Yet another round of labor talks went well past midnight and when the two sides finally emerged this time, NBA commissioner David Stern produced the p.r. hammer and offered the players an ultimatum:
Take an offer he said was based on five recommendation by federal mediator George Cohen -- an offer the players union's lawyer called "fraud" -- by Wednesday's close of business or...else!
If the players don't accept the deal by then, the offer goes to a 47-percent share of basketball-related revenue and a "flex" cap that the union considers the dreaded hard cap.
Those words were barely out of Stern's mouth before agents started polling players on their willingness to decertify the union, a move, if really made, that likely would throw the matter into the courts eventually in a long process that'd kill this season.
"Right now, we've been given an ultimatum and our answer is, that's not acceptable to us," NBA Players Association president Derek Fisher said. "We did not get the sense that they had the intent coming into tonight to get this deal done. There was every opportunity to do it. We were prepared to stay here until the sun came up to get this deal done."
Instead, the players cried foul to an offer that union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler described as the owners wanting it all, an offer that he angrily said the players won't be intimidated into accepting: A deal that splits revenues down the middle 50-50 AND institutes a system that would prevent the league's richest and highest-paying teams from spending at will.
The basics of the deal:
* A split of revenues that Stern called a sliding band from 49 to 51 percent but that Hunter said in reality is a 50-50 split.
* A midlevel contract exception that would allow teams under the luxury-tax threshold to sign players to a $5 million for either four or three years (an alternating formula from year to year that is a compromise between the two sides) and would limit tax paying to a "mini-midlevel" $2.5 million contract.
* No ability to teams paying the luxury tax to be involved in sign-and-trade deals.
* What Stern called a "compromise" on the details of the luxury-tax proposal that I didn't understand fully at such a late hour.
Fisher said those basics don't constitute a deal the union can even take to its membership for a vote by Wednesday. He said the union showed its willingness to make a deal by moving from a 52.5 percent split to 51 percent but said sounded mystified that the owners showed no willingness to compromise and meet the players there.
So here's what very well could happen now:
A total of 130 players likely will sign a petition proposing the union to decertify, a move that would open a 45-day window to save the season with further negotiations before players actually vote to decertify.
They'd need a simple majority -- or about 230 players -- to actually decertify and open up a whole new proverbial can of nightcrawlers.
This ain't over, either way:
Stern is hoping the league's rank-and-file players step forth by Wednesday and push to accept a deal they dislike but that will save the season. But that's unlikely.
And a move to decertify the union doesn't mean it will actually ever really happen and thus implode the season, but rather is a tactic intended to get the league to negotiate more seriously.
Stern said the owners will accept the deal if the players approve it by Wednesday.
"We made a proposal because we hope it will be accepted by Wednesday," Stern said. "I'm not going to make percentage guesses (on the odds the players will accept). We want our players to play. We'd like to have a season and these are the terms upon which we're prepared to gear up and play as many games as possible...
"We want to allow enough time for the union to consider our recent proposal and we are hopeful they accept it. But it doesn't aid the negotiating process just to leave it hanging out there. We've indicated where we will be going if we can't make a deal on the current proposal."