|Billy Hunter is feeling the heat for a deal the players feel had too many givebacks by the union. (Getty Images)|
In the hours before a vote to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement, it should be no surprise drama and angst are unfolding on both sides of what once seemed to be a massive, impossibly wide gap between NBA players and owners.
Nobody gives up power or money without a fight, and the instinct to argue, bicker, mistrust and throw tantrums was not cured when the two sides finally reached an agreement to save the season 11 days ago.
Those instincts were still sharp Wednesday as players convened on a conference call -- the second such call in as many days, sources said -- to explain the deal points that have been finalized since negotiators reached a tentative agreement in the early morning hours of Nov. 26. The i's are being dotted and t's crossed, and the players are voting electronically on the deal from 6 p.m. ET Wednesday until 4 p.m. ET Thursday -- when the owners' Board of Governors also will vote.
A block of players upset about givebacks the union made continues to make noise about wanting their votes to approve the deal tied to an ouster of National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and the players' executive committee. Most, if not all, of those players have been talked down from the ledge, sources involved in the process said. But that doesn't mean everybody on both sides is happy with the final product.
Within hours after the agreement was reached, the NBA snapped right back to business as usual. After a five-month lockout and 2½ years of arguing about ways to make the league economically profitable and competitively balanced, the same old storylines returned, as though nothing had changed. Dwight Howard wants to play for the Lakers, Chris Paul wants to play for the Knicks, Deron Williams is keeping his options open, etc., etc.
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"I don't know what it was all for," said one Eastern Conference general manager who is disappointed that the new CBA -- and all that was sacrificed to achieve it -- apparently has changed nothing about the game's biggest stars wanting to flock to the glamour teams and the biggest markets.
In fact, in many ways the new rules have put even more pressure on teams with big stars who are approaching free agency. Hornets general manager Dell Demps launched full speed this week into serious trade talks on multiple fronts for superstar Chris Paul, whose exit could be accelerated by rules that mute the home-team advantages of a more lucrative extension and the fallback option of a max deal through a sign-and-trade. If the Hornets are going to get close to full value -- or anything at all -- they may have to trade Paul in the coming weeks, or even days.
In Orlando, CEO Bob Vander Weide -- a member of the owners' labor relations committee that negotiated the rules that could expedite Howard's departure -- stepped down this week after admitting he placed a late-night phone call to Howard "after a couple glasses of wine" and reportedly begged him to stay. Once Magic GM Otis Smith speaks with Howard about what the All-Star center wants, he may find himself in the same boat as Demps -- scrambling to get value for his star rather than risk losing him for nothing.
"None of the system issues, no matter how you spin it, changed dramatically," another team executive said. "In some cases, they got worse. So what really was accomplished?"
The audacity on the ownership side to complain about a deal that shifts $3 billion over 10 years from players to teams by reducing the players' share of basketball-related income from 57 to about 50 percent provides a window into how excruciatingly difficult the deal was to negotiate. And it makes you wonder why certain players and agents are so upset with Hunter and the executive committee -- and whether they were simply misinformed, wrong or had an agenda against Hunter and the union leadership all along.
"Billy's the same guy who negotiated the last collective bargaining agreement that all the players took heat for, and now everybody is scratching and clawing trying to hold onto that CBA," said Maurice Evans, a union vice president and member of the executive committee. "And I'm finding that they're going to be doing the same thing with this one. The players will have the opportunity to opt out in six years, and I would bet that they won't."
That opinion is shared by a person involved in the ownership side of the deal who disputed the notion that this was an outright win for the league's negotiators.
"When we look back on this in probably five years -- because the deal can open after six -- I think there's going to be a different attitude," the person said. "I'm pretty sure people are going to say the players came out of this in pretty good shape."
Given what the players held onto in the face of a ruthless negotiating stance put forth by the owners -- guaranteed contracts, same max contract levels, no rollbacks, no reduction in rookie scale or veterans' minimum -- the saber-rattling from those disappointed in the deal has been difficult to swallow for the players who were involved in negotiating it. Executive committee members who've spoken with disgruntled players in recent days said none of them offered a suggestion for who should replace Hunter if he were removed. And few of those players were around for the months and months of negotiations that eventually yielded a compromise that both sides could live with before the season was lost.
One person involved in the negotiations pointed to one of the brightest players in the league, Shane Battier, who stood up in an NBPA regional meeting during the summer and demanded that Hunter reveal whether he was still taking his reported $2.5 million salary during the lockout.
"He's the same guy who is now fighting for the mid-level exception, asking teams to sign him to same mid-level we negotiated for the players -- the same mid-level that the owners wanted to decimate and do away with," the person said.
Support for Hunter is unwavering among executive committee members, though it hasn't always been that way. Matt Bonner of the Spurs, long involved in NBPA activities, was elected to the executive board during this past All-Star weekend -- and came to the role with deep suspicions about Hunter's leadership.
