Hunter references a shifting power structure within ownership.

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Billy Hunter provided enough soundbytes on his appearance on Bill Simmons’ podcast to keep folks entertained for a few days. The “we don’t want to be totally exploited” is the header. Also of note is the reveal of Mark Cuban’s “Game Changer” proposal which proposed no cap and just an aggressive luxury tax. The union and big spender owners of course loved the idea, the small-market guys vommed on it, Hunter said. 

But lost in all this was a quiet story Hunter provided which gives more information into the dynamics of the lockout than maybe anything else that has come out. It’s begins at around the 23-minute mark of the podcast

Two quotes of importance from the segment where Simmons asks Hunter about 

“We did a deal at the twelfth hour, but it was only at the twelfth hour that David and the owners were willing to compromise. I think now there’s a different group of owners that make up NBA so consequently I think they’re a lot more dug in. And they don’t owe their success I think as much to David as before.” 

 

“I think the reason why  David is being so stubborn is because David has a new crop of owners. He’s got all these guys who have come in who are extremely successful, who have made billions of dollars, who have a different perspective. … With the downturn of the economy in 2008, I think some of the owners probably suffered some significant losses in their ancillary businesses and so consequently they think they should make it up on the backs of these franchises.”

Those two bits are going to quietly slip by in the midst of the conversation about leverage, and his relationship with David Stern, and whether the owners were sold on losing a season from the beginning. But then, these two quotes tell us more about the dynamics inside the room than anything else we’ve heard. 

A common element in previous shifts within the Board of Governors resided in the fact that so many of the owners went with Stern. Jerry Buss has seen David Stern build him an empire, and vice versa. There’s a mutual trust there. Donald Sterling was brought into the league by his friend Jerry Buss, as told in David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game.” Peter Holt has lead the BoG for years, and has always followed Stern’s leadership, which is what made his recent appearance as a mega-hawk so surprising. Glen Taylor is a long-time friend of Stern’s. In short, during the last deal, there were owners who had seen their investment triple under Stern’s watch and his growth of the league in the 80’s and 90’s. 

But the new owners are entirely different. Many of them are younger, many of them are more cutthroat, and most importantly, none of them owe Stern anything. Instead, they look at the system he’s helped build which has resulted in financial losses on top of the beatings they’ve taken in other areas and resent it. Players have more earning power than ever, but franchises are losing money. If you don’t trust in Stern, if you don’t believe that David knows best, what do you do? 

You revolt. 

There should be one voice in the room, one head, one leader for the league’s efforts, the man who knows more about the league and its issues than anyone. But instead, versus the boogeyman image some, particularly agents through their favorite outlets, are pushing, Stern is being undercut. He was taken out because he was sick. But those meetings went on and Dan Gilbert and Peter Holt were not only allowed but encouraged to put the hammer to the union in last Thursday’s trainwreck with Stern on the sideline because of this new push. In essence, it’s no longer “Father knows best,’ it’s “Stern will get us what we want or we’ll go get it ourselves.” 

That, pieced together with the appearance of Paul Allen, paints a dangerous picture for the future of these talks and the league. 

If you want peace in a troubled region, what you first need is political stability. If you want success and profit in a business, what you first need is leadership and direction. But instead, the NBA is a cartel acting as a group. And within that group there are competing interests within competing interests. There are hawks who just want revenue sharing, doves who want revenue sharing, hawks who want system changes without revenue sharing, and doves who want everything to stay the same. 

Now, Hunter’s statements are spin, meant to prod the media into interpreting the league as unstable and plagued by infighting. You know, articles like this one. But this wouldn’t be written if the events of the past six months hadn’t come through. Everyone outside of the room knows that losing a season is suicide, it’s a lose-lose situation and worst of all, unnecessary. But it’s being pursued, and, again, according to Hunter, it has been pursued since 2007. 

This lockout is about a lot of things. It’s about LeBron. It’s about ego. It’s definitely about money. It’s about opposing paradigms. It’s about business. But it’s also about shifting paradigms and a league which Stern no longer rules with an iron fist. The owners may be confident in Stern’s ability to do his job as commissioner. But they’re more confident in their ability to exert their will and make the world they want it to be. 

Look at their wealth. Why wouldn’t they?

The common refrain is that this is small-market vs. big-market. Hunter was very particular to use the market terms, especially with Simmons who is a big market fan who most often supports big market initiatives. But this conflict is more aligned with new money vs. old money, and suddenly moderates like Jerry Buss are advocating revenue sharing, and both Mark Cuban and Wyc Grousbeck have conflicting reports about their status as hawks or doves. They smell the winds of change, and they want to be on the winning side. 

They just haven’t figured out that everyone’s losing this.