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Jerry Buss takes the long view

The rhetoric coming from both sides of the NBA labor dispute has been dire and dangerous. An entire season could be canceled; the system is about to be toppled.

The league is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. The smaller-market, poorer teams just can't make it anymore.

It's enough to make you turn on ESPN Classic and start recording old games just in case we never get any new ones.

Then I noticed Lakers owner Jerry Buss walking into the building in New York on Tuesday and realized how overblown and transparent these scare tactics are.

Buss would never be a willing party to his own demise.

He would never completely tear down a system that has benefited his franchise so richly. Nor would he create a new one that would harm his franchise and benefit the other franchises his team has outplayed on the court and outsmarted off of it.

Everything we've heard about the owners' plans for a "supertax" on the richest, luxury-tax paying teams has obvious negative consequences for the Los Angeles Lakers and the other powerful, glamour teams in the league.

For the Lakers, the consequences of a tax would be severe. The team had the league's highest payroll last season and is committed to most of its key players through 2013.

If a new 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 supertax were implemented, the Lakers potentially would have to choose between paying a financially crippling luxury-tax bill or cutting loose one or more of their highest-paid players. Even if the new system were implemented over a number of years, the Lakers still would be in a disadvantaged position when it comes to upgrading their roster.

But before you start debating whether the team should release Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, ask yourself three questions: Why would Buss fly all the way to New York and sit in on hours of meetings unless his presence there could be of some consequence? Why would he take so much money out of his own pocket to help teams like Phoenix, Cleveland, Indiana or New Jersey? Why would he risk a run at his 17th title so Oklahoma City and Memphis have a better shot at winning their first?

Yes, in the long run, the Lakers know the NBA is a better league when there is more parity and fewer teams operating and playing on the cheap like the Sacramento Kings.

And yes, the Lakers wouldn't mind rolling back some of the bloated salaries on their payroll, or trimming off sunk-cost contracts like Steve Blake's, Ron Artest's or Luke Walton's. Frankly, being able to use an amnesty provision on one of those deals would be one of the best things to come out of a new CBA for the Lakers.

But there are plenty of ways to help those teams without unduly hurting the Lakers and other "rich teams" like the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks. Buss knows this. Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter who has been on the primary owners' bargaining committee throughout the process, knows this. NBA commissioner David Stern knows this. The players know this. So do all the small-market owners crying poor right now.

What's going on is actually pretty obvious: Jerry Buss is slow-playing this hand. He's got good cards, but if he raises now, everyone else folds.

For appearance's sake, Buss and the other rich owners have to argue vigorously for their small-market brethren the same way the max-salary superstars fight hard for their lower-paid teammates.

If the rich owners don't, the poorer, small-market teams won't feel as if their concerns were really heard. But in the end, no one in power gives up competitive advantage so altruistically.

"Since the players have called the hard cap a 'blood issue,' it's pretty likely that a supertax which scales up to 4-to-1 won't be a part of the final agreement," ESPN.com salary cap guru Larry Coon said.

"This is a good thing for the Lakers and other teams with a consistently high payroll."

In other words, chill out on all the dire consequences of what a supertax would mean to the Lakers. If a supertax is in the final version of the new CBA, it won't be as bad as the warnings indicate.

The biggest change for the Lakers probably will be the reality of a smaller margin for error on bad contracts like Artest's and Walton's. But that's neither such a bad thing, nor a big deal.

"I don't think there's any way the Lakers or any other team that's paid the luxury tax before would or could go for a [supertax]," said one agent who represents several NBA players, including one who plays for the Lakers. "They're just toeing the company line right now.

"It makes me think the owners haven't even come close to making their best offer yet."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.