Derek Fisher: “If they lock us out because we don’t agree to the most dramatic rollback in sports history…that’s [their] choice.”

June 22, 2011 – 7:00 am by Michael Bean

There may be light at the end of the tunnel with the NFL Lockout, but for the NBA, things are just about to get ugly. After one of the more memorable and exciting regular seasons in recent memory, the 2011 NBA Playoffs were also a thrill, particularly in the Finals when the Dallas Mavericks slayed the hated Miami Heat thanks to their ability to close out multiple thrillers that weren’t decided until the final possession. Though it’s not the most exciting or headline-grabbing draft class, the NBA will also welcome in a new crop of rookies this Thursday night during the 2011 NBA Draft. After that celebratory event, reality will set in in a big way. A Lockout is looming for the Association. No two ways about it. With nine days still remaining before the official expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, you won’t hear either players or owners admit to defeat just yet — not to the media at least. But it’s just about a foregone conclusion that there will be a work stoppage come July 1st. And like the NFL, it will come in the form of the owners locking out the players. How things play out from there remains to be seen. Not long ago, the prevailing sentiment was that the 2011-2012 NBA season might be in serious jeopardy, or at least a substantial portion of it. Now, with the League riding high in the public eye following a captivating season and playoffs, perhaps both parties will feel a bit more inclined to meet half way in the middle and bank on the league growing at a much faster clip than it has this past decade.

That’s enough of from me though. Let’s go to one of the voices you’ll be hearing plenty from throughout the looming labor impasse — Derek Fisher, the President of the NBA Players Union. The five-time World Champion has plenty of insights and opinions to share about where things stand, and what the future might hold as the NBA tries to recalibrate its governing structure in this cycle of collective bargaining.

Fisher joined Stephen A. Smith to talk about what was discussed and accomplished during Tuesday’s three hour negotiation sessions, how the reports that significant progress have been made aren’t quite accurate, how the players feel there’s still so much distance to be bridged in the talks because of how outrageous the owners’ initial demands and proposal were, why the players believe there should not be a hard salary cap system introduced in place of the soft cap system that’s been around for so much of the league’s history, why the players feel like the owners’ poor decision making may be as responsible for the financial troubles as any other factor, why there doesn’t necessarily need to be the elimination of five or six year guaranteed contracts simply because teams aren’t forced or required to dole out such deals, why the players might be willing to compromise on that particular point if the owners get more realistic with their financial demands

On what happened during the three hour CBA meeting that occurred on Tuesday and reports of there being progress being made are in fact true:

“Well, we’re hearing there’s some reports out there that there’s been significant progress made on things that the NBA and our owners are proposing to us, but in reality, there hasn’t been much substantial movement at all on a lot of key areas. So we’re still focused on getting a deal done, we’re going to continue to negotiate, and we’re going to meet again on Friday. But even with some of the things that are being released about what has been dropped out in proposals, there isn’t any agreement on anything at this point. We’re still working hard on that right now.”

On why Commissioner Stern has said substantial progress has been made in negotiations recently when it sounds like not much has been really accomplished so far:

“Well the best way to explain it would be that where we were a couple of months ago as far as the proposal that we were given by the NBA, which was essentially the same proposal that we received some two years ago, that hasn’t changed very much. So what has happened is the NBA has really tried to put us in a position where we’re negotiating from what we consider to be an outrageous proposal to begin with. So we’ve just been very focused on expressing that that’s not a place that we should start from. We recognize that there’s some things that we can discuss that we can make some adjustments on, and we can focus on some of the losses that they say they’re experiencing and try to help address some of those, but we’re not going to negotiate from a $900 million rollback in salaries, which would equal $8 to $9 billion dollars over the course of what they want us to sign — a ten year Collective Bargaining Agreement.”

