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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Digital Sports Desk

Check out the latest column by TERRY LYONS @DigSportsDesk (follow on Twitter) --

It's October 4th: Do you know where your NBA is?

NBA Commissioner David Stern
OCTOBER 4 - Visit - There is something deep inside the psyche of the human mind that likes, or more exactly, wants to tie things up into nice packages.  That attribute is more often affiliated with "Type A" personalities than with the masses, but maybe most reporters and their tv editors or headline writers are, indeed, "Type A's" themselves.  Such is the case when media reports flow from the on-going NBA labor negotiations, now in the 96th day of lockout mode but years into the process of dividing billions of dollars between NBA players and team owners in a system long out of whack and even longer Gerry-rigged for the deal of the day.

Quite simply, it is always overlooked that the problem still remains that the deal of the day in 2005 or 1998 became the deal for the decade and the delivery system itself has become the real problem.

All day long media reports will flame the fires of a negotiating session to take place today at high Noon, not long after the NBA Commissioner, David Stern, his outside counsel and legal staff meet with a group of team owners who are trying to negotiate their way to a 50-50 split of the revenue generated by the sport of pro basketball.  The NBA Players Association, headed by executive director Billy Hunter, his outside counsel and legal staff, along with dozens of professional basketball players will get together around 10:30am to prepare for that Noon meeting at the O.K. Corral luxury hotel that has been reserved, along with coffee, tea and cases of Diet Coke to allow the commissioner and his fellow negotiators enough caffeine to ingest until night falls and they disembark from the meetings, without real progress, sour-faced again and again.

The media feed the frenzy.  They try to transcribe the confusing legalese and new-fangled labor relations descriptions for maximum salary levels clamped on teams, superstar players, veteran free agent players, in-coming rookie players and everyone in between. Terms like "hard" cap or "soft" cap or "Flex" cap, "Base year compensation" (and even once, the translation of "Basure") get volleyed around as though they have some significant meaning in the world of sports finance.  But, at the end of the day, there is a very large number that is actually the only number that matters.  It is the number of dollars to be paid by NBA team owners to the entire group of players.  The owners only wish they could write one check and dump it on Hunter's doorstep to leave him with the problem of how to divide the purse.

Somehow, that fact -- the very root of the issue -- is not often surfaced because the smaller pieces of the puzzle and the delivery mechanism have long become the sticking point for the negotiation.  Just how will the money be divided? How can the 30 NBA clubs remain competitive within the system? How will the agents react to the finer points of the negotiations? Everyone manipulates the discussion to try to gain an advantage, and not always for their cause or in the best interest of their clients, but rather, for themselves.

Reports leak from within the negotiating room, most regularly from someone backstabbing Stern through Yahoo Sports.  Apparently a few of the NBA's newest team owners are pushing for better returns of their $400-million plus investments. They feel more of a sense of urgency than their more established peers who got in with ground-floor franchise investments to see their values soar to unimaginable heights. They paid Muggsy Bogues money and, years later, it was Yao Ming money.  They celebrated with the commissioner and they all rejoiced. But, that was once upon a time.

Along came Mark Cuban and he dared question the authority.

Before Cuban struck internet gold with being gobbled-up by some Yahoo who paid billions for something that had the shelf-life of a Poloroid camera, there were whacky team owners, for sure.  Donald Sterling of the San Diego/LA Clippers, Cleveland's Ted Stepien, and Charlotte/New Orleans' George Shinn to name a few.  They were mocked and chastised by media, team executives and their co-owners if they dared to question the system or speak a word of negativity.  But as the older generation of NBA team owners passed the torch (Cleveland's Gund brothers, Phoenix's Jerry Colangelo) or passed away (Washington's Abe Pollin, Detroit's Bill Davidson, Utah's Larry Miller), the vibe began to change within the ranks of ownership and scrutiny fell upon the Commissioner and NBA league office like never before.

The sweetheart deal of 2005 that media once reported as a Stern TKO on Hunter had become a one-sided 57-percent of revenue debacle for the NBA owners of the year 2011.  Six years and a worldwide financial meltdown will do that, you know?

The new investors within the NBA ownership ranks, mostly all of them listed on the Forbes 400, want a system that provides their basketball LLCs with a profit or at least the chance of making one if they don't screw up and guarantee 10 or, God forbid, 17-millions of dollars to a Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Rashard Lewis, Eddy Curry, Michael Redd or Andrei Kirilenko, all guaranteed, of course, under the collective bargaining agreement they attempt to alter.  But, to date, there have not been reports or proclamations to blow-up the entire system and start over.  Maybe the maximum team salary system, and all of the thousands of Bird-brained exceptions needs to fly to coop.  Once they seemed like a good idea, a suggestion that was made in a meeting held in 1980-something. Maybe the free agent spending by Stepien that provoked such a system can some way be regulated to allow for free agent movement without dire consequences for small market teams or clubs whose players suffer major injuries?

What would that new system look like?  Maybe Mark Cuban or Robert Sarver have the answer and they haven't spoken up.  They have the answers to everything else, so let's hear it, eh?  Or maybe, the ultra-silent Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats can share some insight from labor negotiations of the past where Jordan's agent, David Falk, had the union by its coat tails.

Maybe they can create 12 salary slots per team, 11 at different pay scales and one that covers the 12th-to-14th/15th man?  On the LA Lakers, Kobe would get the top slot, Pau would get #2, and so on.  If you change teams, you accept a slot - either higher, equal or lower than the slot you have?  Trades would have to be for even money and even slots.  Plain and simple.  And, yes, that would go down as a "hard cap" and a "blood issue" in the negotiating room, so it wouldn't fly for Hunter, his players or their agents.

Maybe "max" contracts can only be provided to players who have at least two championship rings?  Maybe a player contract is guaranteed for a year or two, but it is converted to a front office/player development job if the player is injured and can no longer perform?  How about starting all over with a 60-game season, and everyone's contract cut by a third?  Every suggestion would get laughed out of the room, yet every suggestion addresses the major issues that face the league today; Ticket prices too high, too many games for ticket buyers to attend/too long a season and so on.

So, the big meeting of October 4th, a day after training camps were scheduled to begin, becomes the new focal point.  The "smaller" meeting yesterday was to "set the table" for the meeting du jour. The commissioner noted the exact times, 10:30am and Noon "sharp," he said. If they break early, "it will be bad."  If it breaks later in the day "not as bad."  Why?

"It can't end tomorrow.  There is a long negotiation ahead of us because there are, literally, hundreds of other issues that haven't been addressed yet, the so-called B-level issues," said Adam Silver, Stern's deputy commissioner.

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