"When I got elected, I didn't have 100 percent confidence in Billy and all the union officials," Bonner said. "I was really curious to see how the process was going to go and see if these were the right people who would do the best job. ... After being part of the process, I have absolutely 100 percent confidence that we did the best job and we got the best deal we could get given the situation. I have Billy's back 100 percent, and we'll support him until the end."
While the voices of discontent from the outside appear to be wavering, the possibility existed that the players' vote Wednesday and Thursday could deteriorate into something it shouldn't be: a referendum on Hunter. The executive director, 69, has at least four years left on a contract that was renewed within the past year and, like commissioner David Stern, will not be in place when the next deal is negotiated.
Among the most vocal players questioning the deal in its aftermath were key members of the Boston Celtics: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, sources said. Pierce is represented by agent Jeff Schwartz, who was among a group of seven agents from six of the most powerful agencies who had unsuccessfully pushed for the players to decertify as early as July. All three play for an owner, Wyc Grousbeck, who was an undisputed hawk on the labor relations committee in pushing for a deal that, among other things, all but eliminated the extend-and-trade provision that landed Garnett in Boston in 2007.
In recent days, armed with the knowledge that New Orleans may lose Paul and Orlando may lose Howard, in part because of the new rules, the Celtics were working hard on a strategy that would bring both of them to Boston. Paul would come first via a trade, after which he would sign a five-year, $100 million deal and try to lure Howard there as a free agent.
While Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver had their hands full with hard-line owners who were intent on crushing the players even if it meant losing the season, the role of activist players and agents on the union side has been grossly underplayed. The conflict continued even after the union disclaimed interest on Nov. 14, paving the way for the antitrust lawsuits that helped create some of the leverage that led to the final negotiating push that achieved the deal.
According to multiple people involved in the process, associates of players attorney David Boies had to hold a secretive conference call with players who'd signed decertification cards on the weekend after the initial antitrust claims were filed separately in California and Minnesota. Many of those players had been led to believe that moving forward with decertification -- renouncing union leadership as the sole collective bargaining representative of the players -- would help the disclaimer of interest path chosen by Hunter and Boies. It wasn't true; Boies' associates explained that decertifying would actually hurt the disclaimer and open the door for the NBA's attorneys to prove that the maneuver was a sham.
"It was like a gotcha moment for the players," a person involved in the process said.
Sabotaging the disclaimer and antitrust actions would've been devastating to the players' cause, since compromising their legal standing to challenge the lockout as an illegal boycott would've caused the strategy to blow up in the union's face. It was just one of many examples of poor communication between union leaders and the rank and file -- partly due to faulty organization and planning and partly due to a lack of interest among players. The vast majority of players didn't become actively involved in negotiations until frustration with the owners' stance was so heated that it threatened to derail what little progress was being made.
A key bargaining session Oct. 4 at the Westin Times Square was typical of how superstars who'd been previously uninvolved swooped in to try to move the negotiations forward -- only to learn the hard way how determined the owners were to break them. That was the night when Garnett, Pierce and Lakers star Kobe Bryant found themselves immersed in the first back-and-forth about the framework of a 50-50 BRI split that would be the backbone of the final agreement that was reached nearly eight weeks later.
"We'd been negotiating all spring, all summer, and it was like banging your head against the wall -- no movement, really frustrating, many hours spent, lots of sacrifice," Bonner said. "You don't get paid for it, but we made that commitment on behalf of all the players, to no avail.
"And then you've got some of the bigger-name guys rolling in and thinking, 'OK, you guys aren't doing a good job and now that I'm here I'm going to get this deal done. ...'" Bonner said. "And then we get into the negotiating room and sure enough, by the end of the day, they're right with us -- right on the same page. They get it and realize how difficult and frustrating and painful a process it is and was."
The same dynamic has continued to unfold this week, right up to the players' vote. Union leaders held a conference call with players and agents Tuesday, and a call open to all 450 players was held Wednesday in advance of the vote. Allen, who once had reservations about the deal, has "turned all the way around 180," said a person who spoke with him recently. Garnett, pounding his chest about what a bad deal this was for the players only a few days ago, is now said to be "cool" after spending at least an hour on the phone Tuesday with a member of the union's negotiating team.
"It's a huge misunderstanding and it's really sad," said Evans, who got his degree in education from the University of Texas last weekend. "It's sad to see that so many players are controlled by their agents. They work for their agents instead of vice versa."
The final product is something that neither side is happy with. From the restrictions on tax-paying teams, to little if any curtailment of superstars' desires to congregate in glamorous cities, to a compressed, 66-game schedule that is ripe for injuries and the ugliest brand of basketball -- this is the best that could be done? The same deal couldn't have been done weeks ago, saving a full or more realistically scheduled season?
Both sides are asking the same questions, and whether that's proof of a good compromise or a bad deal won't be evident for years.
"It's been a long, painstaking process," Bonner said. "And it looks like it's going to be that way right up until the very end."