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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT: "THE DECISION" AND A PRISM OF ANGER
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Rewind back to July 1, 2010. Although the battle lines had already been drawn long before between the NBA players and owners in what was to become the great hoops lockout of 2011, the process would become irreparably fractured that night in what at the time seemed to most to be a rather harmless, if somewhat over-the-top, exercise.

Where were you when "The Decision" was rendered?

Hardly the sort of life landmark that most recall alongside society-shaking events such as the JFK assassination and 9/11, where most who were alive could tell you where they were and what they were doing at the time of hearing the news.

But in NBA parlance, "The Decision" ranks alongside the watershed moments of the league's history.

We're of course referring to LeBron James' decision to turn his selection of a future employer into a event made for TV. ESPN was all too willing to grant "Team LeBron" the requisite air time to turn the announcement into the sort of made-for-TV spectacle that even the Kardashians could appreciate.

But the impact of "The Decision" from 16½ months ago reached far beyond the physical specifics of King James' move from Cleveland to Miami. Pro basketball culture changed that night. Evidence, however, indicates "The Decision" might have caused much more harm and irreparable damage to the league than whatever benefits LeBron and the Miami Heat received from James' move to South Beach.

We'll leave further analysis of "The Decision" to readers who undoubtedly have their own opinions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of LeBron and friends setting their own agenda.

What was at stake when "The Decision" was rendered was future dynamics within the league. The owners had been shown up by one of their players. LeBron and his crew were suddenly controlling the environment and dictating the framework of the debate. Management was starting to believe the inmates were running the asylum. At the same time, players around the league rejoiced at the thought that they could call the shots, with LeBron as their guiding light.

But the impact of "The Decision" shook the foundation of the NBA. Players, especially those of African-American origin, viewed LeBron as their Pied Piper, finally telling "the man" (the mostly-white ownership block and the Jewish commissioner) that it was labor that would be calling the shots in the future. In the players' eyes, LeBron had "punked" the establishment.

Meanwhile, management privately seethed, hellbent to regain control of the environment. Carmelo Anthony's ability to engineer his way out of Denver and to New York the following winter further divided the players and owners, most of the latter vowing to repair the system so that labor could not dictate terms of the debate as LeBron and Carmelo had done.

Underlying all of these mechanics was the racial component inherent within the structure of the league. The mostly African-American player base viewed LeBron's and Carmelo's actions through a prism formed from generations of racial mistrust. The almost entirely-white ownership block provided an endless amount of fuel for antagonism.

The great NBA lockout of 2011 thus became a near-certainty on the night "The Decision" was rendered. And it became etched in stone when Carmelo Anthony was able to manipulate the old system to his benefit before the last trade deadline.

The parties to his debate have generally developed such a contempt for one another that they cannot help to avoid viewing the entire situation through an emotional prism of anger.

And whether the national media wants to admit it or not, the racial divide among the components in this debate has been at the root of the now-polluted and severely-damaged negotiation process.

The NBA labor mess has been a train wreck waiting to happen for a long while. Considering the parties involved, it was almost unavoidable.

As the latest deadlines passed earlier in the week, more games were cancelled by David Stern through December 15, and the NBPA moved forward with lawsuits and threats of decertification, we have begun to view all sides in the debate (players, management, and commissioner) with more skepticism. Blame almost equally lies within each of the parties involved.

As the situation progresses, however, we have also begun to view some of the elements of the debate a bit differently, including many of the key individuals and components of the current labor mess.

Those would include...

1) Player rep Derek Fisher. While recipient of a rather flowery bit of commentary from us last week, in the subsequent seven days "D-Fish" has hardly proven himself to be a leader and decision-maker. By not demanding that NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter take the most-recent proposal from the owners to the full membership of the labor force, Fisher failed dramatically at what should have been one of his primary functions in the whole debate.

We would have had a lot more respect for D-Fish had he issued an ultimatum to Hunter and threatened to quit his post unless he could take the latest offer to the entirety of the player ranks.

Fisher probably still has a bright post-basketball future, with his articulate manner still well-received in many quarters. If it's politics that D-Fish wants to enter, however, we might suggest an ambassadorship as a more-appropriate role. D-Fish appears more facilitator than problem-solver these days.

2) Michael Jordan. That "His Highness" has emerged as perhaps the hardest of the hard-line owners has multiple dimensions of which we are beginning to understand a bit more clearly.

First, Jordan has reason to be hawkish from a management perspective in the negotiations. His Charlotte team is one of those smaller-market franchises that needs a reform of the old system to have a better chance at being more competitive in the future.

Second, Jordan is serving a valuable role for the hardline ownership group, using his clout to run interference for his faction of owners and act as their voice to the public. Sorts such as Robert Sarver in Phoenix and Dan Gilbert in Cleveland are very comfortable having Jordan be their public voice in the ongoing debate.

But Jordan and the hardliners were able to hijack many of the elements of the last offer to the players on some B-list issues that caused the most-recent breakdown of talks.

Jordan, however, cannot be held accountable for some of the grievous errors made by ownership in past CBA negotiations that paved the way for the battle of 2011. The environment in which LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were able to dictate the terms was solely the responsibility of short-sighted management in past negotiations.

3) Owners and players. The consensus seems to be that the ownership group in the NBA contains more flakes and lightweights than counterparts in MLB, the NFL, and NHL. People in the know tell us that more than in the other pro leagues, NBA owners can't even be trusted among themselves. They need rules to protect themselves from one another. The fact the owners haven't ever figured out how to share local TV revenues, something the cap-less MLB has even managed to address, is another example of their internal dysfunction. Nothing has made us think differently since the lockout commenced.

