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Shaun Powell

Adam Silve, Peter Holt
Deputy Commissioner Adam Sillver and Spurs owner Peter Holt have displayed a united front.
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Lockout's last big question: Which side will crack first?

Posted Oct 26 2011 12:14PM's Labor Central

Almost all labor fights, in the history of mankind, share a few common traits: disagreement, anger, frustration and debate.

And that's before the other side even shows up. Within each faction in a labor square-off, there's emotion and a spirited -- and sometimes terse -- amount of discussion about the pros and cons of the strategy and whether it's time to cut a deal.

That's when deals are usually made, when serious cracks begin to split apart one of the two groups and formerly hard-line stances turn weak in the knees before crumbling.

In the case of NBA owner vs. NBA player, each side is not-so-secretly hoping the other caves from in-fighting and desperation. Who's more likely to experience a fracture?

Once we get the answer to that, we'll have a deal.

Let's examine the chances of a civil war within each group:


Billy Hunter, the executive director of the union, was being clever the other day when he called out names: Jerry Buss, Micky Arison and especially Mark Cuban as owners who are ready to settle. Why was it clever? Well, they own three of the most successful franchises (the Lakers, Heat and Mavs, respectively), in terms of victories. Hunter didn't come right out and say most of the other franchises are doomed from bad management. But he didn't have to.

What Hunter failed to acknowledge is those three owners, along with James Dolan of the Knicks, don't have enough collective clout to pull a coup, even if they wanted. Buss has all but handed the Lakers over to his children. The same goes for Arison. Cuban has always been a rebel among the owners and is just doing what Cuban does: tweak the establishment. Dolan is simply fortunate to own a recession-proof team in the biggest market, one that's managed to thrive in spite of itself.

As in any group, some members carry a bit more weight. Take Peter Holt of the Spurs. He has reason to draw a line in the sand. His franchise has been a consistent winner for more than a decade, yet he knows the perils of the small market. Holt claims that the Spurs needed to make the playoffs just to turn a profit, and actually lost money the last two years. If so, then clearly, the current system isn't totally about saving teams from themselves. When a well-run outfit like San Antonio struggles to make money, something's wrong.

The owners' stance in these negotiations is about making teams like the Grizzlies, Kings, Hornets, Bobcats and Bucks consistently competitive and keeping them from contraction. That's often lost in the conversation. Without a new system, at least two of those teams would be doomed. Of course, you could blame this on expansion, when the owners got greedy and swelled to 30 teams, about six too many. But that's another issue for another day.

And then there's the curious case of Michael Jordan. He was a symbol of player unrest in the last labor squabble, telling longtime Washington owner Abe Pollin at one point to "sell your team" if the Wizards couldn't make a profit. But now? Jordan is said to be a hard-core hawk, which would be understandable, given the financial challenges of his Bobcats in Charlotte.

Summary: There are voices of dissent among ownership, but not nearly enough to force a strategic change. This group won't fold easily to player pressure, if at all.


In the past, the owners could always count on players to crumble after missing a few paychecks. But that's so 1990-ish. Today's player isn't nearly as reckless or dumb about financial matters. That's not to say a fair amount of players don't buy three houses and five cars and 50 pounds of bling. But the NBA actually helped today's player wise up by implementing programs and workshops, mostly during the league's mandatory rookie orientation, designed to teach players how to manage their money better.

Players, including Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, have stood behind union president Derek Fisher.
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Plus: Thanks to that 57 percent slice of the basketball related income-pie, players over the last decade saw their salaries rise to roughly $5 million on average, almost to the point where the players make too much money to blow all of it. So anyone who thinks players will start shivering just because of a few missed paychecks is being a bit foolish.

Still, there are three levels of players: veterans with deep pockets who already banked seven-figure salaries and thousands more in endorsements, journeymen who have carved out solid, several-season long careers ... and young players who haven't hit the jackpot yet. The latter group is more likely to apply pressure on the union if no agreement is reached soon and the whole season is threatened. Of course, some players who fall into that category might be too intimidated to speak up.

Summary: There are fewer owners than players, and in this instance, strength lies in smaller numbers. Fewer owners means less chance of a divided house. More players mean more of a chance of splintering.

Give the edge, along with the leverage, to the owners.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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