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For NBA players, the clock is ticking

So Billy Hunter spent last week arguing the case against the NBA to the National Labor Relations Board, his position that the league's owners aren't bargaining in good faith and that a federal-court injunction should be imposed to end the lockout.

And the NBA in turn has filed its own charge against the NBA Players Association, alleging the union has failed to bargain in good faith.

And Commissioner David Stern, a master of such situations, is saying he expects a deal will get done, but that if negotiations aren't cooking by Labor Day, 'we may be headed to a bad place.'

Hey Commish: We're already headed there.

I cringed earlier this month when Hunter, in an interview, said if he 'had to bet on it,' he would wager that the entire 2011-12 season will be lost.

Thanks, Billy.

Guess he figures he is putting pressure on the owners with the comment and the threat that the players will decertify the union.

I don't think so. Many of the owners seem resolved to cancel the season and lose less money, unless the players will recede considerably from the offer that is on the table.

This is all a shame, since the NBA enjoyed one of its best seasons ever in 2010-11 in terms of popularity and fan involvement.

Hunter said last week that the league and the union are $800 million apart per year. I'm not privy to the financial numbers, but I'm not going to take his word for it - nor the word of Stern, whose numbers could be every bit as tilted as Hunter's.

I do know this. The average salary for an NBA player last year was $5.15 million. That's obscene - even considering that an average career in less than four years. And that the majority of players are in the $1 million to $4 million range.

And while it's hard to have much sympathy for owners, they hold all the cards in this standoff.

The players can't win.

Hunter has been the executive director of the Players Association since 1996. He has been through one lockout before, in 1998-99, when the season was shortened to 50 regular-season games.

Over the past two months, I've spoken with several former players who have a good sense of what Hunter is all about as the head of the players union.

They say he is charismatic and knowledgeable. One called him enough of a 'wild card' that he comes off as a bit scary to the league, a good thing for the players.

I wonder, though, if Hunter is acting in the best interest of the majority of players, who can't afford to lose a full season - a major percentage of the average career.

'He has his own agenda,' one former player tells me. 'He's about Billy. He doesn't have the overall well-being of all the players in mind.'

Yeah, the owners are to blame for all of this in one way. Nobody held a gun to their heads when they signed players to escalating salaries. Now the owners want to be protected from themselves by putting a deal in place that will severely limit the earning power of the players.

The alternative, of course, is to forego the upcoming season. We're headed toward what happened when the NHL cancelled its entire 2004-05 campaign. Imposition of a hard salary cap and players receiving 54 percent of league-wide revenues, along with a 24-percent rollback of current player contracts, were the major factor in a new deal.

The owners won, but the players and fans did, too, because hockey returned.

This summer, the NFL and its players found enough middle ground to forge a new 10-year contract that means we won't have a work stoppage for at least a decade. That's what it's all about.

Hunter and the NBA players don't seem to have learned anything from that. Too bad, because I'm not sure they'll get a much better deal in October or November or December than they would get now.

You can talk about medical insurance and pensions and eliminating the mid-level exception and all those side issues, but the key issues are the players' portion of basketball-related income and the length of guaranteed contracts.

When negotiations shake down, players will receive much less the 58 percent take of BRI in the past deal. The league offer is 50 percent; that will come up slightly, but not a lot. The maximum length of contract, currently at five or six years, will fall to three or four. That's not unreasonable.

The average player salary will fall - with the league's current offer, it would be by 14 percent - and the middle class will suffer most. The stars will still make their eight-figure salaries, but the Al Jeffersons and John Salmons and Joel Przybillas and Emeka Okafors and Marvin Williams of the NBA will no longer be paid like royalty. Again, that's not unreasonable.

Stern says the owners have agreed to a revenue-sharing plan, which will increase the stability of the smaller-market franchises such as Utah, Milwaukee, Minnesota and, yes, Portland.

'There is going to be revenue sharing,' Stern said last week. 'I must tell you that the owners ... are on board.'

The NFL came to its deal by agreeing on the two or three key components and then working out the details on everything else later. That's what the NBA should do now.

I don't see it happening any time soon.

Maybe Hunter wins his complaint with the NLRB. Maybe the players will be allowed to decertify. I don't see that as the best possible outcome for anyone.

Get back to the bargaining table, Billy. Make concessions now that you'll have to make months from now. Set the wheels in motion for an agreement that can get the NBA train back on track so we can start the next season in November, not in January or - God forbid - in November 2012.

Otherwise, the losses will begin mounting. The owners have all the leverage. It may not seem like it through the dog days of August, but for the players, the clock is ticking.