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Shaun Powell

Time hasn't run out yet for David Stern (right) and his legal team to negotiate with the players' legal counsel.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Still some rays of hope as 'winter' begins in labor talks

Posted Nov 16 2011 11:32AM

The ball now lies in the hands of a legal system that's more complicated than the triangle offense and puts a new wrinkle on a labor stoppage that badly needed ironing out well before reaching this point.

Billy Hunter says talks have "completely broken down" and David Stern forecasts a "nuclear winter" but you know what we should call this?

Negotiating tactic.

That's exactly what's happening while the lawsuits are being filed and the basketball world is buying the hoops equivalent of Rome burning. Because as grim as the labor talks are being portrayed, as futile as a solution appears, and as atomic as the 2011-12 season looks, keep in mind that this lockout, warts and all, has nothing on the 1998-99 lockout. It is rated PG-13 by comparison. And until it does compare, until the work stoppage continues past the first week of January (which is when the last lockout was settled), anything said or done is just the next phase of the ongoing one-upmanship game.

Here in the fourth quarter of a shoving match, it's all about shaking down the other side, looking for signs of weakness, throwing ultimatums against the wind, running to the courts, playing the gullible media for all it's worth and pulling out all stops -- and then pulling out more when those don't work. Both sides will claim to play their last hand, at least until they magically sprout another.

Stern says he's "through negotiating?" Now that's funny.

Hunter says the players have "given and given and given" and aren't giving any more? Hilarious.

Are you falling for it? Remember, we're only in mid-November, barely into the danger zone, although admittedly it's getting late. The players haven't missed months and months of paychecks; most have missed just one. Their families haven't exactly traded filet mignon for Hamburger Helper. And the owners aren't sweating silver dollars yet, either. There hasn't been a financial collapse felt, nor a complete destruction of the game, not yet and not even close.

When we arrive at the same critical checkpoints of '98-99 -- and we're not there yet -- then you can open your umbrella to protect yourself from the falling sky.

Deep in their souls, Hunter and Stern know they haven't reached Judgment Day.

They know they'll speak again soon, despite the dissolving of the union. They know the season -- a scaled-down version anyway -- remains salvageable. This is the scenario they anticipated all along, a work stoppage that would seep into November and possibly December, if only to strike fear into the other side. Nothing is coming as a surprise to the commissioner or union executive director, not even with the legal turns the talks have suddenly taken.

That's not to downplay the seriousness of this stage. Two antitrust suits have been filed and the game just shifted from the boardroom to the courtroom, which does raise the possibility of a lengthy process. It's just not the dead-end it's made out to be -- by Stern, by Hunter, by the hired legal eagles and by media desperate for a new and explosive angle to explore here in Month Five of the lockout.

Again, it's best to use '98-99 as the benchmark before taking these predictions of doom seriously. Sure, it might match '98-99 for futility or even surpass it and cost the NBA an entire season, but we're still weeks away from knowing if either will happen.

The same alarms you hear now about the dire state of the NBA were also blaring 13 years ago when Stern and Hunter appeared at a stalemate. Finally, in December of 1998, just before Christmas, Stern issued a drop-dead date: Jan. 7, 1999. He figured the union would blink and in a sense, he was correct. The sides had gone a full month without face-to-face negotiation when, on January 4, the details were ironed out and a settlement was reached with a day to spare.

Back then, there was no social media, and only a scant few 24-hour sports outlets to use for propaganda purposes, so the noise was a bit muted. That lockout lasted 204 days and 464 games were lost. By comparison, this one has reached 324 games lost, which will happen Dec. 15, the last day (so far) of canceled games.

Obviously, there's the lawsuit and a possible lengthy court battle ahead. But the sides are free to negotiate during the legal process, meaning negotiating time hasn't really ended yet.

Over the next few days and weeks, we will see signs of stress from both sides. We will hear from the silent majority of players, those who claim they weren't versed on the owner's latest proposal and also those who think it's an acceptable deal. Also, some owners might press their membership and Stern to tweak the proposal to reach a deal and save the season. Many events can happen to get the sides back to the table to end the lockout and eventually, that will happen. The games will continue, and much if not all of the fury will be forgotten.

It's just a matter of when. And while a settlement might not be right around the corner, neither is the red button, the one that neither Hunter nor Stern, despite the rhetoric, are anxious to push.

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

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