Reaction: 'We just took eight steps back'

LAS VEGAS -- To this point the NBA labor negotiations can be summed up like this:

Owners: Give us our money back.
Players: You can't have it.

There's no incremental progress to be made on the fundamental difference of the hard salary cap. Either it's in the next collective bargaining agreement or it isn't. And there's also no point in continuing these negotiations until the owners work out a revenue-sharing plan among themselves.

The NBA is asking the players to solve the league's financial issues, even though reduced salaries wouldn't address the economic disparity between local television contracts in Los Angeles and Charlotte or change the fact that it's a lot warmer in Miami than Cleveland. In other words, a hard cap on its own wouldn't assure financial and competitive balance throughout the realm.

The NBA's salary cap -- the first in American professional sports -- was instituted in the 1984-85 season. Since then only nine teams have won a championship. The NFL and NHL have crowned 14 different champions each in that span. Baseball has had 17 different teams win a championship. The NBA has been the least successful at legislating balance. So it's trying to do the next best thing and attempting to legislate profit.

"If it's about small-market teams not profiting, if the owners are really using that as a bargaining tool, if you're really concerned about it, then why aren't you profit-sharing like the other leagues are doing?" Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal asked after a workout at the Impact Basketball facility in Las Vegas Tuesday, after word had spread about the latest impasse in the labor talks.

O'Neal If it's about
small-market teams not profiting, if the owners are really using that as a bargaining tool, if you're really concerned about it, then why aren't you profit-sharing like the other leagues are doing?

-- Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal

"So do we accept a deal that totally butchers our game? Because what they don't understand, if you take out mid-tier deals and say, 'Fend for bare minimum at the bottom,' they'll be individualizing our game so severely."

That's something I hadn't thought about. Take away guarantees, turn most rosters into extremes of max guys and minimum guys, and you've got a squad full of guys trying to get their numbers to get paid. I saw that dynamic in play with the Clippers before, when Donald Sterling didn't extend the contracts of any of his free-agents-to-be and it was every man for himself.

Baseball and football teams benefit from players in contract years. They get more home runs, more tackles, more wins. In basketball, selfish goals destroy teams.

Guaranteed, salary cap-eating contracts from players who are injured or underperforming can wreck teams as well, of course. But O'Neal served up a reminder that some apparent solutions create another set of problems.

A flawed system would be better than no system, which is what we have now. There still isn't enough pressure to force a deal anytime soon, not with enough owners willing to lose real games.

The latest breakdown also turned up the talk of decertification, because if union leader Billy Hunter isn't making progress there is a group of agents who would rather take their chances in the courtroom.

That wouldn't assure any quicker resolution, especially because the NBA has taken enough steps to make a case for good-faith negotiations.

"Our intention as a union is to work out something with the owners," O'Neal said. "If we decertify we don't know where that goes. It becomes a legal issue after that."

The mood among the players gathered for games here in Las Vegas was noticeably dimmer than the previous day. On Monday night I asked if the latest set of owner-union meetings actually represented progress, and as a demonstration I took one step closer to a wall some 40 yards away.

"That's progress," Charlotte Bobcats forward Corey Maggette said, taking the most literal definition he could.

Maggette I don't care how much money that the NBA players have, you cannot beat billionaires.

-- Bobcats forward Corey Maggette

On Tuesday, Maggette wasn't feeling the same way.

"We just took eight steps back," he said.

"Someone needs to compromise," Maggette said. "The owners have to compromise.

"We need to have revenue sharing with the teams that are not making money. That's important. I play[ed] for one of the teams that's one of the worst [in revenues], Milwaukee. We've got to have [sharing] with guys like the Lakers and the big-name teams that's making tons and tons of money. Donald Sterling's another guy that makes money even if he loses. We need to figure out a way to get that going."

The players say they've done a better job of financially preparing themselves for this lockout than they did in 1998. Playing overseas is a more viable option than it was then also. At this point the rank-and-file players might be more unified than the owners, who aren't in accord about whether to scrap the season or how to split the revenues once they resume.

But Maggette knows the cold truth.

"I don't care how much money that the NBA players have, you cannot beat billionaires," he said.

That's why I believe the owners will enforce the lockout through the scheduled start of the season, and that when it ends it will be on the owners' terms. In the meantime, I'll pass along the advice that was given to me from a league source Tuesday: "Rhetoric will get louder, so bring your common-sense filter daily and don't get too deep into public comments."