Battle lines drawn for NBA, players, agents

NEW YORK – Privately, the most influential player agents in the business swear they won’t let Billy Hunter cut a crippling collective bargaining deal. They won’t let his parting gift to the union membership be deeper concessions, givebacks to the owners. They can’t storm the negotiating room in New York this week, but they believe they can ultimately stop the ratifying of a deal. They can deliver the percentage of players needed to decertify the union. They believe they still can unleash holy hell on this sure, steady capitulation to the NBA.

“The players don’t want to make these kinds of concessions, yet the union keeps giving them,” one agent in a prominent firm told Yahoo! Sports. “The union hasn’t been listening to its players.”

NBA commissioner David Stern could soon have to cancel part of the preseason if progress isn't made in the labor talks.
(AP photo)

The agents are pushing toward decertification of the union, but they aren’t there yet. Nevertheless, once the Players Association cuts a deal, is there truly a deal? What happens when Hunter says he has an agreement, and the agents get the rank-and-file players to reject it?

Everyone knows this is Hunter’s final stand as executive director of the Players Association, and he ultimately won’t have to live with the consequences of the agreement. He’ll take his millions of dollars, and go, and that leaves some agents and players suspicious of his willingness to fight NBA commissioner David Stern and the hard-line owners to a determined, defiant end.

“There’s a lot of money and control at stake here,” one NBA front-office executive said. “I’ve never seen people who are in negotiations with each other give up those two things easily. There will be a nasty fight at some point among the owners, the players and the agents. At some point, two of those three entities will square off and go to war.

“It’s just a matter of which two entities it will be.”

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For the agents, this is a last stand of sorts. They won’t go quietly. No one has to like the agents, nor care that they get bigger commissions. Give the agents this: Unlike the owners and the union, they’re probably the most honest about the pursuit here, about their motivations.

They need a system where they can negotiate deals for maximum dollars, where great players still have great value. There’s no hidden agenda here. The more the players get, the more the agents get. For the players, that makes them the ultimate advocacy group. Privately, the agents have always questioned the depth of the legal team that Hunters surrounds himself with, the creativity with which he approaches collective bargaining solutions with the owners.

In the near future, agents and team executives see a deal where Stern somehow lets Hunter claim victory, where the political aspirations of Derek Fisher’s(notes) post-playing career are untouched. The agents have been rallying players for weeks now, walking them through that potential endgame, and selling them on an uprising.

When the owners and players walk out of the labor meeting on Thursday afternoon, there needs to be progress. There needs to be a reason for everyone to get together again on Friday, or there promises to be consequences. “Almost immediately, they’re going to cancel the first two weeks of training camp, which guarantees we’re going to lose games out of the season,” one high-ranking league official told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday.

“If the owners don’t come off where they are right now, that’s what’s coming.”

It isn’t just the percentages of the basketball-related income (BRI) they’re debating – the union has offered to drop its share from 57 percent to 53, and most believe they’ll eventually go to 51 or even 50. “They’re still debating the definition of BRI,” one source said. As for the hard cap, there’s probably some room for compromise with the owners. Privately, they know they can find some kind of a system that acts like a hard cap, but that Hunter can bring back to the players and sell as something short of that.

“I think there’s a solution out there that doesn’t look like a hard cap, but still functions that way,” one high-ranking league official said. “I don’t know what it looks like, but it won’t be one where Sacramento has a $45 million payroll, and Dallas and the Lakers have one at $100 million.”

Yes, this is an important meeting on Thursday. The two sides met on staff levels on Wednesday, and there were suspicions among several sources that there had been other contact at high levels between the two sides in the past week. Whatever happens here, the players are sure to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on the next deal, and that kind of change doesn’t come without a fight. Before the owners and players walked out of last week’s session, there had been one indisputable issue that united them, a common bond of disdain and derision.

“That was when the subject of the agents came up,” one source in the room said. He was laughing, but that won’t last long once these two sides cut a deal and those agents turn to labor’s nuclear option: decertification. Yes, there’s still a monumental fight to play out – perhaps even a season-ending war – and it’s just a matter now of who goes after whom.

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Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Sep 22, 2011