Here's how an NBA front-office executive described the document the commissioner's office delivered to the union to start labor negotiations: "It's just a photocopy of Stern's middle finger."
He was kind of kidding.
The owners delivered an opening proposal to the Players Association this week, CBSSports.com first reported, and months of private assurances turned out to be true: The owners want to fundamentally change the salary structure of the NBA. They don't want to negotiate a fresh collective bargaining agreement, as much as they want to crush the union once and for all.
The owners want to take a far greater percentage of the basketball-related income. They want to pay millions less for maximum deals and shorten contracts. Most of all, they want a hard salary cap and assurances that protect themselves against a diminished economy and, well, themselves. Everything is hurtling toward a 2011 lockout, a negotiation that'll likely feel far more like a standoff.
Owners have delivered commissioner David Stern an unmistakable mandate: Get our money back and get us profitable. The tone is downright nasty on the owners' side. There exists an undercurrent of desperation within much of ownership, a sense they're hell-bent on bringing the players to their knees.
Players Association executive director Billy Hunter is preparing for the fight of his life, with the agents armed to advance to Defcon 1 with him.
"I have so much respect for David Stern, and I know he wants to create the most competitive environment possible for the fans, but the current system is broken," agent Mark Bartelstein said. "The luxury-tax concept is anti-competitive. We've created a system where in the midst of trying to sell tickets in the summer, we have teams admitting to their fans, 'We're not trying to win this year. …We're waiting for 2010 or some year beyond.'
"We need to start from scratch and develop a system in which everything is designed about creating the most competitive environment possible so that we drive revenue."
It is improbable the owners will go that way, but Hunter has a restless membership desperate to make a stand with Stern going for the jugular. "It isn't just a matter of the union losing," one Eastern Conference GM said. "It's a matter of how badly they lose."
Who stands to lose the most? That's the compelling subplot. Where do the players give and where do they stand ground? The players most responsible for selling tickets, television ratings and merchandise – the Kobe Bryants, LeBron Jameses and Dwyane Wades – could be the ones taking the biggest hit. The nine-man executive committee of players has just one star: Chris Paul(notes). The days of the insufferable David Falk trying to control the union are long gone, his bellows of "Michael Jordan is the league," a distant echo in union meetings.
The idea of raising superstar salaries and paying the middle- and lower-class players less won't wash in a one-man, one-vote union. "If they cut the highest 25 or 30 salaries by, say, 35 percent, you're not going to have to change that much more for [the owners] to get what they want financially," another player agent said. "LeBron can scream and shout all he wants, but this is a one-man, one-vote union. Once guys figure out that 400 or so players will benefit by the top few taking a major cut, what do you think they're going to do?"
Here's an issue some believe the union could make a bargaining chip: contraction. Hunter has never been open to losing jobs with the elimination of the most financially strapped teams, but some believe he might be more accepting of the idea with the massive losses some owners insist they're incurring in fledgling markets. Let the rest of the owners buy out, say, two teams, and then share the larger piece of TV and merchandising money.
Of course, that talk will go nowhere with Stern, whom one owner insisted would "never let [contraction] happen on his watch." As another GM said, "Stern won't let the WNBA go under, even though most of his owners are tired of taking losses on it. You think he's going to let that happen with his NBA teams?"
This is a desperate time in the NBA, and there will be desperation in these talks. They'll go into these negotiations with 30 teams and they'll come out with 30, but the landscape of the NBA could be dramatically different. The way trades are done and free agents are signed and teams are likely to be transformed, and it could take a long lockout – maybe much, if not all, of the 2011-12 season – to get there.
Yes, the NBA delivered its players an initial proposal and it sure did look like a big finger flicked in the union's face.