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Fisher's union will face its harshest struggles while navigating these areas of conflict:
• The split of revenues. The last collective bargaining agreement between the two sides, signed in 2005, assured players of 57% of all basketball-related income. When factoring in the additional non-basketball-related revenue the owners receive, both sides acknowledge, the players now receive 50% of the league's $4.3 billion in total revenues. Fisher contends that the owners' current proposal would drop the players' annual take below 40% over the length of a 10-year deal, a reduction he calls "astronomical."
The players' latest offer, to surrender $530 million over a five-year period, has been dismissed as "modest" by Stern, whose owners have reported losses totalling $1.1 billion over the last three years, including a projected $300 million for the 2010--11 season. (The NBA declined to speak on the record about the CBA.) "Even if we said today that we had agreed to wipe out all your losses at $300 million a year [in player givebacks], we've been instructed that still wouldn't do it," says Fisher. "That's why it's been so hard for us to continue to make major economic proposals, because you're telling us that no matter what we offer, unless it's much, much closer to where you are, there's really no chance of us getting a deal done." The owners insist that none of the other issues can be discussed until a revenue split has been negotiated.
• The actual losses. The NBA projects that 22 teams lost a combined $450 million this year while eight franchises reported profits totaling $150 million, thus creating an aggregate loss of $300 million for the league. While the players tacitly concede that the league is losing money, they dispute the owners' accounting in part because, according to Fisher, it includes about $130 million in debt taken on by owners who borrowed money to purchase their teams. The owners insist that interest and amortization payments are a legitimate cost in any business, but so far the players reject that position largely because they get no revenue-sharing benefit if an owner later sells his franchise at a profit.
• Hard cap. The owners maintain that a hard ceiling on team salaries is crucial, citing the failure of even the luxury tax to curb teams' overspending. Fisher says that a hard cap would encourage each team to budget the majority of its payroll for two or three stars, leaving other players to not only compete for the remaining money but also to do so largely on nonguaranteed contracts. "What we envision is a cannibalist-type system, where you would constantly be in competition with your teammates over shots and points and minutes," says Fisher. "We've had a problem over the years convincing fans that guys really do care about playing as a team and wanting to make a sacrifice to win a championship and not just thinking about themselves."
But a hard cap itself is not a deal breaker. Hunter has indicated the union could accept one if the ceiling was high enough to prevent huge salary cuts for most players. And a source from the owners' side tells SI the owners are willing to discuss alternatives to a conventional hard cap, including an entirely new system in which salaries would be slotted to preexisting tiers, representing a variety of income levels.
Based on the owners' proposals to not only reduce salaries but also implement a hard cap on them, it becomes likely that this lockout will wipe out the season. After all, why would the majority of players vote for a system that slashes their salaries and job security? The last NBA lockout ended only after a ceiling was applied to the biggest stars' salaries that funneled more money to the middle class.
Fisher hopes to convince both sides to pursue the middle ground. There is little question that the NBA veteran, who will turn 37 in August, commands respect on both sides of the table. "It definitely matters," says Silver of Fisher's standing in the league. "There's a reason he has won five championships. He's a strong advocate for all of the players in the league and he's well-versed in all of the issues. He has set the tone for a very professional atmosphere."
Since the Lakers picked him No. 24 in the famed 1996 draft, Fisher has worked hard to become the NBA's most prized everyman. He has never been an All-Star, and last season he made about 15% of Kobe Bryant's $24.8 million salary, yet Fisher is celebrated as one of the great clutch shooters in playoff history. In 2007, during the final season of a three-year hiatus from the Lakers, Fisher rushed back from New York—where his 10-month old daughter Tatum had undergone emergency surgery and chemotheraphy that would save her left eye from retinoblasta, a cancerous tumor (now in remission)—to arrive in Salt Lake City for the third quarter of Game 2 of a second-round playoff series. That night, he would make the momentous three-pointer in OT that would lead the Jazz to victory and set the tenor in a 4--1 Utah series win.
Fisher entered union politics with an ambitious agenda. "So many athletes are riding along with our agents and our general managers and our coaches and our advisers, when we should be driving the ship," he says. Since succeeding Antonio Davis as president, Fisher has immersed himself in the fine print of the deal while seeking to increase the role of player president. He launched a negotiating session at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles with a presentation about the players' role in growing the league. "Fish has a stabilizing presence in terms of the way he carries himself," says Bryant, who has nicknamed his teammate Derek Obama in reference to his regal bearing. "He always stays in control, and he has a unique way to communicate and inspire."