For one of the few times in their existence, the little guys are taking it to the big boys. Many of the NBA's small and mid-size franchises are resisting David Stern, outnumbering their colleagues and putting the squeeze on the players who make the league what it is, for better or worse.
Can this marriage be repaired? Can the bulk of the 2011-12 NBA season be salvaged?
Good luck. There isn't a winner in the bunch.
With the players rejecting the league's latest offer, disbanding its union and preparing to turn the labor matter over to the courts, the situation transitioned from complex and frustrating to confounding and utterly unpredictable.
Three people in a bedroom (Stern, his owners and his players) already makes a messy situation. Yet at last count -- and the number seems to change daily -- the figure is nearing double digits. There is Billy Hunter, formerly the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. There is Derek Fisher, formerly the president of the union. There is Stern, still the commissioner of the NBA. There are approximately a dozen high-profile agents privately lobbying for their individual clients, attempting to sweeten the players' share and increase their own commissions.
But the newest and most significant wrinkle is the mighty and increasingly stubborn clout wielded by owners of many of the small- and mid-market clubs.
Owners of teams not named the Lakers, Knicks, Bulls and Mavericks, for instance, have discovered strength in numbers and in the linking of arms.
While Sacramento's Maloofs maintain their allegiance to Stern -- they are simply too restless to sit around for a protracted conversation, much less tedious labor talks -- Sacramento offers a compelling case for changing the system.
Of the 30 NBA teams, the Kings rank 20th in TV market size. They have been financially harmed by long-term contracts (to the injured Chris Webber), crippled by midlevel exception signings (Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Beno Udrih) and hampered by the absence of a new arena and the corporate and TV revenue streams available in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Poor management and personnel decisions. Don't forget those.
"It's pretty clear many of the small-market owners are determined to change the business model and saying they can't agree to something that will be penny wise and pound foolish," said University of Southern California professor David Carter, a longtime sports-business expert. "The thing that surprises me ... I thought the owners would have been able to persuade players to agree to a 50-50 split. To fans of basketball, that sort of seems equitable. And from a PR standpoint, Commissioner Stern has done a better job getting that message out."
But the thing about Stern is he doesn't hold the hammer as in the old days. If he was empowered as in the past -- with old-time (and now deceased) owners Larry Miller, Bill Davidson and Abe Pollin attached to his side -- an agreement would have been reached weeks and possibly months ago. Easy Dave, as he was known, for decades battled fiercely with union leaders Larry Fleisher and Charles Grantham, then charmed his owners into signing the deal.
That has all changed. The dynamic today is to divide and conquer, with mean and nasty exchanges the dominant form of conversation, and everyone and their cousin having their say via social media.
"The vitriol is somewhat inexplicable," said Steve Kauffman, a former player agent who now represents Kings coach Paul Westphal and several other coaches and executives. "Even during the 1998-99 work stoppage, it was nothing like this."
The players are amenable to an agreement that divided basketball-related income 50-50, but they oppose changes to the system that would shorten contracts, limit the midlevel exception and restrict movement. LeBron James and Chris Bosh wanted the opportunity to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire want the chance to lure Chris Paul to New York.
But what about New Orleans? Minnesota? Charlotte? Sacramento? And toss Philadelphia in there. The 76ers play in a big city, but lack the wealth of the Knicks, Lakers or Bulls.
"We believe we will be proven right over time that this new model, if the players were to agree to it, will create a better league," Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said the other day.
Whatever. The NBA is an increasingly tough sell in stubbornly tough times. The latest maneuvering only inflames passions and, more importantly, furthers the uncertainty.