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Steve Aschburner

More than games lost following Friday's breakdown


Posted Oct 28 2011 10:57PM - Updated Oct 28 2011 11:32PM

NEW YORK -- Optimism, momentum, pessimism, cynicism. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The NBA labor lockout grinds on, 120 days and counting, with both sides in the dispute spinning the details of each broken bargaining session as if it all was a giant basketball on the end of some equally enormous point guard's index finger. It's dizzying, frankly, with hundreds of million of dollars getting flushed and a month's worth of regular-season games officially now turned to vapor.

The league made that announcement Friday after another six hours of collective bargaining, on the heels of nearly 23 hours Wednesday and Thursday, led them all back to ... nowhere, really. The first two weeks of November already had been wiped off the calendar. This time, everything from Nov. 15 through Nov. 30 fell, too.

Of course, this fight being what it has devolved into now, a full and intact 82-game schedule might never have been sought for the good of the league and the enjoyment of its fans. It was seen simply as a number of paydays, to be toted up and bandied about and dangled as something that might turn the screws on the other guys' wallets.

Until Friday's breakdown -- one day after NBA commissioner David Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter suggested strongly, smilingly, that a deal might get done within 24 hours -- there had been speculation on both sides that a full season still was possible. Reschedule a few tractor pulls, squeeze in a handful of back-to-back-to-backs and -- voila! -- everyone gets paid, no one really loses.

But that's done now. From this point forward, pending a resolution and with no future talks scheduled, the NBA has a better chance of having no season than a complete one.

"It's not practical, possible or prudent to have a full season now," Stern said, after sharing the grim news via teleconference with the NBA's labor relations committee. "We held out that joint hope together, but in light of the breakdown of talks, there will not be a full NBA season under any circumstances."

There will not, then, be a full NBA season's worth of revenues (approximately $4 billion) for 30 owners and about 400 players to split. Nor will there be an NBA season's worth of paychecks landing in the players' pockets.

Assuming the lost month of November indeed is lost -- and won't be revisited and parceled out in some sort of cash grab-back and schedule-finagling -- each side will lose about $400 million just between now and Dec. 1. All while squabbling over two percentage points of basketball-related income (BRI) -- the owners are offering a 50-50 split of BRI, the players made a slight move down to 52 percent as their share. That represents $80 million on an annual basis and somewhere around $630 million over a seven-year labor agreement. That last number is based on the league's 4 percent growth projections, a number that likely will shrink or turn negative now that the 2011-12 season inevitably will be scarred.

Torch the month of December, doubling the numbers to $800 million lost per side, and what currently seems stubborn would turn silly. Or stupid or shameful, and that's just the S's. All in the interest of making the NBA healthier financially and, the owners still maintain, competitively.

"I would say both sides are very badly damaged," Stern said. "I'm not sure that anytime in the short run the owners will be able to make it back. And I know for a fact that in the short run the players will not be able to make it back -- and probably never be able to make it back."

Stern, some speculated, was directing his public comments at least partly to the union's rank-and-file members, reminding them that -- compared to franchise owners -- their careers are short and their pockets aren't as deep to absorb such a financial hit. But Hunter had a message of his own to make when he and union president Derek Fisher of the Lakers spoke several minutes before Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver.

"They have not missed a paycheck," Hunter said of the players. That won't happen until Nov. 16, when the bill comes due for the season's first 100 scuttled games, and then again on Dec. 1 for the next two weeks of November. Additionally, Hunter said, the players have money coming to them from returned escrow taxes and $29 million BRI shortfall that gets divvied up on a pro-rated basis.

That math, though, isn't entirely compelling. Hunter said that each player will have gotten a minimum of $100,000 by early November, a decent lockout war chest by most standards. But a month's worth of foregone wages for a player earning the median NBA salary (about $2.3 million) is worth more than $380,000. For stars, it'll be a pinch five, six or seven times that.

And then there is this math: Stern made it sound like the owners' 50-50 concept might shift backward again toward 47-53 as the league tries to recoup some of its losses. "You can assume," Stern said, "that our offer will change to reflect the changed economic circumstances."

Too bad, too, because there had been considerable progress on some of the so-called "system" issues, including:

• Agreement on the broad strokes of a stiffened luxury tax imposed on teams whose payrolls exceed the salary cap. Rather than a $1-for-$1 tax under the previous CBA, the new penalty would start at $1.50-for-$1 or $1.75 for the first $5 million over the tax threshold, escalating for each $5 million after that.

• Compromise on contract lengths of five years for a team's own "Bird" free agents and four years for outside signees. A mid-level exception with a starting salary ($5 million) that was reduced only $800,000 from the previous version. The "early Bird" exception also would retained, with the bi-annual exception being dropped.

Only three or four hot topics remained to haggle over: The right of luxury taxpayers to use the full mid-level or full "Bird" exceptions; new restrictions on sign-and-trade deals and, naturally, the BRI split.

The owners' view is that tax-paying teams should not be able to sign free agents away from rivals with smaller payrolls and a greater need to boost their talent base. The players, however, see that one as a freedom issue.

"We want our mid-level players to be able to have the opportunity to sign contracts wherever they would like to play," Fisher said. "[Even] if it's for less money or for less years, we want our players to have that choice and not be completely locked out of teams that are in the tax."

As for that vexing BRI, both Hunter and Stern characterized the other's stance on that, as they have in the past, as take-it-or-leave-it. And once again, they left it.

The chatter late Friday was that one side or the other would pick up the phone over the weekend or, at the latest, early next week. After which they would meet again and begin the viciously wasteful cycle.

In an interview this week by NBA.com, union economist Kevin Murphy had said of the dispute: "If there's a deal here, it's going to be a deal that nobody likes. That's what deals are."

For now, yet again, that's what this deal isn't.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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