Posted Nov 12 2011 8:23PM
The anger, worry, frustration and miscommunication that followed in the wake of the NBA owners' latest proposal to the players in pursuit of a new collective-bargaining agreement was rampant enough for the league to clarify terms of the offer Saturday night.
In fact, NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver sought out various media outlets to answer questions and correct misinterpretations that they felt might impact the union's acceptance or rejection of the deal.
"The agents have come sweeping in with such mischaracterizations that my guys asked me if I'd be available for media," Stern said in a telephone interview with NBA.com. "I said, 'Whatever you want.' The agents are busy [saying] this is a terrible deal. No one talks about the deal itself."
Actually, in the first 48 hours after the owners made what sure sounds like their last, best offer to end a labor lockout now in its 20th week -- and preserve a 72-game regular season that would begin on Dec. 15 -- there was a lot of talk. Not necessarily about the actual deal but about certain perceptions and misperceptions of it. The most troubling theme: the current offer somehow isn't as good as the one that preceded it.
"Do the NBA CEOs think the union can't see that this 'new revision' is worse than the proposal they gave us last week," veteran big man Etan Thomas wrote in a piece that was posted on ESPN.com Saturday.
Other players took to Twitter, Facebook or other social media outlets to express similar thoughts. For example, Oklahoma City center Nazr Mohammed wrote in a tweet: "The revised proposal is worse than the last offer..." Moments later, he added: "... The additions to the proposal makes it impossible to accept."
Time is of the essence here, with player representatives from the league's 30 teams scheduled to meet Monday in New York with union president Derek Fisher, executive director Billy Hunter and other union officers to discuss the merits of the deal -- as they and some 400 other members understand it.
Their options would appear to be: Reject the offer, put it to a vote of the National Basketball Player Association's full membership, make a counter-proposal or pursue further negotiations. The last two might not appeal to them if the owners revert to a promised, harsher "reset" offer for any additional rounds of bargaining. That one will drop the players' share of basketball-related income from 50 percent to 47 percent and call for a hard salary cap, rollbacks of existing individual contracts and shorter contract lengths, among other tougher terms.
Determining if that is a bluff -- Stern talked of the "reset" offer a week ago, before meeting again and arriving at the current offer -- is one of the union's tasks. Gauging their chances for sweetening either offer, current or next, and enhancing the system issues that are unpalatable to them now is another.
Said Stern: "It's never a take it-or-leave it offer at 47 percent with a flex cap. It could still be 46.5 [percent]."
Weighing the pros and cons of decertifying the union, or turning to a disclaimer-of-interest in which the NBPA basically recuses itself from negotiations, would be the players' next big consideration.
Such a move, in theory, could provide some leverage if talks continued while the union dissolution played out in the courts. Then again, it could backfire, either failing in court or creating chaos that could cost the entire 2011-12 season -- and perhaps much more.
"This talk about decertification," Stern said, "would be one last violent effort by the agents to destroy the season, cause their clients to lose the money for this season and destroy $4 billion in guaranteed contracts that exist. Because if the union doesn't exist, the contracts aren't going to exist." The NBA already has filed a lawsuit arguing that point, which the NBPA has challenged.
A union spokesman said that Hunter and Fisher were unavailable Saturday night to address Stern's comments. But after receiving the current offer from the owners Thursday, Hunter said: "It's about the same as the last proposal. It's not that much different."
That view was based largely on the limitations put on the league's biggest-spending teams in terms of free agency and trade maneuvers, both in higher luxury-tax penalties and through restricted mechanism to acquire more talent. They have been relaxed somewhat in the current offer but they still exist, with the union unhappy that their moves on the BRI split haven't erased more of the limitations completely.
The union's interpretation of when a team crosses the luxury-tax threshold -- before it uses the full mid-level exception or after -- is part of the dispute. But most of the displeasure stems from the roadblocks intended to keep free-spending teams out of the marketplace for free agents.
The NBPA believes that its member should have to right to earn the same money, via equal cap exceptions, wherever they choose to play. The league wants to direct free agents to franchises whose rosters are less stocked, in cities that might not be the most alluring. It contends that -- because the BRI split is guaranteed, a zero-sum game in which the players receive 50 percent (or whatever) as a group -- they will wind up with the same money, just paid more evenly across the league.
"It's the most important point for us on the competitive front," Stern said. "This is not going to be a league where, every year, L.A., Boston, Dallas, New York and potentially Brooklyn are going to be the competitors because they have the most money. That's what this negotiation is about on the system.
"We're going to be able to tell fans in Milwaukee or Indiana or Sacramento that because we have a system that compresses salaries -- that is to say, the same amount will be paid but it will be distributed more evenly over teams and will be accompanied by revenue-sharing -- it will be a better league because of it. More teams competing and, probably, generating more revenue in which the players will share."
Stern said the biggest misperception among players and some fans about the current offer is that it "would eliminate the middle class, which is of course false." He said the proposed exceptions allow for movement to all teams (assuming the big spenders willingly incur the tax and the free agents accept lower salaries).
Also, the commissioner said that, with the "floor" for payrolls increasing from 75 percent of the cap figure to 85 percent in Years 1 and 2 and 90 percent thereafter, teams wouldn't be able to go cheap, hold down payroll and pocket revenue-sharing money.
While Stern and Silver have frequently talked of the "concessions" made by the owners that, in fact, have merely been items crossed off their "wants" list in these talks, he did point out some positives for the union at this point. In pursuit of a system reset, the owners began negotiating more than two years ago with the hopes of imposing a hard salary cap and ridding themselves of guaranteed contracts and most cap exceptions.
The offer on the table, Stern said, continues the NBA's traditional soft cap and allows for players to negotiate guaranteed deals. He said it also would take the average player salary from $5.15 million last season to "$7 million in Year 7 and $8 million in Year 10," based on 4 percent growth projections used by both the league and the union. The tax threshold for teams would rise from $70 million to $85 million by the CBA's end.
A brushfire broke out Friday after Internet reports speculated that the league was seeking significant freedom in assigning players to the D League and even cutting their pay during those stints. But Stern clarified that it was that "B-list issue," involved boosting the window for such moves from two years to three and had been favored by some agents for the Nos. 14 and 15 men on the roster. A two-way contract, he said, would shift more of the BRI split to clients Nos. 1-13.
Stern also disputed a claim from some within the union that it had not received a written version of the owners' offer, thereby making it more difficult to properly educate its members.
"That would be a lie," Stern said. Then he paused, saying he would look up the e-mail to which a written summary was attached. "Nov. 11 at 1:42 p.m., from [NBA general counsel] Rick Buchanan to Billy Hunter," Stern said. "It was sent by electronic and overnight mail. So I doubt you'll hear that [there was no written version] from Billy or Derek."
But that might further explain some of the confusion: When the owners' previous offer was put into writing, the summary sent to the union was shorter. This time, it was lengthier, a league source said. As a result, some clauses might look like additions or changes when they were, in fact, in the previous version.
So what does Stern expect, assuming the players are fully informed by the time they weigh the merits of the latest offer on Monday?
"Hopefully we'll have Dec. 15" as the season's new opening night, he said. "It's in the hands of the players and the unions."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years.