It was something Adam Silver regularly has referenced and he was once again pounding home the point in the early morning hours on Thursday, following 12 hours of talks with the players union and with hope building once again that a deal between the NBA and its players union may be in the offing.
It was a comment by the deputy commissioner that went somewhat overlooked, but might have been the most notable of all of the carefully worded remarks made by either side.
"You've heard me say this before, the competitive issues are separate from the economic issues," Silver said. "And our goal is to have a system in which all 30 teams are competing for championships and, if well managed, they have the opportunity to break even or make a profit. So we don't see the ability to break even or make a profit as a tradeoff for the ability to field a competitive team."
And there it was: the passive-aggressive way to say the owners were not going to relent on the key issues that keep this deal from being completed. It is the sole reason for pessimism despite the ongoing talks, which resumed Thursday at noon.
The players wanted the owners to lighten up on the system restrictions, mainly the prohibition of luxury tax-paying teams to use the full Mid-Level Exception and the desire for the league to withhold 10 percent of player salaries in escrow to ensure a 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income. In the previous agreement, the league withheld eight percent and even that made players grumble. When you sign for $5 million a year, you want to get the full $5 million, not have $500,000 of it held by the league just in case the owners overspend their preset limit.
The players feel they have done almost all of the giving here. They waved the white flag on BRI, all the way down to 50-50, with the hope that the league would do the same on the system issues. But while commissioner David Stern has done all he can to keep the hardline owners from getting too greedy, the concern is if he has enough owners that are amenable to the proposal on the table -- let along whatever tweaks they need to make it more appealing to the players -- to get it passed.
Based on reports and information gathered from sources, it is believed that Stern has, at the very least, 15 teams he should be able to count on: the Knicks, Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Hornets, Nuggets, Mavericks, Pistons, Pacers, Thunder, Clippers, Kings, Hawks and, in a recent change-of-heart, the Cavaliers. He would need just one more team to gain a majority vote to pass the deal.
But the belief is that Stern would prefer to have more of a majority than just a slim margin, perhaps something closer to, or, preferably, in, the 20s.
And coincidentally one of his greatest challenges is someone sitting next to him at the negotiating table, Spurs owner Peter Holt, who is the chairman of the Labor Relations Committee. Holt's Spurs have long been considered the example of how a well-run small-market team can compete with major markets for championships. But Holt also knows the gravy train is ending, as Tim Duncan is in the twilight of his career and the Spurs' championship era is closing. Holt's team was run well, but he was also the beneficiary of winning the NBA Draft lottery in two years when a Hall of Fame-caliber big man was available: David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
So to protect his team from a painful hangover following years of great success, Holt wants to see the system restricted so small market teams can financially compete with the big markets for free agents and in keeping their own players. In other words, Holt doesn't want to have to overpay relative to his revenue to stay competitive.
There are many other teams who agree with him and, to no surprise, those teams are in small markets, such as Memphis, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Houston. But some other franchises, with rich owners who haven't been afraid to spend, are also among the hardliners: the Trail Blazers, Magic and, yes, the Nets.
Stern, remember, works for the owners. He is not acting on his own self-interests but in the general interests of his owners. So if there is a split in opinion, he has to respect and attempt to appeal to both sides of the argument. And right now there remains a strong push to not give another inch to the players and force them to surrender to the deal as it is on the table right now. But the fear among the moderate owners is that it would cost the league the entire season -- especially if the union is dissolved as a counter measure -- and while some small market teams would be fine with that, the big market teams would lose millions without a season.
The players are already overwhelmed by this deal, but if the owners refuse to give on any system issues, it's added salt in the wound. The players feel that the owners should at least consider allowing more freedom within the system (i.e.: the ability to sign with playoff-caliber, tax-paying teams) in exchange for the $280 million in BRI concessions they made.
Will that happen? That's what they're discussing now. Once again, it appears as if they are too close to give up now. But if you ask those in the fight, they believe these issues are the bulk of the deal.
And that's why these negotiations continue and may not result in a deal by the end of the day. The players have been made aware of the consequences of not making a deal: the owners will then reset their offer to the platform of the past summer: hard cap, 53-47 split of BRI in the owners' favor. Those hardliners are salivating over that deal and hope the players are stubborn enough to reject the current deal.
If that does happen, we won't see NBA basketball for a full year.