

More on NBA negotiations

That would be an emotional response. There's no emotion in the numbers. The numbers are simple. The two sides are $900 million apart over seven years, $400 million of which would be squandered if two weeks of the regular season are lost. Put even more simply, if the players and owners are separated by two percentage points of basketball-related income -- 52 compared to 50, the midpoints of each side's range proposed informally during crunch time of Tuesday's talks -- then we are talking about a difference of about $80 million in the first year of the deal. The players would burn through that money in a little less than a week of missed games.

"You don't walk away from a deal that close to being done," one team executive told me this week. "You posture, you drag our heels, you pontificate, you demean the other side, you invoke all the evils in the world. But you don't walk away. Something's got to pop soon."

But if they do walk away -- if ego trumps common sense and reasonableness -- then it's on them. It's on both sides.

Since the owners and players walked out of the negotiating room Tuesday night without a deal, the squeeze has been on. There are owners, sources say, who will not accept less than 50 percent of the revenues -- this despite the fact that they've always gotten less than 50 percent of the revenues, including the 43 percent they received over the past six years. Powerful agents, while backing off talk of decertification, continue to have serious reservations about accepting even 52 percent without system enhancements that would pave the way for more player movement.

National Basketball Players Association executive Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher have been successful in thwarting most, if not all, of the system restrictions the owners initially sought, but hard-liners on the players' side don't view that as a victory. With the players already having conceded more than $1 billion economically, they view it as a defeat.

There is a price in negotiations for giving something up, and to this point, there has been a $2.6 billion economic swing in favor of the owners. On Tuesday, the owners moved $1.3 billion from their previous bargaining position. But the players have moved $1.3 billion from their actual position -- which was 57 percent under the previous deal. What are the players getting for this concession? It would appear that they're regaining things such as a soft cap, max contract levels and no rollbacks on their previous salaries. These are things that they already had, things that had never been taken away -- except in proposals by the owners that were so drastic and sat on the table so long that they became reality.

But unsurprisingly, people who have been in touch with numerous players in the mid-level pay range -- say, around $5 million to $6 million a year -- report that many of those players would accept a 50-50 split and call it a day. The problem is, it's not entirely clear how many owners understood that's what commissioner David Stern was proposing in a small sidebar conversation Tuesday night involving Fisher, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. But the point is, despite the vocal minority of hard-liners on both sides, the ranges discussed Tuesday -- 49-51 vs. 51-53 -- could be reconciled on a couple of cocktail napkins without losing any games.

Will it happen? It should. There's no reasonable justification not to settle, other than the lack of common sense and the size of the egos involved. The players and owners dug in a long time ago, posturing and presumably expecting to miss games. If this is their Waterloo, and they are looking to emerge with some badge of honor, then that's there for the taking as well. All for the low, low price of $400 million.

Me? I'd choose money over posturing. I'd choose common sense over ego. Then again, there's a reason I sit in the lobby eating $14 salads and complaining about it while billions change hands on the floor above.


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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