The 123-day NBA lockout could have ended last Friday. It could end by this Friday, or any time in the next few weeks. All the NBA Players Association (NBPA) has to do, NBA owners say, is accept a 50-50 split of basketball-related income (BRI).
The majority of system-based issues have already been agreed upon, according to multiple national media outlets. Thus, much of the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that will end the work stoppage and kickstart a stalled 2011-12 season is technically in place.
So why wait? And what's to be gained from a mutual hardline holdout that will result in missed games and millions of dollars in lost revenue all at the risk of alienating fickle sports fans already dealing with a shaky economy?
For owners: a clean sweep that returns the NBA's power back into their hands, resetting the hierarchy of a kingdom that swayed last season while superstars such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony dictated the futures of multiple franchises at once.
"You still essentially come down to the people that own the league saying, 'We're worried about the next 10 years, not the next six months … and there's a desperate need for a long-term correction,' " said Tom Penn, an ESPN analyst and former NBA small-market executive.
For players: everything from pride to steadily increasing paydays, as well as nearly five decades' worth of union gains that date back to a threat to sit out the 1964 All-Star game if their demands weren't met.
Forty-seven years later, the sides are again at a standstill. Closer than ever after more than two years' worth of heated negotiations, but still separated by an enormous philosophical divide. The fight over the split and all that it represents has erased every recent wave of positive momentum, leaving in its wake analysts and agents who say that just because the sides appear close to a deal doesn't mean the lockout will end anytime soon.
"For two years at least, if not more, both sides have anticipated this," said Gabe Feldman, Tulane law professor and director of the university's sports law program. "And it just seemed very early on … that both sides were willing and expecting to miss November and December."
To Feldman, a lockout that started July 1 has gone according to script: Both sides have stood their ground; owners have gained, players have given back; neither party has made its best and final offer.
Those won't arrive until something real is at stake. As last week proved, lost games and revenue aren't enough, especially not when NBA commissioner David Stern has shown a willingness to compress the 2011-12 schedule to squeeze in as many contests and squeeze out as much money as possible.
What could change the stakes? A series of missed paychecks for players; legal leverage for either side; fractured support within the NBPA; the reality that Christmas Day games will be canceled; or, finally, the understanding that a shortened season similar to a lockout-induced 50-game campaign in 1998-99 is the only thing left to fight for.
Feldman believes the NBA will have a deal by January. But he isn't certain about either sides' drop-dead date, nor where negotiations go from here.
"What it's going to come down to is when you're fighting over less than you're going to gain by making a deal," Feldman said. "I don't know exactly when that point is. I think everyone has their own calculation."
Part of the holdup is the calculation itself, Mark Bartelstein said. The longtime NBA and NFL agent believes the league and its owners have pulled off an unbelievable spin job, selling a 50-50 BRI split to the public as a win-win sweetheart deal the NBPA has selfishly passed up. What's been left out, Bartelstein said, is that owners are trying to recoup past losses and guarantee future profits before evenly dividing up revenue. His analogy: the NBA and NBPA split a pizza, but owners privately devour a few pieces first.
"Fifty-fifty insinuates that they're splitting all the revenues 50-50, and that's not the case," Bartelstein said. "The owners get about $700 million off the top before they get to BRI. So if you want to do a 50-50 split, the players would agree to that in a heartbeat a real 50-50 split. The owners aren't willing to do that."
Make or break
Like NBPA executive director Billy Hunter, Bartelstein believes owners are attempting to break the union.
Larry Coon, an NBA salary cap expert and ESPN.com contributor, said that could have happened last Friday if a new CBA had been based around a 50-50 split.
"They would've been in extreme danger of agreeing to something that the players weren't going to ratify. … It would've cut Billy Hunter off at the knees," Coon said. "They're in dangerous territory with that plan."
Coon can see the NBA increasing its offer to 50.5-49.5 in favor of the union, so the NBPA can "save face." He also envisions a possible lockout-ending 52-48 pro-union split during January, when previous NBA compromises have been revoked, the league's overall offer is worse and the 2011-12 campaign is on the line.
"When it comes time to cancel the season, [owners] move," Coon said. "They would go as far as 52 if this was Jan. 6, but it's not."
Which leaves players stuck staring at 50-50. Unwilling to give in while they attempt to negotiate for something better. But losing money, lacking leverage and falling behind as the lockout rolls on.
"It's possible [the sides] could get a deal done in the next two weeks," Feldman said. "But I do think that enough of the owners want their negotiating strategy to play out. And that negotiating strategy is exerting pressure on the players by locking them out and forcing them to miss paychecks. That requires the passage of time."
Kanter set for Salt Lake debut
Rookie center Enes Kanter is scheduled to participate in a Nov. 7 Utah Jazz vs. the NBA charity exhibition game at Salt Lake Community College, the event's organizer said Monday.
Kanter is set to join Jimmer Fredette, Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry, Al Jefferson, Devin Harris and Paul Millsap, among others. The game will mark Kanter's public debut playing with his Jazz teammates.
Tickets for the event went on sale Monday via SmithsTix.
Proceeds from the game will be distributed among charities including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House and OI Foundation.
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