By John Schmeelk
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Sitting at the poker table, you’re staring at a man with a wry smile that just pushed all his chips to the center of the table. You take a look at your hand and see a very respectable three of a kind. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself, and there’s something about the manner of the man that just went all in. There’s something about the way he moved his chips, and is holding his cards. There’s just no way he has the hand that he’s betting. No way. He’s bluffing. You just KNOW it, so you call his bluff. Wearing that same cocksure smile he lays down his cards and shows you the full house. You lose everything.

That’s exactly what is about to happen to Billy Hunter and the players he represents. Whether it is fair or not, the players better not let this thing get to 5 PM without a deal. If they do, they will not see a deal as good as the one the NBA has on the table right now. They are underestimating the resolve and power of Michael Jordan’s cabal of small market owners who wouldn’t even have offered a 50-50 split if it was up to them. David Stern is not bluffing.

Now, it still doesn’t have to come to that. The players’ press conference last night was telling and it wasn’t hard to figure out what went down in their meeting. The NBA players don’t want to miss pay checks, let alone a season. They don’t like the way the owners are negotiating, however, and they feel like they have been disrespected.  So the decision was made to go back to the owners one more time and offer yet another concession on the topic most important to ownership: BRI. In exchange for agreeing to a 50-50 split on revenues, they would get a couple of minor system issues to go their way: escrow fund, the luxury tax cliff, repeater tax for luxury teams, sign and trade restrictions, and the mid-level exception for luxury tax teams.

All of these are relatively minor issues that ownership, even the hardliners, should be able to compromise on. They do, however, go towards competitive balance, giving big market teams more ability to circumvent the salary cap and luxury tax system. Those issues give players fewer choices when they become a free agent. The situation a player is trying to avoid isbecoming a veteran free agent, and rather than being able to sign with an already stacked Heat team for a title run, he winds up in Charlotte or Milwaukee because they are the only ones with money to spend under a new and more restrictive system.

The players want their option to go to a big market team of their choice because no one wants to go to play in Sacramento or Minnesota. Unfortunately, this attitude almost proves the owner’s point about how big market teams have a big advantage over their smaller market brethren. It’s precisely why the owners want to limit what teams can do once they go over the salary cap and the luxury tax threshold. That being said, the owners are getting everything they want on the money side, so they should be willing to give on these system issues to save the season, and potentially the health of the sport.

Quite frankly, this is now on David Stern. The man who has been called a dictator and authoritarian, and considered the most powerful commissioner in all of sports, has to close this deal. He needs to sit down Michael Jordan, and the other hardline owners, and make them compromise. There have been whispers that Stern has lost a step, and no longer holds the power he once did. It is time for him to dispel that. This could be his final swan song as NBA commissioner. He needs to organize the more moderate owners and get them to agree to a couple small system concessions so the players can save face and sign on the dotted line. It’s time to see his legendary powers of persuasion at work.

That’s all the players want now: an opportunity to save face. The system issues they want movement on are so small that losing a season over them would be ridiculous. But they need to be able to say to themselves that they played hard ball and made the owners give just a little bit before they crossed the finish line. It is about egos on both sides. The owners already won these negotiations by a wide margin and in order to close the deal, all they need to do is soften the blow by compromising on minor issues. The players have already taken a big hit, now the owners have to take a small one. Does a man like Michael Jordan have that in him? We’ll find out by 5 PM today.

Stay tuned today, as there is a good chance the NBA season is on the line. You can follow me on twitter at!/Schmeelk for all the latest on the Knicks, Giants, NBA, and even some MLB.

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