Players put ball in owners' court

Do NBA owners have the same resolve as players when it comes to blowing up the season?

The primary tenet of successful deal-making – be it real estate, acquisitions or labor – is you can’t be afraid to blow up the deal.

What we learned Monday, when the NBA Players Association executive committee rejected the owners’ latest (and purportedly last best) offer, is that they’re sitting on a powder keg and just pulled a matchbook out of their pocket.

Rather than accept a deal that called for rollbacks in salaries, tighter restrictions on free agency and shortening the length of contracts, the union took a different course. It disbanded, an act that allows the players to sue the NBA over anti-trust laws, challenging the legality of the lockout.

The upshot: If that takes the season with it, so be it.

Since the lockout began, one side of the narrative has been that the owners were hard and determined to seize back control of their league. While the NBA enjoyed one of its most compelling seasons, many owners chafed at the players having too large a stake.

As some franchises were in the red – the league took over New Orleans when former owner George Shinn went into bankruptcy – 57 percent of revenues went to the players.

And after the NBA went more than a decade without a superstar leaving via free agency, the move of LeBron James to Miami from Cleveland, and the orchestrated trade of Carmelo Anthony to New York from Denver, only fueled the notion that more franchise players (Dwight Howard, Chris Paul) would be on their way to bigger markets soon.

With David Stern using a hammer of heavy fines to ensure his office was management’s only voice, and the players sounding fractured and fractious – including questions about union president Derek Fisher’s loyalty – there were few questions about the owners' resolve.

Well, not anymore.

What the union did Monday was for, perhaps the first time during the 137-day lockout, put the ball in the owners’ court. We are about to find out just how hard and determined they are.

After a fan lambasted Miami owner Mickey Arison last month on Twitter for ruining the sport, Arison responded: “You are barking at the wrong owner.”

So, how will Arison, who was fined $500,000 for the tweet by Stern, feel now? Or owners of the Knicks, Lakers and Celtics, who print money simply by opening up the doors for business?

Stern, who has appeared mostly measured in his comments the past few months, reacted to the union’s decision by jumping up and down and stomping his feet.

Speaking on ESPN, Stern called the union’s action “a charade” and “irresponsible at this late date,” telling the players they were being misled by the union’s executive director Billy Hunter and its legal strategist Jeffrey Kessler.

“They seem hell bent on self-destruction and it’s very sad,” Stern said. “If I were one of the 450 players in the NBA, I would be wondering what Billy Hunter just did.”

How nice of Stern to be offering up his advice, just as he did over the weekend when he suggested the players accept the deal. Well, of course. Who has the interests of the players more at heart than Easy Dave?

All this was a skillful effort by Stern to shift the focus back onto the players. But here it is, mid-November, and they have already taken the owners’ best shot. The players are missing paychecks and have – in the face of contentious debate – resisted negotiation fatigue and the temptation to give in to severe rollbacks just to get back on the court.

They are now willing to cast their lot with Kessler and David Boies, an A-Team of litigators, and see where that gets them.

It might cost them a season. But it might also get them a deal.

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