Finally, the real fight

After 133 days of the lockout, we finally got a clear vision of what the union is fighting for ... even if it took NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver to articulate it.

"In order for us to have the competitive balance we want, it restricts player movement to a certain degree," Silver said, both summarizing the proposal that’s on the table and providing a huge window into the hidden stakes.

This is about control. Will players get to determine where they play at any stage in the prime of their careers, or will the system and the teams dictate the scenarios? Will agents be marginalized, left without the ability to play teams off each other or broker a deal? It’s at the core of many proposals that have bounced around during the negotiating sessions, including the amount teams in the luxury tax are able to spend on the midlevel exception and the ability of luxury tax teams to engage in sign-and-trade deals. The owners’ intentions are two-fold: to limit the ability of big-market teams to hoard talent, and to make it financially undesirable for players to go to cities that have every other advantage. It wouldn’t keep another team from duplicating the Miami Heat’s star collection -- remember, the Heat matched LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade by gutting the roster to get way under the salary cap -- but it would hinder a team from bringing in the necessary complementary players to win a championship. Or it could force a tail-end veteran into the difficult choice of one last payday or one last shot at a ring.

One of the reasons the union has been playing from behind since the first quarter of these negotiations is that the league has successfully framed the terms of the dispute in the public’s eye, and the union never made it clear what it was fighting for. Early on, David Stern latched on to the ideal of a 50/50 split of revenues, the simplest concept for the public to grasp. What’s more fair than 50/50? How could the union not take that and get the season under way?

All the union leadership countered with was vague talk about "system issues" and how they were unfair. They didn’t put it in relatable terms. They didn’t bother to ask the fans how they would feel if they were told where they had to work for their first four years out of school or if their employers, with no advance warning, could send them to another city. Fans like to counter that it doesn’t matter because the players make a lot of money, but the salaries are irrelevant -- doctors, lawyers and Wall Street traders can be highly compensated as well without the same restrictions. Besides, if fans want to make this about money, they can’t be mad if their favorite player leaves their team to sign a bigger contract elsewhere.

If the union played it smartly, it would say that now that the players have signaled their willingness to drop to 50 percent, the same question that was repeatedly asked of the players -- "Why isn’t 50/50 good enough for you?" -- must be asked of the owners. After all, by some estimates, simply reducing the players’ share of basketball related income from 57 percent to 50 percent would wipe out the $300 million in losses the owners said they suffered last year. That ought to be enough in itself.

The owners aren’t stopping there. Like the NCAA member institutions that approve ridiculously intricate rules because they don’t trust each other, the NBA’s have-nots are doing everything they can to keep talent from accumulating in select spots. They want, for instance, to avoid a repeat of Carmelo Anthony forcing his way to New York while being handed a lucrative contract on the way out of Denver. In the process, they’re putting their own interests ahead of the league as a whole. Player movement is better for the NBA. Fans feed off trade rumors, and they devour big free-agent signings. And it’s been demonstrated again and again that interest in the NBA is at its highest when competitive balance is at its lowest. Consider all that nostalgia for the 1980s, when the Lakers and Celtics won eight championships in nine years, or for the 1990s, when every year Michael Jordan was in training camp, the Bulls ended the season with a victory rally in Grant Park. The league’s broadcast partners are much happier when they get Lakers-Celtics instead of Spurs-Pistons ... and when the networks are happy, they write bigger checks for rights fees.

It’s possible to have it both ways, even under the old rules. The Heat were the best thing to happen to the NBA in 2010-11, making regular-season games matter for the first time since the Bulls embarked on their run at the record in 1995-96. At the same time, the Memphis Grizzlies won more playoff games than the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder went deeper into the postseason than the Boston Celtics. Big-market storylines and small-market opportunities can co-exist.

The union should be framing its disagreement with the owners in terms of individual freedom and fantasy league-like roster possibilities. Instead they've come off as simply bickering about money. They’re down to a $2 million difference between the midlevel exception the NBA wants to offer for teams in the luxury tax and what the players want to see. There were only seven luxury tax-paying teams last season, so if this had applied, we’d be talking about seven players and a total of $14 million per year. These are the details that are holding up a deal worth more than $4 billion annually?

If the players could spin it as the end of true free agency or a plot to keep teams from adding the player to put them over the top, it might sound more understandable. But if the best they can do is have Adam Silver spell it out for them, they’ll lose both the collective bargaining negotiations and the public relations contest.