How he would explain the differences between a hard cap (what the NBA wants) and a soft cap (the status quo that the players want to retain):

“Essentially the soft salary cap system that we have in place now has been in place for some 30, 40 years. It’s been a part of NBA basketball, the history of our game. All of the great players that have helped build what we have today played under this system. And what they’re asking us to do is move away from that system and move to hard salary cap system, which essentially means that if a team was allotted a certain amount of money to spend on their players’ salaries, under just about no circumstance could they spend above that. So for example, if you took the Miami Heat roster, and you set a salary cap at $60 million dollars, and you paid LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh their respective contracts, that would equal approximately $51 million of that $60 million; and that would leave approximately $9 million dollars to sign the entire rest of the team, which therefore we believe essentially would lead to the elimination of fully guaranteed contracts. The rest of NBA players outside of two maybe three stars on a team, would receive partial or no guarantees at all. And you’d essentially see a musical chairs of rosters for the rest of the NBA as we know it. So today we tried to make some movement and progress away from that. We’ve expressed that a hard salary cap is a non-starter, we have no interest in that. We’ve tried to express that some of the losses that they’re experiencing. So we made a big move we feel. We talked about moving back $100 million dollars towards the owners each year over the course of a five-year deal, which would put another $500 million dollars back on their side of the ledger, so we feel like half of a billion dollars over the course of five years to give back to owners to help them address some of the things they’re going through was a good move to make right now. But we didn’t receive that type of response.”

On the players seemingly believing that the system is not broken so much as the way the owners are managing their finances and operations:

“That’s all we’re stating. What’s going on with owners, as they’re reporting it, is not based solely on player expense. At the same time, we recognize that players expense is the single biggest expense that they have, so we’re willing to share some of the loss, our percentage of it. So if we share 57 percent of the gain, we’re willing to discuss 57 percent of the loss. So if you’re losing $300 million, we’re interested in discussing eating off 57 percent of 300. And we feel like that’s a fair discussion to have, and we just haven’t been able to get them to move towards that type of discussion. They’ve consistently remained at more like $900 million a year because they’re asking us to guarantee that each team will be profitable at the level of $20 million dollars per year. So if you take $300 million in losses, and then you add 30 teams times $20 million dollars in profit, that’s $600 million. That’s how you get to the $900  million dollars that they’re asking for.”

On other points of contention, specifically the length of guaranteed contracts being reduced to a maximum of three or four years:

“Well what we’ve said is we’re willing to discuss different elements of the system, and that as long as we’re making progress on real discussions towards getting away from how strong their proposal is, then we’re willing to discuss adjustments in some areas. But as many cases as you can bring up about guys that would consider to be overpaid, we could triple or quadruple the number of opportunities where a player has outperformed the contract that they’re given and playing under. So it’s not so much about years, it’s about the opportunity to negotiate for those years. Teams do not have to sign a player to a particular deal of any length. If a team feels the player will not be worth his value in five or six years, they have every right to sign him to a three or four year deal at this very moment. I personally went through a negotiation with the Lakers last season where they had no problem offering a one or two year deal to me — they ultimately offered me a three year deal. But we’ve seen the excess years and deals — five and six year deals — we’ve seen that go down without a hard salary cap system. There are fewer five and six year contracts in the league. I might want to say there are only 11 contracts that go out over five years in the NBA right now.”

If he’s concerned about the players losing in the court of public opinion in the event of a prolonged work stoppage:

“No, we’re always concerned about our fans in general, but we realize that in terms of winning the court of public opinion, all we can do is be accurate and be forthcoming in what we’re trying to accomplish. And tell the fans the truth about how hard we’re working to try to get a deal done, a fair deal that works for all players. In terms of the court of public opinion, that’s why we tried to make sure we filed our unfair labor charge with the National Relations Board a few weeks aback. Because we wanted to let it be known that we don’t feel that our owners are negotiating truly in good faith. You don’t negotiate in good faith when you make the demands that they’re making from where we currently stand.”

If he thinks the players will be locked out come July 1st:

“That’s not for me to say. A lockout is an owner-imposed lockout. That’s a decision that only they can make. For now, as President of the Players Association, my focus is on negotiating on the deal. That’s the part that I control over is myself, Billy [Hunter], our Executive Committee, and our player reps are focusing on negotiating the actual deal. If the owners decide they want to lock us out because we don’t agree to the most dramatic rollback in professional sports history, then that’s the choice that they have.”

Listen here to Fisher with Stephen A. Smith on 1050 ESPN New York

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