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'Road' to NBA labor deal hits unnecessary speed bump

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Weeks ago, NBPA prez Derek Fisher laid out a grim scenario when the commish saw progress. (Getty Images)  
Weeks ago, NBPA prez Derek Fisher laid out a grim scenario when the commish saw progress. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- I've learned my lesson. I'm not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe again.

Several weeks ago, the NBA's lead negotiators dropped a little splash of sunshine onto an otherwise dour day of labor talks. After union president Derek Fisher, executive director Billy Hunter and committee members assembled in a hotel conference room and laid out a grim scenario in which lost games were all but a certainty, commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that there was progress in supposedly the most contentious area of the negotiations: the split of revenues between owners and players.

Wait a minute, I thought. Why all the long faces from the union if the owners' representatives are saying they can see the makings of a deal on the divisive issue of economics? Why all the gloom and doom when the elephant in the room -- the BRI split -- was almost solved?

The way Stern put it that day, the players' willingness to come down from their previous position in which they were seeking 54 percent of basketball-related income meant the two sides were "on the road" to an economic deal -- and that financial parameters of a new CBA were "within view."

That was Sept. 13. That was a long time ago.

In subsequent talks, the two sides inexplicably had become so entrenched in their economic positions that the system issues that govern team payrolls and player contracts were "decoupled" from the BRI split in an attempt to make progress on that front. Little, if any progress was made, and the two sides came together last Tuesday to take one final shot at BRI.

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They lopped $1.6 billion off the economic gap between them, with owners ostensibly moving to a 50-50 split of revenues while sources say the players countered with a range of 51-53 percent for their share. Under the previous deal, the split was 57-43 in favor of the players. After neither side could sell to its constituents what was informally proposed in small-group discussions, last Tuesday's meeting broke up with the economic gap having been narrowed to approximately $80 million in the first year of a new CBA.

Pocket change.

League negotiators insisted that the 50-50 split they were trying to sell to ownership was not one of those car dealership ploys -- accept it today and drive it away, otherwise it's no way, José. Asked if the league was leaving the talks last Tuesday having gone back to its previous offer of 47 percent for the players, Stern replied, "Back-schmack."

"You know, we're not ... we're ready to meet and discuss any subject anyone wants to talk about," Stern said. "We'd like not to lose the first two weeks of the season, but it doesn't look good."

Yet, as Stern himself said, back-schmack they were at 47 percent as the talks broke down Monday night. And yet we were led to believe that it wasn't about the money, it was about the system -- key rules and competitive engineering devices the owners insist they need to help small-market and low-revenue teams compete.

"We're surprised that's what still separates us," Silver said Monday night. "We would think that the players in this league would also want a system in which players on every team, if they play for well managed teams, are on equal footing. And I think it'll create a better game and we think it'll create for hope for more fans in more communities and it'll ultimately lead to more interest in our game. That's what fundamentally separates us right now, not the economics."

Now it would appear the only thing we're "on the road" to is the road to more double-talk, more linguistic loop-de-loops and rope-a-dopes. And so here are my questions:

 Were we duped into thinking the economic gap had been all but bridged, and that the system -- luxury-tax thresholds, contract lengths, tightening of exceptions, and other mundane topics -- would all fall into place once the two sides solved the economic part?

 Did the two sides prioritize the wrong problem, wasting precious days and weeks on BRI when they should have been tackling the system instead?

 Or, more startling, this: Were we duped again Monday night into believing that it was really the system and not the money that killed any chance of an agreement that would've saved the first two weeks of the regular season? Hasn't it really always been both?

 After both sides achieved a negotiating goal of sorts by proving they are willing to miss games, does everything shift back to the money now that the system did its job of distracting everyone?

Having fallen once already for the banana in the tailpipe, here's what I fear happens next: At some point in the next two weeks, a compromise on system issues appears to be "within reach." This would not be out of the realm of possibility, as sources involved in the negotiations told CBSSports.com that a compromise had been more than feasible Monday night on the various system rules, but neither side was willing to make the deal that was there to be made.

At that point, we're supposed to believe that the framework of a new CBA is all but in place, right? The money part had been solved weeks ago, and now they've solved the system part. Go down to the temp agency, hire all the I-dotters and T-crossers you can find, get the deal written up, and get the players to training camp.

Right?

If common sense and reason prevail, yes. Or, quite possibly, that will be the next point in this saga when banana meets tailpipe.

Based on our experience, guess what could happen then? The back-schmack over whether the owners are offering the players 47 percent or 50 percent would come back-schmack to haunt us, only with a twist this time: Having lost about $200 million from the two weeks of canceled games, the owners would be trying to recoup that money with their next economic proposal.

