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Lines being drawn for another NBA lockout

Players aren't buying league's claim of huge financial losses
by:  DAVID STERN

As the calendar moves closer to the June 30 expiration of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, one thing is growing more clear.

'There will definitely be a lockout,' says agent Steve Kauffman, who for years represented players but now has coaches as his clients. 'The question is whether there will be (regular-season) games missed.'

'A lockout is going to happen,' says Frank Brickowski, one of six regional representatives for the NBA Players Association. 'After that, you draw a series of lines.

'You draw a line at training camp. You draw a line at the start of the preseason. You draw a line at the start of the regular season. And at some point, the final line is, do we lose the season?'

Everything is a possibility at this point.

'I don't have the answer to what will happen,' says Kauffman, who works for such names as Doc Rivers, Donnie Walsh, John Hammond, Rod Higgins, Ty Corbin, Paul Westphal and Monty Williams. 'I don't know anyone who knows the answer. We just want it to be resolved.'

'I always say this,' adds Brickowski, a Lake Oswego resident who has served as West Coast rep for the players union for the past seven years. 'I fervently hope that saner minds prevail.'

The lines of sanity among the 30 owners - many of them billionaires - and the 400-plus players - who average $5 million annually in salary - are blurred.

With the NBA's popularity strong in most of the major markets (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston) and the league's television ratings for the playoffs up nearly one-third from a year ago, it seems a strange time for billionaires to quibble with millionaires over money.

'Things are rolling,' says Brickowski, 51, who played 13 seasons with six teams during his NBA career. 'No one wants to kill the golden goose. I mean, are they nuts?'

Brickowski, who works for the players, means the owners.

The same could be said for the players, who may find themselves out of work instead of playing basketball in November.

The sides have been negotiating for a new bargaining agreement since February 2010. Commissioner David Stern has met several times in recent weeks with Billy Hunter, the union's executive director. The league's labor relations committee - Trail Blazer President Larry Miller is the only non-owner among its 10 members - also has met several times since negotiations began.

Miller declined comment on the agreement, citing an NBA prohibition against league reps discussing the issue.

The specifics of the key bargaining points are complicated.

'It all gets to be a bit confusing,' says Brickowski, a player rep for 11 years who sat across the table from Stern during two contract negotiations.

What isn't confusing is the overriding issue - money, as always.

Stern contends the NBA owners are hemorrhaging money. According to the commissioner's figures, the owners lost a collective $370 million two years ago and $340 million last season, with projections of a $300 million loss this season. Stern says 22 of the league's 30 teams will show a loss in 2010-11.

As proof, Stern says he 'opened the books' to Hunter and the union.

'Look, most of (the owners) are billionaires,' Brickowski counters. 'If they're not pros at working their books, who is? They have the best damn accountants and attorneys with the expertise to make those books look the way they want. They're showing us the books they want us to see.'

According to the SportsBusiness Journal, the league's initial offer called for a $45 million hard salary cap - a near 25 percent decrease from the current $58 million cap, which additionally has a number of loopholes.

That would take the players' cut of basketball-related income - currently at 57 percent - to under 50 percent.

During a Feb. 25 exclusive interview with the Portland Tribune, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver outlined why the league deems the cuts necessary.

'No business is sustainable over time that pays out more than it takes in,' Silver said. 'Our expenses are up across the board. … The costs of marketing and selling are so much greater … having said that, under any new deal, our players will continue to be the highest-paid athletes in the world, hands down.'

If the situation is so dire, Brickowski wonders, how is it that in the last year, the Washington Wizards sold for $550 million, the Golden State Warriors for $450 million?

'A billion dollars for two of the least successful franchises in our league,' Brickowski says. 'These owners are smart businessmen. If things are so bad, why pay so much?'

The NBA's proposal includes a move toward non-guaranteed contracts and shorter maximum lengths, cutting from six years to four on 'Bird' exception players and from five years to three on non-Bird players. Owners also want a dramatic reduction on maximum annual increases.

According to published reports, the owners have offered to create a 'franchise' tag, which would be different from the NFL's version. A team would be allowed to designate one player for preferential contractual treatment - more overall money, more guaranteed money and at least one extra year on the contract.

It's designed as an incentive to get a player to remain with his team. What's different than the NFL rule is that a player would have to agree to such a designation.

Another wrinkle of the NBA's proposal is a one-time 'amnesty' clause, which would give each team the ability to shed one contract from its books.

Amnesty was included in the last bargaining agreement in 2005. Under the provisions at that time, the player would still be paid his full salary, but it wouldn't go against the team's luxury-tax obligations. The Blazers were the first team to take advantage, waiving guard Derek Anderson, who was paid nearly $19 million for his final two seasons under contract.

If amnesty were in the new agreement, part of it would be attractive to Portland again, this time in the case of Brandon Roy. The veteran guard stands to make $68.3 million over the next four years - though the final $19.2 million for the 2014-15 season is at the team's option.

The league also wants to eliminate sign-and-trades, because a free agent can sign with his former team, then wind up with another team and a longer contract.

The players would seem to have little leverage as negotiations ensue. The average career length of a player is less than five years. One missed season represents a huge portion of most players' careers.

The NBA's television deal with ABC/ESPN and TNT, which runs through the 2015-16 season, calls for the league to be paid even if games aren't played. If there is a lockout that impacts the number of games played, the TV partners would get rebates for missed games.

Were the 2011-12 season to be lost, owners of some financially strapped teams could be better off financially while saving costs on player salaries, travel expenses and in-game expenses.

'The owners always win in a situation like this,' analyst Larry Coon told Slam Online. 'They're independently wealthy, so they have the wherewithal to keep going without basketball.'

Brickowski says he believes the players are committed to staying united through negotiations.

'The league messed up (during a negotiating session) at the All-Star Game last year,' Brickowski says. 'They said they were going to go after (reducing) everybody's existing contract. That unified our players better than anything else could have.

'Now the guys who have four or five years left in their deal are thinking, 'They can't touch me. We're not going to let this happen.' '

That remains to be seen. Also unclear is the impact of Monday's shocking news of the death of Gary Hall, the Players Association's lead attorney. Hall, 67, is said to have died of natural causes.

'This could be a big story,' Kauffman says. 'Gary was a really key guy (for the union). Such a thing could take a toll.'

If there is a lesson to be learned by the NFL's lockout and continued negotiations on its own labor agreement, it seems lost on Stern, who said recently that NFL franchises 'make money. We lose money.'

Following the last NBA lockout, in 1998, the regular season was shortened to 50 games. Something similar seems a distinct possibility this time, too.

Brickowski hopes the union will hold forth. He points to the cover of Sports Illustrated after the last successful negotiations in 2005.

'There was a photo of David Stern with the headline, 'Stern Comes Away Victorious, Beats the Players Again,' ' Brickowski says. 'The deal was so great, they won by so much last time - why is the deal not good enough now?'

A quick resolution seems unlikely.

'Billy is a good adversary for David,' Brickowski says. 'He's a fighter; he's not going to be bullied.'

'I have great admiration for both David and Billy,' Kauffman says. 'Union battles such as these are really intense. I was heavily involved in them in the past; I'm happy not to be now.'