At the same time, the NBPA has more immature misfits, per capita, than all of the other major sports leagues combined. It was not hard to predict what would transpire with so many x-factors in the mix.

The player ranks are also full of their own factions that happen to include the rank-and-file, non-superstars who would probably want to ratify a management proposal as soon as they see one, as well as the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce wing pushing for decertification. Internal dynamics within the clubhouses are another factor to be considered; we suspect many players are scared to come out and say the obvious, that the majority of them want to ratify now.

But, there's another faction out there...

4) Euro players. One school of thought regarding why Hunter and Fisher might not want an owner's proposal put in front of the entire labor force is the possibility that a block of Euro NBA players, hardly as passionate in the debate as the Garnett-Pierce faction, as well as most domestic-spawned NBAers, would be likely to vote to approve any offer. Some NBA observers believe this voting block would likely swing the tally in favor of ratification.

Others are suggesting this could be another example of the race card rearing its head in the debate. The NBA's foreign contingent is mostly white, and the more-radical elements of the NBPA are not about to let this faction of the league determine the outcome of any vote...at least not yet.

It's also worth noting that many NBA observers view the foreign contingent as feeling privileged to play in the NBA and as mostly-grateful for the opportunity to play pro hoops in the states. As opposed the American-based players who mostly feel it's their right to play in the NBA. Which hints at how the Euro players might vote if they had the chance. A major difference in perception of the situation between those groups exists.

5) David Stern. We have noted previously that Stern has often acted like the only adult in the room during the whole process, but have since changed our tune somewhat on the commish, especially in the last week.

Certainly, as mentioned on these pages before, Stern knows what might be at stake regarding the league's abilities (or lack thereof) to generate revenues, and the possibility of rupturing some of the corporate sponsorship so vital to the league if the lockout continues. Definitely so if the league loses the entire 2011-12 campaign, a possibility that becomes greater with each passing day.

But he has also proven wholly incapable of corralling the ownership group into a cohesive entity. Factions within the management side have been unable to bridge their differences, blame of which partly must rest upon Stern.

In the meantime, the relationship between Stern and several legal elements from the labor side, specifically counsel Jeffrey Kessler, has reportedly become so toxic that hopes of civilized discussions are all but lost. Hardly the sort of development that suggests a fair resolution is coming soon.

Bottom line? The commish has lost control of the ownership group he once believed he had in his back pocket. Not the type of news that would lead anyone to believe this labor fiasco is due for a quick resolution.

(By the way, we'll float this rumor and be the first to claim it; if noted hoops fan President Obama loses in his bid for re-election next November, how about him for next NBA commissioner?)

6) Billy Hunter. We have come to the point where we are dismissing much of the self-serving rhetoric from Hunter, especially the commentary about the sides still being farther apart than ever in the debate.

To the contrary, we and others viewed management and labor as being fairly close to a favorable resolution earlier in the week, especially since the players' side had indicated it would meet the 50-50 BRI split as long as it could be satisfied on various secondary issues. Unlike Hunter's assessment, it seemed to us and others that a deal was well within reach.

The NBPA continues to be stuck on negotiating points that seem mostly irrelevant to the entire process. The number of sign-and-trade deals involving tax-paying teams within the life of the last CBA was a paltry four. The number of tax-paying teams who sign free agents was also relatively small. Yet Hunter and much of the player force continue to hammer on these points.

7) Agents. Certain influential agents such as Leon Rose and a few others are also pushing buttons in the debate. As is the case with others, the agents are doing so with their own interests in mind.

The agents want to keep their negotiating power, which means retaining player movement and the ability for the luxury tax teams not to be effectively constrained by the marketplace. Although, as we noted in the related points about Billy Hunter above, there are only a handful of players who have been able to take advantage of those sorts of loopholes in the past CBA. The influential agents, however, are making sure those points are not to be lost in any new agreement to keep their own leverage in future years.

8) Decertification. Which way these winds blow in the coming weeks remain to be seen. But we suspect that the seeds for "decert" came from unrest within the player ranks rather than legal tactics to put pressure on the owners.

The players are not properly organized and haven't been throughout the debate. No one has canvassed them properly. The union hasn't been operating as it should, with frequent, comprehensive updating of its member ranks. No one, be it Fisher, Hunter, Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, has asked to have a vote of the whole membership on any management proposal. The union has not been representing them properly for quite a while, so the decertification agenda was bound to gain momentum.

9) What's next? We were thinking that the players would be able to live with a 50-50 BRI split, retention of guaranteed contracts, and no hard cap, along with some tweaks to the luxury tax debate. At some point we believe the arguments will be settled roughly along those lines.

But time grows more crucial in this process the longer no settlement is reached. A bastardized 2011-12 season is already the best that can be salvaged at this point, but we're also less than a month away from the point of no return for any part of the NBA campaign to be saved.

The 45-day clock to decertification will tick into late December, and if no deal is struck by then, there won't be a 2011-12 season. Consensus seems to be that the final date in which a compromise can be reached and some portion of the 2011-12 campaign is saved would be mid-December. Figuring a 30-day window between settlement and a resumption of play, that would mean a reduced season could begin in mid-January, perhaps without an All-Star break, which seems a minor concern at the moment.

We still believe something is going to get done before the hourglass empties on the 2011-12 campaign, but we're not as sure as we were a week or month ago. We suspect the chances of no season at all are now into the 40-50% range. That percentage grows the closer we get to mid-December with no resolution.

As always, stay tuned.


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