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Small markets prove to be large obstacles

BILLY HUNTER Talks on “slippery slope’’ BILLY HUNTER Talks on “slippery slope’’ (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 23, 2011

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So for 30 hours over three days, the NBA aired its dirty laundry and exposed its true dysfunction to outside guests. Federal mediator George Cohen saw for himself last week how seriously fractured the relationship is between the league’s players and owners, and then on Thursday night, the sides resorted to finger pointing as a tactic to sway public perception.

Meanwhile, the fans become even more frustrated and disenchanted because they have been unfairly teased by these useless marathon negotiating sessions.

Something is becoming very clear through all of the rhetoric, however: The lockout is being fueled by small-market owners who feel powerless in a league of big cities, mammoth television contracts, and state-of-the-art arenas.

After Thursday’s talks produced nothing, Players Association executive director Billy Hunter pointed out that the larger-market owners have tended to stay away from the sessions, while owners such as Dan Gilbert of Cleveland, Peter Holt of San Antonio, and Paul Allen of Portland are the front men, making a deal nearly impossible with their hard-line stances.

According to Hunter, Holt told the players that a 50-50 split of basketball-related income - which would mean the players are giving back about $280 million more per season - was a “take it or leave it’’ deal.

“There was a change,’’ said Hunter, referring to the tone of Thursday’s negotiations. “We presented them with a proposal that would have addressed all of their losses.

“I think there are owners in the room that want the system that they’re demanding and there are not enough owners in the room with a contrary position who can carry the day, the likes of Jerry Buss [Lakers], Jim Dolan [Knicks], Mickey Arison [Heat], Mark Cuban [Mavericks]. Those are folks who wanted a deal and were open to all kinds of proposals and suggestions, anything that could move the ball.

“But I think there’s a group of owners, small markets in particular, that were dug in and they are carrying the day. I think there’s more of them than there are of the big markets.

“So the bigger-market guys and the guys anxious to cut a deal don’t have the votes, and that’s where the kicker comes. And unfortunately what we’re going to have to do is miss more games for it to really set in, and that’s what I kept trying to tell them. This thing is on a slippery slope.’’

At this point, the Players Association is feeling attacked, as if the owners are blaming it completely for their failed financial frameworks. But the solution may truly be among the owners themselves - a more robust revenue-sharing plan that will benefit smaller-market teams more than their larger brethren.

Increased revenue sharing is something the players have strongly suggested as part of the negotiations. The owners have responded by saying it is a personal issue, not related to the collective bargaining agreement.

But with the disparity in market earnings between, say, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, and Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Memphis, it may be necessary for the smaller-market teams to survive. Commissioner David Stern said revenue sharing will increase threefold in the first two years of a new CBA, but the owners want a much larger chunk of BRI as a backup.

Notre Dame economics professor Richard Sheehan said, “You have owners with tremendous disparate perspectives here, and that may be perhaps the most difficult thing to address in terms of the negotiation process.

“You have Mark Cuban on the one side who obviously enjoys the game, enjoys being an owner, and is not necessarily about making money. And then you have someone like Donald Sterling [of the Clippers] on the other side that presumably is in it for the money.

“It just makes it very difficult for the owners to come up with a strategy other than to pay the players less.

“I suspect that New York and LA and perhaps the Celtics as well are probably saying, ‘Let’s settle this and give them 53 percent and let’s move on with the season.’ ’’

Sheehan believes the owners got the better of the players during the last lockout, waiting until January, when many star players were at risk of losing a valuable year of their careers, so they relented and signed a deal that capped the amount of a maximum contract.

But what the max contract did was vastly increase the NBA middle class, and that swell of $5 million and $6 million contracts for complementary players has encouraged the owners to seek a total rebuilding of the system. And the smaller-market owners are leading that crusade.

“The owners are saying, ‘OK, we want to restructure the contracts in such a way that’s going to hurt a majority of the players, and we want the players to sign on,’ ’’ Sheehan said. “Tell me, under what scenario does that make any sense whatsoever?

“That’s the big issue, and I don’t see an easy solution that gets the players’ approval.

“The players don’t think the owners are losing nearly as much money as they say, and I’m inclined to agree with that. If the owners really are losing money, open up the books and let the players see them. That would open the door to building a little bit of trust.’’


Celtics staff is still at work

The Celtics coaching staff has been biding its time during the lockout, meeting, looking at film, and devising game plans and defensive philosophies for one more title run in the final year of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen’s contracts.

The new members of the staff - Mike Longabardi and Jamie Young - met with returnees Kevin Eastman and Armond Hill, along with head coach Doc Rivers for several hours earlier this month, and they plan to continue getting together until the lockout ends. The Celtics are not going to rest, according to Rivers, who said he is enjoying his time off but itching to return.

“We work on our stuff, we work on our team,’’ Rivers said. “We talk about the things we did well, the things we didn’t do well last year, what we need to do this year to not lose to Miami. As a staff, you just work and get ready, and that’s all you can do.’’

When Lawrence Frank left to become Pistons head coach, Rivers was searching for his third “defensive coordinator’’ in two years. While candidates such as Larry Brown were rumored to be interested, Longabardi was the surprise choice for the significant position. The Celtics pride themselves on their defensive prowess and were first in the NBA last season in points allowed at 91.1.

