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Mutually Assured Destruction: How David Stern May Have Lost Control of the Lockout

We're going to take a break from Off-Topic Theater to talk about the NBA lockout for a second.  The impact of an agent coalition threatening that the NBAPA will decertify in defiance of union leadership cannot be overstated when considering the NBA's unfair labor practices gambit.  This, of course, is resulting from the NBA's resolve to let the lockout carry into the regular season and allow the pressure of player bank accounts bottoming out to do its work on the player association's collective will.  The agents, seeing no evidence of a union strategy and correctly interpreting this as a total lack of immediate leverage, opted to try and force the NBA's hand.

The upshot of this situation is that the agents' rumored coup has severely undercut Billy Hunter's credibility in future negotiations should the union decertify.  What suggests this?  Especially in light of the role DeMaurice Smith played in the resolution of the NFL lockout?

"Right now, it’s a respectful disagreement with [the agents] and Billy," an agent briefed on the meeting told Yahoo! Sports. "But it’s getting to a ‘[expletive]-you’ point. We will blow this thing up."

via Adrian Wojnarowski

That's July 23rd.  Now, imagine you're David Stern. 

Up until now, you're fairly confident in your plan.  Your natives are happy.  Lockout profit projections in the short term are looking good and that should lead to a favorable CBA translating to excellent finances down the road.  A scenario where union leadership-approved decertification seems comfortably far off, as that would only be an impediment to getting the paychecks flowing again.  In short, your tactical superiority is ensuring your strategic aim will be achieved.  Except you forgot that the union isn't as monolithic as it appears.

The sad irony is that without a union, the courts and antitrust laws will level the playing field so that the risk is not borne solely by the players. Given the considerable risk of going to trial, the league commissioners will probably get what they want: a settlement negotiated by lawyers.

via New York Times

This missive written for the Times by player-agent Arn Tellem is likely illustrative of David Stern's pre-July 23rd mindset: decertification as comfortably far off.  That earlier quote from Woj's source needs to be repeated:

We will blow this thing up.

So Stern had been more-or-less dictating the pace of the negotiations to a consolidated opposition not inclined to drastic action.  In dance terms, one might liken the difference to a stately waltz where the NBA leads, to a metal mosh pit, utter chaos.  If you think the NFL lockout took its time resolving, wait until you have scores of agents who have to be appeased one by one like a loose coalition of tribal leaders.  Like every megalomaniac knows, better to conquer the world while it's in one piece.

On August 2nd, Stern reacted by fighting chaos with chaos:

In perhaps the most interesting -- and threatening, in its own way -- note in the lawsuit, the NBA asks the court to declare that should the NLRB fail to agree that the union's decertification (should it eventually happen) is a sham, the NBA has the legal right to void all existing player contracts.

via Tom Ziller

As Ziller later asserted, that is truly nuts.  Existing contracts provide structure to the free agent market.  Should every player suddenly hit the market (assuming that's how it would even happen), it would be total anarchy.  Think competitive balance is an issue now?  Literally anything could happen and there would be absolutely no way to control it.  No matter whether you applaud or abhor the notion, just remember one of David Stern's jobs is to regulate, and in essence has placed a gun against his own head while demanding everyone freeze.  I can't wait to see how this turns out.

It's easy for Stern to play the victim if he so chooses, stating it's necessary to have countermeasures should a pack of powerhungry agents seize control of the players' side and decertify.  But it is the agents themselves who have availed themselves of reciprocity?  Did Stern really think he would permanently hold the upper hand?  He states the owners' lockout stance is to ensure long term profitability and it's possible he didn't realize the agents had a Plan B if negotiations stalled.

To sum up:

  • The NBA intimated they can wait out the season, and in comfort, to achieve their strategic aims.
  • The agents threatened to change the landscape, turning Billy Hunter from passive central figure into a figure head, and possibly pursuing a permanent dissolution of the union likely requiring an extreme retooling of the NBA to avoid antitrust lawsuits.  The legacy ship is sailing, Mr. Stern.
  • A no-lose situation for David Stern and Co. has evolved into a massive threat they never saw coming.  They hit the panic button; attempting to stop decertification by any means necessary, which includes amazingly desperate.  Is there any surer indication Tellem's threat has teeth?

And should Stern's doomsday scenario come to pass, veterans making too much money will surely lose out ... but I'd be willing to bet that spells a major money crunch for owners down the road.  Wouldn't rookies currently performing in excess of their deals suddenly be unrestricted free agents?  If every player immediately had to be paid what they were worth, the total cap number might be neutral, it might not (in my opinion it would go up ... more players are underpaid than overpaid, I think).  But you have rookies earning far more than they might and for longer as unrestricted free agents.  And how about a Miami salary cap situation which every team that managed to retain or acquire several stars would face because everyone is signing at the same time?  Which means that unless the NBA scores a significant victory with the new CBA (vanishingly small if the doomsday scenario comes to pass), owners will be hurting worse than ever.

I'm going to misquote Tom Clancy:

You've got to be ready to fight the enemy you don't want to face with the forces you don't want to use on the ground you don't want to fight on.  Only then do you have a credible deterrent.

Stern backed the union into a corner and failed to effectively consider their major courses of action.  There's little more dangerous than a trapped animal.  With how much David Stern appears to love his media games of cat and mouse, you'd assume he'd be a little more prepared for the mouse.  Suddenly the playing field has leveled.  The agents are talking to their players, make no bones about it.  With decertification looming, the players are thus signaling they're ready to fight for the long term as well.  David Stern has called their bluff with his doomsday scenario, but at best, it's mutually assured destruction.