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No matter the 'winner,' NBA legal fight could be disaster for everybody

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A lost season would hurt owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets, who could lose Deron Williams. (Getty Images)  
A lost season would hurt owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets, who could lose Deron Williams. (Getty Images)  

As we prepare for the winter of lawsuits, legal maneuvers and court-sanctioned arguing in what used to be the NBA, the wheels also have begun spinning among team executives and agents as to what it all means.

As of now, it means nothing but a lot of very bad things.

While our heads are spinning with the intricacies of antitrust law, not to mention the Norris-LaGuardia, Sherman and Clayton acts, what about the names that are far more familiar to us? What of Deron Williams and Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler, the Big Threes of the Heat and Celtics?

There is still time to salvage some degree of reason and sanity before the attorneys fully take control of your sport. The first step came Thursday, when owners convened a conference call to plot their next move after the players disbanded the union and took their fight to the courts under antitrust law. Given that legal experts agree that the only certainty is that it's impossible to predict which side will win, the reasonable, intelligent approach would be for owners to authorize the league's attorneys to furnish a settlement proposal to the players' attorneys in hopes that an agreement can be reached before unconscionable damage is done.

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But given the lack of reason and intelligence that we have witnessed for months, we cannot ignore the possibility that the owners and players will continue to choose ego over reason, bravado over compromise, and thus will continue down the path toward mutually assured destruction.

For the purposes of where we are now -- staring at the real possibility of a lost season -- there are some questions that require answers.

First, free agency: While players would not receive credit for a year of service if the 2011-12 season is lost to the lockout, the clock continues running on their contracts. So, the class of 129 players who became free agents on July 1 will be combined with another 100 players or so whose contract are set to expire on July 1, 2012. If the league doesn't resume business until after all 82 games are wiped out, you will have the mother of all free-agent classes when the doors to the arenas and practice facilities reopen.

This might not be good for Tyson Chandler, who would've been one of the prizes in a 2011 free-agent class but will be just another name on the board in 2012. But it would be unmistakably catastrophic for three teams in particular: the Nets, Hornets and Magic.

Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have early-termination options as of July 1, 2012. Nothing changes about that if there's no 2011-12 season. So my apologies to Mikhail Prokhorov for believing a source who told me he was one of the hard-line owners of this fiasco. Prokhorov, having traded Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round picks for Williams, who may only play 12 games in a Nets uniform, would have to be the dove of all doves. A season-long lockout would cripple his franchise if Williams exercised his opt-out and left.

It's such a grim and unthinkable prospect that Prokhorov should not only be throwing his weight around among the other owners, he should be listed among the plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit the players filed Tuesday in California.

The situation is equally grim for the Hornets, who are owned by the league, and therefore, have little independent say about what transpires. Paul, the star of the struggling franchise and the only star on the players' executive committee when the union still existed, also can opt out of his contract following the 2011-12 season -- whether it happens or not. Ditto for Howard, in whom the Magic and the residents of Orlando have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the hope he stays and anchors the $480 million palace known as Amway Arena -- for which $311 million of public bonds, since downgraded to junk status indicating the threat of default, were sold to help finance it.

Using the amnesty provision in a new CBA to get rid of Gilbert Arenas would be of little solace if Howard opted out and the Magic got nothing in return.

Of course, these threats of franchise stars leaving town are among the problems with the existing system that many NBA owners were trying to prevent. And the flexibility those stars will enjoy under a new system will be dictated by how harsh the restraints will be. If the players' antitrust efforts fail in the courts -- or even fall short of a decisive victory -- one would have to assume that owners would put the clamps down on player movement even more firmly than they were trying to do in their most recent offer that the players rejected.

The impact of a lost season wouldn't be limited to those three franchises. With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2012, an 82-game wipeout essentially would assure that the Celtics' Big Three has played its last game together -- odd, since sources say Boston co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has been one of the hardest-line owners during the negotiations. The champion Mavericks wouldn't even make it to the ring ceremony before getting broken up, with Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea all becoming unrestricted on July 1, 2012.

Gerald Wallace, for whom Portland will still owe Charlotte a 2013 first-round pick, could exercise his opt-out and leave the Trail Blazers after punching the clock for only 23 games. Portland owner Paul Allen, who sat mute in a key bargaining session when talks fell apart a few weeks ago, might finally have something to say about that.

Tim Duncan, the pride and joy of hard-line labor relations committee chairman Peter Holt, may have played his last game in a Spurs uniform. An unrestricted free agent in 2012, Duncan wouldn't even get a proper sendoff. The Lakers could lose Andrew Bynum, and the Nuggets would say goodbye to Nene; both are unrestricted free agents next summer.

The Nuggets, whose former franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, is now the lead plaintiff in the players' antitrust case in the Northern District of California, at least would have plenty of cap space to show for their trouble. Assuming a $58 million cap, the Nuggets would have the most space in the league at $38.9 million, according to league salary sheets obtained by CBSSports.com. At the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers would be $33.6 million over, while the Magic would be $720,000 over the cap even if Howard opted out.

Of course, if the players' antitrust actions don't go perfectly -- for example, if their disclaimer is shot down in the Southern District of New York or they fail to win a summary judgment on their damages claims elsewhere -- then a $58 million salary cap would be a pipe dream. If owners gain even more leverage as a result of a failed legal gambit by the players, a $45 million hard cap and massive salary rollbacks -- the draconian demands from the owners' initial bargaining proposal in January 2010 -- would represent the starting point, at best, in settlement negotiations. Something tells me that Holt and deputy commissioner Adam Silver still have that proposal in a filing drawer over at Olympic Tower.

Players who were supposed to have become restricted free agents on July 1, 2011, would still be restricted a year later -- if the league has reopened for business by then. Restricted free agency is based on years of service, which are not accrued during the lockout, and also technically isn't triggered until such a player receives a qualifying offer from his team.

The draft? The lone signature event -- or event of any kind -- left on the NBA calendar if the season were canceled also wouldn't be unscathed. Whenever a new agreement is reached -- presumably as a legal settlement that would take the form of a CBA once the union was reformed and recognized by the owners -- the two sides would have to negotiate how the 2012 draft order would be calibrated. The fairest and most likely way to do it would be to allocate the pingpong balls based on average record over the past, say, three seasons that were completed.

And while it is fairly certain that a draft would be held regardless of how many games were canceled, this is a legal case now, and anything is possible. While the players primarily are challenging the lockout as an illegal boycott of now-non-unionized players, the broader interpretation of the players' complaints is that they are challenging all aspects of the owners' monopoly as illegal restrictions on trade and commerce under antitrust law. Thus, if this mess progresses far enough down the road to legal cataclysm that it embarked on this week, among the victories the players could achieve would be a temporary restraining order or permanent injunction of the league's practice of holding a draft in the first place.

Sounds like fun. Sounds like more than a few players might want to begin questioning whether going from the bargaining room to the courtroom was everything it was cracked up to be. Sounds like more than a few owners might want to reconsider before authorizing the NBA's army of attorneys to attempt to demolish the players in district courts from coast to coast.

There isn't a lot of legal precedent for a pro athletes' union winning significant damages against their league, and that's for a reason. That's because there have always been, and remain, sound reasons for one side or the other not to want to risk defeat or score too overwhelming a victory. There's a point where routing your opponent in a sports antitrust action becomes just as big a loss for you, and that point is when you emerge and realize that the people you just annihilated won't make particularly good partners when it's over.

That's the thing about mutually assured destruction. By definition, everybody loses.


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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