"What we have to do is," Stern said Monday night, "we have to account for the losses that we're suffering. So those losses will be factored in as we move forward."

So guess what? At the 47 percent players' share the owners last formally proposed, the players would get $12.3 billion over six years. But if the owners tried to recoup the $200 million they've lost by canceling two weeks of games, their new offer factoring in those losses would be $12.1 billion -- meaning they would be back-schmack at 46 percent.

The players, last formally at 53 percent, would be seeking $13.9 billion over six years at that number. An attempt to recoup the $200 million they've lost from two weeks of canceled games would increase their proposed share to $14.1 billion -- leaving them, you guessed it, back-schmack at 54 percent.

So the economic gap that supposedly had been all but bridged will have grown from $1.6 billion based on previous formal proposals to $2 billion over six years -- all because talks broke down due to important but eminently solvable system issues the two sides couldn't compromise on Monday night.

Head spinning? Want to hang onto the ropes for a minute while your skull contents get pulverized into mush?

Welcome to the next phase of the NBA labor talks, where the gap only grows wider, the rhetoric louder and the banana keeps going back-schmack into the tailpipe until we all expire from noxious fumes.

Who wins in all of this? Oh, nobody. Nobody at all. The NBA, already staggered by nearly $2 billion in losses over the previous six-year CBA, got off to a fresh start Monday night on another season in the red -- to the tune of $400 million by canceling two weeks, or more than owners say they lost all of last season.

What a way to run a business.

What the league needed was a collective-bargaining agreement giving each side some of what it needs, a little of what it wants, and the chance to begin growing revenues beyond the $3.95 billion projected for next season. But guess what happens to that $3.95 billion if the league loses another two weeks? It goes down by $400 million more, shrinking the pie to $3.15 billion.

And what does that mean? Let's say the owners agreed to a 50-50 split of the $3.15 billion left after a month of canceled games. That would be $1.6 billion for them next season -- or, put another way, $100 million less than they would've gotten had they kept the previous 57-43 split in place without missing games.

Oops. Our bad. Sorry about all this, but thanks to all the fans around the world who have followed our exciting lockout with such a robust display of social media engagement.

Are the players blameless? Hardly. Hawkish players pushed hard in recent weeks for Hunter not to accept less than 53 percent of BRI. And just like the owners, the players would've been better off with a smaller cut of a full season's revenue than the bigger share they'll dig in for after missing games. Would the owners have backed down on some of the system issues if the players had been willing to move more economically? We don't know, and might never know.

The players' allegiance to a four-year, mid-level exception starting at $5 million is puzzling, considering that mid-level mistakes are the moves that get teams in the most trouble. Plus, if players are guaranteed a split, money subtracted from mid-level contracts would simply go to other, perhaps more deserving, players.

Similarly, while annual raises don't affect the overall percentage guaranteed to players as a whole in a given season, they are antiquated and turn reasonable contracts into bad ones over time. Just as the players aren't winning any publicity points with their trite hashtag campaign on Twitter -- not to mention Fisher's insulting assertion that "this is a lockout, not a strike" -- they can't sell 10.5 percent raises to the public in an economy where talented people don't get raises, much less have jobs.

The players did propose more punitive luxury-tax measures, and were open to negotiating on that point, sources said. They just couldn't accept the owners' proposed increases in tax payments that union sources said would've exceeded a $4-to-$1 ratio for repeat offenders -- effectively acting like a hard cap. There's a compromise there that neither side was willing to make.

The players also were willing to accept shorter contracts -- five- and four-year deals as opposed to the four- and three-year deals the owners were proposing -- and were open to limitations on the Larry Bird exception. But they couldn't agree to the owners' proposal that would've required teams to be under the tax threshold in order to retain their Bird free agents. Again, where's the compromise?

So what do the players do now? Many who had passed on opportunities to sign overseas were calling their agents Tuesday, only to find out many of those jobs have dried up. Decertify, or have the union disclaim interest in representing them? That's a nuclear option they must now seriously consider, though the pitfalls remain -- such as losing the ability to negotiate work rules and beginning a lengthy anti-trust battle in a federal court system that has been historically unkind to NBPA cases in the past.

The best option for both sides remains this: Do the deal that was there to be agreed upon Monday night. It's still there now, and it'll be there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It's still not too late for reasonable minds to trump ego and stubbornness, and maybe even fit those canceled games into a compressed schedule so that hundreds of millions of dollars aren't set aflame.

The problem? Ego and stubbornness have a 20-point lead and every intention of duping us again.


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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