In the meantime, Rivers has four children playing sports. Oldest son Jeremiah is playing basketball professionally in Belgrade, daughter Callie is playing professional volleyball in Puerto Rico, son Austin is beginning his freshman basketball season at Duke, and youngest son Spencer is a sophomore basketball player at Winter Park High School in Florida.

“I’ll get to every [Duke] game that I can, and Spencer’s as well,’’ Rivers said. “I am definitely going to try to make all the games that I can.’’

Spencer suffered a knee injury playing for the junior varsity and hasn’t played in seven months, but he is expected to make the varsity. Jeremiah had NBA aspirations but went undrafted and signed with KK Mega Visura, an A division team, in August. He scored 12 points in his debut and 17 in his second game.

“It is a thrill and I’m glad he did it,’’ Rivers said. “A lot of kids don’t want to go overseas, and Jeremiah wasn’t sure. But he made that decision and I was thrilled to death and he’s having a great time.’’

Austin will start for a Duke team that is ranked sixth in the preseason poll, and there is speculation that this will be his lone college season. The fact that the NBA has canceled the first two weeks of the season may allow Doc to see Austin’s first two college games (Nov. 11 vs. Belmont and Nov. 12 vs. Presbyterian). The Blue Devils then head north for a showdown with Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.

Doc went to China and Dubai to watch Austin play in exhibition games, where he scored 57 points in four contests.

“Austin is doing well, just trying to get used to things,’’ Rivers said. “He’s doing like a typical freshman, learning, and that’s what he should do.

“It’s been a lot of fun. He’s extremely confident, and that’s what we want to keep him. College basketball tends to take that away from you early on and he’s not had that problem so far, and that’s good.’’


Garnett’s role seemed odd

Stories coming out of New York had Kevin Garnett playing a surprisingly big part in labor negotiations last week, to the point that he may have ruined an agreement by insisting that the players go no lower than 52 percent on BRI when owners were suggesting 50.

Some observers said Garnett glared at owners during the sessions and also had some unkind stares for reporters during press conferences. Garnett told the Globe last month that he was willing to miss the season despite the fact he is scheduled to earn $21 million.

Garnett is in an unusual position because many experts point to his six-year, $126 million contract with Minnesota as the reason owners moved to lock out the players in 1998. It wasn’t lost on Garnett that players were divided 13 years ago, and he apparently has taken it upon himself to ensure that they are united now. Perhaps his emotion, as it has on the court, got the better of him in negotiations.

His last-minute participation may back the theory of those who believe the NBPA lacks true leadership after Derek Fisher. That fact that Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Kobe Bryant could stroll into a meeting and suddenly assume control may say something. Owners complained that none of the three had consistently attended meetings, yet they were allowed to take a significant part in key negotiations. Also noted was that neither Garnett nor Pierce attended the Players Association meeting in Los Angeles, despite the fact Fisher tweeted to all players about its importance.

There are also several owners, such as Michael Jordan of the Bobcats, who have remained out of sight at this critical juncture for the NBA. Jordan’s influence on the discussions would have been valuable because of his unusual perspective.

Perhaps more knowledge on both sides will help future negotiations. Do Garnett, Pierce, and Bryant actually know how much a 50-50 BRI split will affect their salaries or are they just determined not to allow owners more of a share of the pie, regardless of its effect on the health of the game?


Getting them all together?

Celtics guard Rajon Rondo has not organized a workout of his teammates but said he will look into it in the near future. Kevin Garnett was asked the same question a few weeks ago and said he would have to reach out to his teammates to gauge an appropriate time and place. Garnett and Paul Pierce have spent most of their time in California, while Rondo is in Kentucky. Ray Allen has spent time in Boston and at his alma mater, UConn. Jermaine O’Neal lives in Las Vegas. Avery Bradley is playing in Israel, and Jeff Green is in Washington.


Former NBA coach Larry Brown may be looking to get back into the league, but in the meantime he will make a guest appearance at Harvard’s coaches clinic next Sunday. Brown, who last coached in the NBA two years ago with the Bobcats, will speak with coaches and then conduct a Q&A. Interested coaches can call 617-495-3920 for more information . . . In the event the lockout doesn’t end soon, several NBA All-Stars are arranging a barnstorming tour of as many as six games over two weeks. Garnett, Pierce, and Rondo may participate. Of course, such games are risky because of potential injury. One player who wants to avoid any complications after missing a full season with ailments two years ago is Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who pulled out of tonight’s all-star game in his native Oklahoma City. Griffin is nursing a foot injury . . . Those expecting Deron Williams to dominate in his Turkish debut will be disappointed to learn that he scored 11 points with 5 assists in Besiktas’s 107-69 win over Bandirma Kirmizi last Sunday. Also playing for Besiktas is former Celtic Semih Erden, who played decently for Boston before Danny Ainge basically gave him to the Cavaliers to clear roster space . . . Washington center JaVale McGee caused a firestorm when he exited last week’s NBPA meeting saying some of his cohorts were ready to “fold.’’ Only 30 players attended the meeting, and when those who stayed around for the entire meeting heard of McGee’s comments, they spent most of their press conference trying to defuse reports of dissension. McGee went on Twitter to deny his comments, although the statements were recorded by several reporters.

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