There was not a "no" Thursday night when the players filed into the press room to brief the media on the progress of the latest round of labor negotiations. There was not a "yes" either. But for the first time in a while, negotiations broke for the weekend without the typical finger pointing and accusations that have come to define this lockout.
The players said they would take the owners latest offer to the player reps and try and get a better sense of the union's opinion toward the deal. Stern's ultimatum from last week still looms should the players reject it.
Billy Hunter probably said it best. The deal on the terrible is not great... but it is better than the alternative. Much better.
The players face a decision: a 50/50 split or a 47/53 split in the owners favor, a less restrictive or a more restrictive system. Many of the rights the players called blood issues at the beginning they have compromised on already. The owners have stayed pretty steady with many of their original demands. They may not get the sweeping changes that they wanted when this whole mess began, but they will get changes.
There will be higher penalties for going over the luxury tax line and for repeat payers of the luxury tax. There will be some type of revenue sharing and some type of token gesture to show the owners are really trying to work together to have some sort of competitive balance and equality.
It will all be lip service. Poor management, bloated contracts and overspending from big market teams will still exist. The divide between big and small market owners will still be wide. There is almost nothing the players can do to fix these problems. Yet the owners have asked them to give to do it.
The players have given. Probably too much. But the owners' insistence on just about everything in these negotiations has had the players back pedaling since July (probably before) and almost emboldened the owners to keep wanting and demanding and asking for more.
That is how we have gotten here.
This offer is not likely to get better than it is now. In fact, it is likely to go somewhere the players are unwilling to go. And that means we might have a long wait for the players to really feel the hurt and accept a deal.
The time to make a deal is now. This is the best offer the players will get. The players have to decide whether they want to play and take the loss and stop the bleeding or hold out and hope actually losing a season will soften the owners (all while they do not get paid).
Derek Fisher and the union were very genuine and understanding of the owners' position and willing to work with them. There is no doubt about that. They thought the owners would understand that and reciprocate so the two could work together to form a new NBA reality. That has not happened. Instead the owners took and wanted more. They smelled blood in the water and sought to completely turn the power structure in the NBA around.
So be it. You cannot fault business men from trying to do what is best for their business, I guess. But it is clear the pursuit of business interests (maybe rightly) have trumped interests in playing basketball.
If there were a sense of working together to get a deal done... it sailed a long time ago when the two sides did not seriously begin to meet until September and as deal after deal has been shot down.
It is clear still from the rhetoric that the two sides are speaking completely different languages. And it does not appear the players will take this deal.
This no longer is a matter of who is wrong or who is right. There is plenty of ego and stubbornness on both sides of the negotiating table. The players certainly seem to be the ones making sacrifices and concessions while the owners stand to take and take.
But it is the players who stand to lose the most now. There is no season and there are no pay checks right now. As the chance for revenue and profit this season begins to decrease, the owners will follow through on their threat to make up that lost revenue in the agreement. It is a fake concession and a pure bullying threat. But it is one the players have to consider very closely at their open membership meeting this Monday.
The fact is, the players have lost. Everyone knows it. It may feel wrong and it may feel like the owners completely used the players and waited them out without any intention of bargaining. The players, unless they know otherwise, cannot depend on the NLRB to make that statement and end the lockout. They have to take affirmative action to keep what they have, lick their wounds and move on for the next agreement.
There will be a time to renegotiate this agreement. And at that time it may be on more amiable terms. Waiting any longer is only going to sour the bargaining relationship. If the deal on the table is as one-sided as the players claim, the deal that could come next is that much worse. And if it is that much worse, how unrealistic would a strike be in the future?
That is not something the players should want. It can only be bad news for them -- and the league.
There is a time to fight and a time to cut your losses. I believe the union has reached that point. I understand their desire to keep fighting and keep sacrificing. But it feels like a losing fight. And there is no reason everyone else associated with the sport -- namely the fans -- should suffer when it is a hopeless fight.
There will certainly be a time and a place to fight again.
Those who follow the sport know the players were in the right for much of these negotiations. It is clear though that the owners are not going to pull back and have drawn a line in the sand. Right now, they hold the keys. Taking this deal now might help the players gain some political capital to gain concessions back the next negotiation. It may not.
One way or another a deal has to get done soon. Or else it is going to be a very dark winter for the league, the players... and the fans.