The NBA lockout has apparently led to some fissures among the owners' ranks. But if a few agents get their way, the players' union will be broken up completely. Billy Hunter has a lot of work to do to keep it together.
There were three major, write-it-down items to take away from Tuesday's NBA lockout talks.
No. 1: The players' union values the soft salary cap structure over a smaller share of revenue, or at least thinks a favorable cap structure is more feasible in these negotiations than is a favorable revenue split. That's an important distinction that no one would have figured before Tuesday.
No. 2: Enough owners care as much about hardening the cap as they do about the revenue split, or think the cap structure itself -- not league profitability, but the cap structure -- is worth losing part of the season over. That's not as surprising, but it's still pretty surprising.
No. 3: There is some measure of disunity among the owners.
If there owners were united, three of the five and a half hours of Tuesday's talks wouldn't have consisted of the handful of owners present -- of which the Lakers' Jerry Buss was one, I might add -- talking over the union's "we'll give you the money if you keep the cap soft" proposal. It wouldn't take three hours if there was unity. It'd take a few minutes, followed by a resounding "no", followed by perhaps some actual negotiation instead of this continued brinksmanship, Wild West bullsh-t.
In the aftermath of the union's gambit, Billy Hunter finds himself the target of what appears to be a serious coup attempt. Two major outlets (ESPN and Yahoo!) reported within hours of each other late Tuesday that five big-time player agents have recently discussed pushing for decertification without the blessing of Hunter or NBPA president Derek Fisher. More decert talk from anonymous agents followed in other outlets on Wednesday.
Who are these agents? They are not small gambinos: Arn Tellem is a titan, and Mark Bartelstein, Jeff Schwartz, Bill Duffy and Dan Fegan are right up there in terms of impact via a wide swath of clients. Reports suggest together they represent 30 percent of the league ... conveniently the share needed to sign a petition to get a decertification vote before the union body, where majority rules.
But the Decert Club's marquee is missing two huge names, and I think the absence of those names speaks volumes about the real divisions within the players' union and the power Hunter and Fisher wield. Those names? Leon Rose and Rob Pelinka.
Rose's team at CAA represents the biggest stars in the game: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh. Pelinka represents the biggest star not on that list: Kobe Bryant. Pelinka's other highly valuable client? Fisher himself.
The NBA's superstars do not want to miss a season of basketball. No one does, but the stakes for a guy like Roger Mason are about $1 million, and the stakes for LeBron are about $15 million. If the issue on the table is the preservation of the soft cap -- something that will affect the players like Mason much more than it will the players like LeBron -- there's no question that it behooves the superstars to take defeat at the negotiating table and get back on the court, and it behooves the lesser players to fight the hard cap to the death.
The Decert Club has stars, too: Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard, to name a couple. But they don't have Kobe. They don't have Rose's roster. They don't have Kevin Durant (Goodwins), they don't have Dirk Nowitzki (no agent), they don't have Amar'e Stoudemire (Happy Walters). They don't have a big chunk of the players making and set to make the most lucrative contracts the league can offer. The Decert Club's clientele is decidedly middle class in nature.
As such, the Decert Club's position will be tailored to the middle class. That should fit with Fisher, Hunter and the NBPA executive committee, right? It doesn't. Hunter and Fisher aren't willing to miss a season. They say they will, but they want to solve this lockout just as much as David Stern and Adam Silver do. This is a legacy thing. This is their identity. Just as Stern has the Dan Gilberts flapping in his ear, Hunter has the Arn Tellems. If Dan Gilbert is a lockout hawk, so is every agent willing to spit in Stern's face by decertifying. It's truly a nuclear option in the NBA, because it pushes the NBA to follow up on their threat to void all player contracts. Of all the Wild West bullsh-t moves available at this point, none is more toxic than decertification.
Hunter understands this. Fisher understands this. That's a huge reason they won't touch the concept. It would have been easy for Hunter to appease these rogue revolutionaries by publicly stating on Tuesday that if the league isn't more open to negotiation, then decertification and anti-trust litigation will follow. But he didn't ... because he has no intention of willingly dissolving the union, no intention in putting Stern in the position of going nuclear or being called on a bluff. Hunter understands how toxic decertification, and he's unwilling to sacrifice the season to go there.
Now, he needs to convince his players why he's right and their agents are wrong. Good luck.
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