Bluffing or not, David Stern gets his deadline

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For all of the emphasis on David Stern’s recent ultimatum to the members of the National Basketball Players Association, this is hardly the first time he’s issued a deadline threat against the union. The lockout has been laced with cancellation dates, each with the accompanying acknowledgement from Stern that the league’s offers would reflect the damage of games lost. That doesn’t seem to have been the case thus far, as the league’s stance has remained more or less the same. If anything, the offers have become more favorable for the players in recent weeks.

With all of that in mind, it’s natural to wonder if — as Henry Abbott discussed earlier this week on TrueHoop — Stern and the owners will actually follow through with their most recent threat: a reset to a 47-53 proposal that the union would likely never agree to. Stern’s threat record speaks pretty clearly, but there’s always the chance that this is where Stern and the owners legitimately draw the line. There’s a chance that for whatever reason, they’ve picked today, an otherwise nondescript November 9th, as the day when the fate of the basketball universe will be decided.

For all of the rhetoric about the union “calling Stern’s bluff,” this ultimatum has created a sense of urgency. The players may not have accepted the deal the NBA put on the table, but they’re still granting the ultimatum its gravity by rushing to scrap together a last-ditch attempt to negotiate out some system-related kinks.

Late Sunday night, Howard Beck of the New York Times wrote:

The union regards the deadline as artificial and believes the N.B.A. will return to the table.

If the players truly believe that, their actions betray their belief. The NBPA has responded to the NBA’s arbitrary deadline by formally meeting with the entire body of player representatives to discuss their options, and by returning to the table to discuss the league’s latest offer in an attempt to get the owners to move from their positions on a few holdout issues. The players have done a terrific job of flipping the lockout narrative in the process, but they’ve also made the deadline anything but artificial. Stern aimed to make today a critical point in the negotiations when he made his ultimatum, and it has become just that. At this point, no one can say how this otherwise nondescript November 9th will actually turn out, but a threat — legitimate or not — has pushed both parties back into the negotiating room to stave off an “artificial” deadline. Here’s hoping that we’ll never learn the substance of that now infamous ultimatum.