Hard-line owners sniffing victory

Most casual observers believe, I suspect, that NBA owners have their fingers crossed Tuesday, hoping that players will take the league's offer that is set to expire Wednesday evening.

The players' union has called this an excessively harsh deal and not one worth serious consideration. It is far better for owners than the last collective bargaining agreement, to be sure.

But it's not nearly enough for hard-liners like Paul Allen, Dan Gilbert, Michael Jordan and the like. Several sources confirm what Chris Broussard wrote Tuesday night, which is that many owners are praying the players will reject Stern's deal, which they see as excessively generous:

"There are at least 15 owners who are praying that the players say no,'' one source said, "because then they'll get the deal they want.''

The hard-line owners have long thought Stern's various 50-50 offers have been too generous. The longer the lockout drags on, the more paychecks players miss, the clearer it is who has the better leverage, and the tougher the deal the owners can force on the players.

It may sound like rhetoric from the league -- those hard-liners are as strident as ever! They're out of control! -- but many sources insist there's a big group of owners who would be happy to lose the season if that's what it takes to get the deal they want.

There are differing opinions on this, but one expert suggests that, thanks in no small part to various tax effects, for every dollar owners lose in a lockout, the players lose six.

In negotiations, the party that cares the least and is the most willing to walk away always has the upper hand. Fans ought to boo them lustily for it when they can, but the fact is that many owners value the game of basketball far less than players and fans do. Some owners just don't care all that much whether or not basketball is played.

Recognizing this imbalance in interests, some agents have famously ramped up scary talk of decertification. And there is the chance that could rearrange things in a way to bother the owners. In theory, after an estimated one to three years of litigation (during which time players may well have little or no income), players have a puncher's chance at winning a massive judgment. There is little precedent for this kind of case, and entering unknown territory is a bit dicey for all parties. Perhaps owners would make a concession or two to avoid that uncertainty.

But while there's a small chance it would be bad for the owners, there's also a chance decertification could be amazing for those hard-line owners and an absolute disaster for players. That's because if the players decertify, pursue it in the courts, and lose ... well then they will have lost a ton of income, more than $2 billion a year, that they'll never get back. And they'll also have surrendered their only desperate attempt at gaining significant leverage.

After all that, the hard-line owners would get to roll out their meanest offers, then just wait for the players to agree.