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Canceling regular-season games foolish or all part of the plan?

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NBPA exec Billy Hunter: 'I'm not surprised ... I'm convinced that this was just all part of the plan.' (AP)  
NBPA exec Billy Hunter: 'I'm not surprised ... I'm convinced that this was just all part of the plan.' (AP)  

NEW YORK -- On the sidewalk out on 63rd Street, sirens wailing and knucklehead cameramen jostling for position and cursing each other, here was Billy Hunter living in his own movie. Regular-season games lost on his watch, and on David Stern's, just as they'd discussed two years ago.

"It goes back to a comment that David said to me several years ago, when he said this is what my owners have to have," Hunter said Monday night, after the first two weeks of the 2011-12 NBA regular season were canceled. "And I said, 'Well, the only way you're going to get that is, you prepare to lock us out for a year or two.' And he's indicated to me that they're willing to do it. So my belief and contention is that everything that he's done has demonstrated that he's following that script."

The script, written in red ink because it all came back to the so-called "blood issue" of hard salary-cap concepts Monday night, will be one neither side wants to remember. And it was amazing to watch how everyone snapped back so violently to two-year-old rhetoric, fell so easily into old habits. The hours upon hours, the days upon days of meetings, negotiations, concepts, ideas, blah, blah, blah ... it all went up in smoke on 63rd Street Monday -- the jackhammers rattling and sirens wailing and knucklehead cameramen finally squaring off and fighting in the street.

"I'm not surprised, because as I've indicated to you, based upon representations that were made to me earlier in discussions that David and I had, I'm convinced that this was just all part of the plan," Hunter said.

Just like all the old rhetoric came back, so did the old deal points -- the massive changes owners formally presented in January 2010 with their initial proposal to the players. Stunningly, it was not the biggest issue dividing the two sides -- the split of revenues -- but the details. The devil is always in the details.

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After agreeing on Tuesday for the second time in a month that they were within reach of a deal on the economic split, the two sides spent 13 hours over the past two days discussing those details. Stern, master of the public relations game, spat out the players' insistence on raises ranging from 7 to 10.5 percent in a sick economy, and deplored the fact that the league's offer to retain guaranteed contracts and eschew rollbacks on existing contracts wasn't good enough to get a deal.

"We made, in our view, concession after concession," Stern said.

But for Hunter, the more the details were discussed, the more they seemed like the same stuff, just packaged differently. A luxury tax that would quadruple at certain thresholds, and increase by six or eight times for repeat offenders, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Maximum contract lengths of three and four years for free agents leaving their teams and staying, respectively -- down from five and six years in the previous deal and six and seven in the one before that.

"If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck and it looks like a duck, it's a duck," Hunter said. "We actually came up with proposals to stiffen the tax, but we said we do not want a hard cap. You can't say, 'OK, we agree we're going to move away from the hard cap,' but then do everything else that brings about the same result."

Owner-proposed restrictions on the Larry Bird exception that would forbid teams above the luxury-tax threshold from using it means that a team would need cap space to retain its own free agent. The Bird exception, originally intended to help teams retain their stars, would have the opposite effect under this proposal since teams wouldn't be able to spend for talent to keep their stars happy.

"They have to plan that they can constantly replace players," union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. "It affects the entire way in which teams deal with players in the NBA."

According to league negotiators, these were the tradeoffs needed in the name of strengthening competitive balance.

"Our view is that the current system is broken in that 30 teams are not in a position to compete for championships," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. "And that while we understand their position, we understand change is difficult, it makes no sense for us to operate under the current model where taxpayers -- especially those taxpayers who are willing to spend $10 [million], $20 [million] and often even more money above the average team in this league -- have a huge advantage over the other teams."

All of it, though, was negotiable -- and could have been, should have been negotiated by now. One person involved in the negotiations referred to the league's cancellation of games as "pre-ordained" -- the kind of economic harm that had to be inflicted for a deal to finally get done.

"All of this could have been solved so easily with any amount of effort," the person said.

Instead, Hunter stood on the sidewalk under the camera lights and lived the scene in his movie -- a horror show now -- that he always knew was coming. And while Hunter vowed that the players won't cave even under the threat of more lost games, he will be put to the test, too. Agents and strategists on the players' side who saw this coming will be gunning for Hunter now harder than ever. Those who wanted to use the decertification strategy that Hunter chose not to deploy will begin to encircle him now as fast as he circled the wagons with the players Monday night.

"I think everybody's waiting for the players to cave," Hunter said. "They figure that once a player misses a check or two, it's all over. And I'm saying to you that that would be a horrible mistake if they think that's going to happen, because it's not going to happen."

What didn't happen Monday was a deal, and it wasn't because the owners and players couldn't agree on how to divide up $4 billion. It was because they couldn't agree on how to distribute the money to the players. Few observers or participants in the talks believed games would be lost over system issues -- over things like the amount and length of mid-level exception signings, with the players wanting $5 million per year over four years and the owners wanting $3 million per year over two. These are things that can be solved on cocktail napkins.

It wasn't the billions that stood in the way of a deal, but the millions. The details.

"When they made the 50-50 offer, which they went public on, we said, 'OK, we're at 53, you're at 50-50,'" Hunter said. "But what we'll do is, since we think that that will be easy to bridge, let's go and talk about the system because we're not going to be able to agree on the number if the system is not right."

But the longer Hunter talked out on 63rd Street, the more the knuckleheads jostled for position around the interview scrum, the more you got the feeling that he realized it was always going to be one thing or the other. In the end, the two sides couldn't even agree on where the owners were with their latest economic offer -- 50-50, as the union stated, or 53-47 according to Stern.

Did it matter? In the end, Hunter felt like the victim of a shell game, and whichever topic showed up under the last shell on the last day before games were canceled was going to be the culprit. And once that happened, all the old rhetoric came roaring back -- the conversations from two years ago when Stern planted the seeds for this lockout in the palm of Hunter's hand.

"I don't know that the season is in jeopardy," Hunter said. "I think it would be foolish for them to kill the season."

Foolish, or just part of the plan?


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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