David Stern and the contraction card

Part of the fun of hearing David Stern say outrageous things -- and commissioners do say the darndest things, don't they? -- lies in sitting back and counting the pointed heads of the legions of folks who take him seriously. Doesn't anybody get a good party joke anymore?

Stern, the NBA's commissioner without end, got off a whopper the other day. Forget subtlety and the art of well-guarded concern; Stern instead kicked off the latest round of Tha-League's-On-Fire-and-We-Ain't-Got-a-Hose labor negotiations by playing the shrinkage card.

"The issue of contraction," Stern said in a conference call with reporters, "is one that has to be discussed in the context of collective bargaining with the players. Whether or if there are markets where there may not be buyers for teams that are looking to be sold, that raises the issue of contraction."

Stern went on to say that it's a sensitive subject for him, seeing as he has spent the better part of three decades trying either to maintain or add to the NBA's gargantuan booty. For that matter, Stern said of the entire notion of shrinking the league, "We're not spending a lot of time on it." And on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" show on Monday, the commissioner reiterated that he had been responding to a question about contraction, not raising the subject himself. (Listen to the full interview here.)

For the most part, no one processed those clarifying remarks; they were too busy making lists of which teams would get whacked first. (Minnesota? Memphis? Milwaukee? Charlotte?) Even Billy Hunter, head of the players' union, rose to the bait. I'd be tempted to say that people in power sometimes don't get to enjoy the luxury of talking out of school, but in this case there is no question that Stern knows exactly what he's doing.

Grouped with his previous comments about shaving $750 million in player payroll, and with the league's sudden burst of conviction that muttering under one's breath after drawing a foul call is deserving of a technical, the power play from the commissioner's office is as obvious as it is ham-handed.

(Alternate reading: Stern just created a situation that allows Hunter a way through the negotiations. Hunter can stare down the alleged contraction talk, then make significant salary concessions while claiming he saved jobs by standing up for struggling franchises. Smart man, David Stern.)

No matter the motivation, though, it isn't all bad. As the NBA season begins Tuesday night in Boston, in fact, Stern's throwdown serves as one example of an ongoing law in negotiation: Just because a threat is empty doesn't mean it cannot be useful.

At the level of reality, contraction in the NBA is a nonstarter. Franchise relocation makes sense as a consideration in a couple of markets, certainly, and I think we all can agree that, say, George Shinn ought not to be allowed into the Club ever again. But eliminating teams from the landscape altogether means paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in make-good money to the owners of those franchises. End of conversation.

Still, the idea of identifying the league's weak links is a fair diagnostic tool. The idea isn't to discuss which teams stink (though that's always amusing), but rather to understand the forces at work that create the weaknesses in the first place.

Some of those forces are institutional. Markets such as Memphis and Charlotte, with smaller TV draws and less corporate-nitwit money flowing through their coffers, are stuck in a system that doesn't work. Yet because the NBA's salary structure also mandates a minimum that must be spent, those smaller markets are sometimes forced to spend beyond their means when the cap rises.

Stern's salvo at the players' salaries shines a light on a larger truth: The NBA's payroll system is a junked-up mess, with Bird rights (they allow a team to exceed salary limits to re-sign its own player) and midlevel exceptions choking the savings out of whatever "cap" is said to exist in any given year. It's a Swiss cheese model. The owners might ultimately force a roll-back in the percentage of revenue the players claim as salary; but until they tighten some of those loopholes, it won't stop the bleeding.

For that matter, it's still remarkable that the NBA hasn't figured out how to share local TV revenue. Major League Baseball's capless salary structure sometimes appears to be screwed up beyond repair, but baseball's owners did come to their senses in that regard on revenue sharing. As Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker wrote, "If the late George Steinbrenner could live with subsidizing the Royals, Jerry Buss can lend a hand to Sacramento."

Stern has spoken in support of enhanced revenue sharing, and that's a start. A more radical resolution would be a hard cap. And, of course, the commissioner can always lead the charge for the players to take less of the pie overall, which Stern's current saber-rattling suggests.

The irony there lies in the realization that the NBA owners are, once again, asking for nothing less than increased protection from themselves. In general, players tend to record lower average salaries at about the same time that owners stop signing mediocre talent to massive midlevel deals that bury their bank accounts beneath rolls of under-performing fat.

Will Stern's contraction chatter work? It's always possible. In one of the last major negotiations, more than a decade ago, the NBA owners locked out the players and eventually put on an abbreviated 50-game season, and most of the movement there occurred only after the commissioner started dropping the phrase "replacement players" into some of his news conference answers.

This time around, it is league shrinkage that is the buzz-phrase of choice -- although even Stern has a hard time taking it seriously, and he's the one who uttered it. Upon hearing that Hunter was saying he would prepare his troops for a lockout, Stern replied, "It's classic negotiating rhetoric, probably on both sides."

It's classic something, all right. But that doesn't mean there is no conversational value floating around in that hot air. What Stern has to figure out now is how his league's system could have become so fouled that contraction actually strikes some people -- himself not necessarily included -- as a reasonable response to years of unreasonable contracts.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work "Six Good Innings" was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.