Where to now?
Things have been relatively quiet in lockout land since the players sent a loud-and-clear message to owners by rejecting their latest offer and filing two antitrust lawsuits. A little too quiet. (There even wasn't much to say in a Thursday conference call among owners, according to a source.)
So we've brought in the experts to answer some of the major questions still swirling on what to expect from here on out.
1. What's the biggest obstacle keeping a deal from getting done?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Hard-line owners. The assumption is that everyone involved is trying their hardest to concoct a fair deal. But it's debatable if hard-line owners want a deal at all at the moment, let alone a fair one.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: The players, tired of making concession after concession after concession, are finally saying enough. The owners claim to be losing $300 million a year and the players have agreed to give that much back by going from 57 percent of BRI to 50 percent. On top of that, the system concessions the players have made should help the owners make more money.
Yet several of the owners want even more. The group of owners that was disgruntled with the 50/50 offer is growing and powerful, and when the players rejected the deal, those owners were only emboldened. What's worse is that whenever negotiations do resume, the players will not be looking to begin discussions at 50/50. Believing their antitrust lawsuit gives them a bit of leverage, they'll be looking to start anew and get a much better deal than the last one they nearly accepted.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Time. With all that's happened recently -- the breakdown of negotiations, the disclaimer of interest, two lawsuits, and the retaining of David Boies, just to name a few -- they still haven't reached the point where backs are against walls. These are still the thrusts and volleys of a mid-war skirmish. The two sides will retreat, regroup, roar at each other some more, and maybe clash a time or two in the courtroom, before they eventually have a peace accord. They aren't there yet, and at this point there's probably nothing that will expedite the process.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Pride. The owners feel that the players think they own the league and want them in their place. The players feel disrespected by the owners and want to prove that the owners don't own them. Both sides are so close on all of the real issues. What else could it be?
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Power. Billy Hunter and especially David Stern used to be able to tell their respective groups when it was deal time. Don't know that either has the influence or ability to cut a deal like he used to. There are multiple factions on the fractious players' side -- those still behind Hunter, those pushing decertification, foreign players like Luis Scola insisting on a vote to go back to work immediately, etc. -- but Stern likewise can't just impose his will on his 29 owners like he has forever. A done deal to end this nightmare starts with Hunter and Stern hammering something out one-to-one, but they've still got to go back and sell it to their constituents. Not so simple in 2011.
2. Fact or Fiction: Owners not discussing strategy Thursday is a bad sign.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fiction. Everyone needed a cooling off period. And more importantly, the NBA is an organization of lawyers facing some big legal decisions. Almost everything they tell the committee leaks to the media. So I take that merely as a sign that they're in lockdown mode. (Did you notice that even that mouthy Twitter account @NBA_Labor has been silenced?)
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fact. Time is running out. The sides have roughly 6-7 weeks to make a deal in order to play a 50-game season. That the owners didn't discuss strategy is, I believe, a sign that many of them are willing to sit this thing out for a while -- like until the spring or summer, which of course is not good news for this season.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fiction, as is any notion that the owners and David Stern were going to say "oops, our bad" and make amends. This process is going to take a while, and they're not in any rush. There's still plenty of time to strategize.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fact ... if by bad sign you mean they are thinking about going through with the litigation. The players hoped their move would force the owners back to the bargaining table. So far, no go.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. Every day now that passes without a resolution -- whatever the news or non-news of the day -- is a bad, ominous, depressing sign. The last time the NBA was in this situation, there was a deal on Jan. 6, 1999, for a 50-game season that started on Feb. 6. Jan. 6 is less than 50 days away, people.
3. Fact or Fiction: There'll be sit-downs or conciliatory talk before Dec. 1.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fact, by a whisker. I suspect there will be some level of private reaching out within the next week. Sometime around Nov. 25 is the deadline to save Christmas games. But conciliatory talk ... that'll come later. The rhetoric is going to get worse before it gets better.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fiction. I hope I'm wrong, and a part of me believes I'm wrong, but I think the owners will let the players lose a few checks and then get back to them, feeling that players will be good and ready to crack after about three missed paydays.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fact. David Boies all but handed out his cell phone number in his press conference. He knows this is going to get solved through negotiation and not litigation, and sooner or later the two sides are going to reach out to each other to see where they stand and what it would take to get a deal done. Someone at the league office will pick up the phone in the next couple of weeks and give Boies a call. This doesn't mean they'll have an agreement or will really even negotiate before Dec. 1, but they will talk.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Too early to tell. I'm not sure how the players will respond to Thursday's move, but my guess is the status quo. It's clear the players want to settle. They always have. The problem in this case lies with the owners. Believe it or not, some really do want to lose the season.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. Next week is a short week because of Thanksgiving, so next week is basically out. But if Hunter and Stern don't get on the phone before November runs out, or if Stern and Boies don't hook up to at least start getting to know each other, none of them deserve to be spared from fan revolt.
4. Fact or Fiction: Most owners would rather tank '11-12 than concede.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fiction. There are all kinds of owners who would prefer 47 percent of BRI and a flex cap. Probably 29 of those! But the cost of the lost season is too steep for a thin majority, according to my sources. The question, though, is what kind of deal we're talking about. Nobody assumes the league is still offering 50 right now and nobody assumes the players would still take it even if it was.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fact. Even among the moderate owners, there is a willingness to lose the season rather than take a deal they don't like. Notice I said "willingness," not "desire." None of the owners want to lose the season, but they will give it up in order to get the deal they want. They figure they'll make up the money they lose from a lost season over the next 10 years as long as they get the CBA deal they want.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fiction. The revenues are dropping as games are missed, but they plunge off a cliff if the season is canceled. The league could lose up to $1.5 billion if there is no season. The owners are competitive, arrogant, stubborn and prideful -- but they're not stupid.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fiction. There are a handful of owners who would prefer to tank the season. The majority want to play. However, if you're asking whether the majority will tank the season if nothing changes, then yes, it can and will happen.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. I've been led to believe that there are some smaller-market teams out there, like Phoenix and Sacramento just to name two, that want or even need to have some semblance of a season as much as they'd love to see a restrictive NHL-type system in place. Call me gullible, but I still believe more teams out there would rather play than not play.
5. Will the lockout end with a court decision or out-of-court movement?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Whether a judge has ruled or not, the next operating agreement of the league will be negotiated at a table featuring David Stern, Adam Silver, Peter Holt, Billy Hunter, David Boies and Jeffrey Kessler, and maybe some others. What the judge will do is decide whether the owners will owe the players billions in lost pay and damages. That said, I have talked to five lawyers in the past 24 hours, and none of them expects a judge to ever rule in this case -- it's too risky for both sides.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Out-of-court movement. I hate to say it, but I don't see the court moving fast enough to end this thing. I believe the sides will resume negotiations at some point in mid-to-late December. Hopefully, they'll get a deal then -- but I'm skeptical. If not, they'll negotiate in the spring or summer and play next season.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Through out-of-court negotiation, because neither side can afford the time and expense of litigation. Both sides need an agreement before the season is canceled, and the courts aren't going to provide much help before it's too late. There may be an early decision or two -- enough to let one side know that the writing is on the wall -- but not enough to end the dispute. The threat of litigation will prod them, but the imposing threat of a canceled season will prod them more.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Out-of-court movement. If we have to wait for a court decision, we may lose both the 2011-12 season and the 2012-13 season. No one's going to wait that long.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: What Henry, Chris, Larry and Chad said. Bingo! Let's hope someone important, on one or both sides, listens to them.
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Henry Abbott, Chris Broussard, Larry Coon, Chad Ford and Marc Stein cover the NBA for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.