NBA lockout talks have now broken down three times in three weeks. The league and players' union broke their own modest record by meeting three straight days this week, but that stretched the good vibes too thin. It had only been a couple hours of talks on Thursday before NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver confirmed the news that negotiations were done, with no deal in hand.
Blame whoever you'd like. If you think that NBA players, coming off a season in which league revenue grew almost 5 percent despite the awful economy and a static, undersized national TV contract, are wrong to reject an offer than includes both a 12-percent paycut and massive changes to the salary cap system that will limit mid-rung players' ability to sign multi-year contracts, so be it. I am not going to convince you that the owners are railroading the very men who allow them to earn $4 billion in revenue.
But I am going to argue that the owners who set this round of talks aflame are being duplicitous, selfish bullies.
Paul Allen, owners of the Portland Trail Blazers, stepped into the negotiation room for the first time on Thursday. But he wasn't there to negotiate. He was there, according to the union officials who blasted the league Thursday evening, to ensure that the will of the broader NBA ownership group was held up. He was there to make sure the owners on the labor committee didn't negotiate below a 50-50 split. (Union president Derek Fisher said on Thursday that he asked Allen whether 50-50 was an ultimatum, and Allen wouldn't respond.)
Paul Allen is a very rich man. Before Mikhail Prokhorov rode in on his jet ski, Allen was the NBA's wealthiest owner, worth $13 billion according to Forbes. (Ben Golliver of SB Nation's Blazer's Edge has more on Allen's largess, including the news that he recently crashed his helicopter on an excursion to Antarctica.) And how he used his wealth! Portland is a tiny market by NBA standards, and despite a rabid fan base, it's a low-revenue team. Despite that, and despite not being a top-tier title contender in recent years, the Trail Blazers have the No. 8 payroll in the NBA since 2006 and pays luxury tax most seasons.
Paul Allen the NBA owner has never seen a problem he wasn't willing to throw money at. To scuttle away Zach Randolph, he took on Steve Francis' $20 million contract ... and paid the player off to go away. He has bought more draft picks than any team but the Dallas Mavericks, in many cases to stash players overseas for eternity. He has been one of the NBA's biggest vultures, preying on every crag in the rulebook to spend his way to a winning record.
And when it goes wrong, he blames someone else ... usually his general manager. (He fired Kevin Pritchard hours before the 2010 NBA Draft, and canned Rich Cho after just 11 months on the job. Unsurprisingly, candidates have not been throwing themselves at Portland this summer.)
Yes, Paul Allen is perfectly within his rights as the owner of an NBA team to seek a profitable system. But if Paul Allen has lost money on the Blazers over the past decade, it hasn't been because the system requires it. It's because he's opened his pocketbook at every turn to gain a competitive advantage over his less-wealthy counterparts. That he is now standing up for the broke small-market owners in the NBA is some kind of joke.
Peter Holt, the mostly anonymous owner of the San Antonio Spurs and leader of the league's labor committee, has reportedly told players at least once that they "needed to feel some more pain" before a deal was done. Holt also revealed during his press conference that he has lost money on the Spurs in each of the last two seasons.
Peter Holt bought the Spurs for $75 million in 1993. Forbes lists the team as worth $400 million today. Adjusting for inflation, Holt's initial investment in the team has nearly tripled in less than two decades. Two years ago, Holt used a cap loophole to trade for Richard Jefferson despite being over the salary cap. A year ago, the Spurs worked out a strange deal in which Jefferson left $15 million on the table, took his opt-out and signed a new four-year, $39 million contract.
And Peter Holt stands up behind that mic on Thursday and says that he just wants to be able to "make a few bucks." Holt has a team with three All-Stars (including one living legend). Two of those All-Stars, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, have in the past taken lower salaries to allow the Spurs to bring in additional players. The Spurs have been competitive for nearly the entirety of Holt's ownership. The people of San Antonio have built Holt an arena. The value of his franchise has tripled thanks in large part to that publicly-funded arena, some brilliant hires and the fortune of lucky bounces in the NBA Draft Lottery.
But Peter Holt's just a guy trying to make a few bucks ... and he's willing to cancel a season to do it.
The arsonist that deserves the most scorn, though, has to be Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and noted font stylist. Fisher told the press that when the owners presented their de-facto ultimatum -- they wouldn't talk system issues unless the player agreed to move down to a 50-50 split -- it was Gilbert who told the Lakers point guard to "trust [Gilbert's] gut" that the system changes would be fair.
Dan Gilbert wanted the players to concede on the single biggest issue in the lockout negotiations ... and trust him that the rest would fall into place.
Forget about the LeBron James tirade and childishness. Forget about "bloggissists." Forget about his flip-flopping about the psychic value of team ownership.
Dan Gilbert's company, Quicken Loans, was one of the worst offenders in the housing bubble, offering scores of subprime loans to unqualified buyers, pumping up the real estate market until it burst, contributing to a collapse of the global financial markets and at least one bonafide U.S. recession. Gilbert wasn't alone -- plenty of banks got too loose in the name of profit and stupidity but mostly profit. But Quicken Loans was a big player in this game.
As such, Dan Gilbert doesn't get to tell anyone to "trust his gut" in a business deal. Dan Gilbert can't drop an ultimatum on someone, tell them to trust him and get away with it. Of all the delusion, the brand torching, the picking over carcasses that the NBA's vultures have done over the past four month, nothing tops this. Nothing tops Dan Gilbert asking players to trust him. How could you blame anyone from laughing in his face?
In the end, it is David Stern and Adam Silver who need to get Allen, Holt and Gilbert -- and the 26 other owners -- back in line, back on a path to solutions, not union-busting. That is, of course, unless Billy Hunter is right, and this was the end-game all along.
If so, God help us. Our world can only survive so much bulls--t, and these owners are adding to the tally every single day.