HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — NBA Commissioner David Stern insisted that there is “no guarantee” that the finish line in this NBA lockout will be crossed today, the day according to all sides. But make no mistake, the proverbial full-court press is on.
That’s sweet music to the ears of basketball fans everywhere.
With Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter smiling and joking with one another as they walked out of that New York hotel late last night signaling that today’s bargaining session (which begins at 10:30 a.m.) could very well be the final push needed to bring our beloved game back, clearly it’s time to make a deal.
If it takes all day and night or even all weekend, now is the time. And there will be around the clock coverage of the proceedings here on NBA.com and on NBA TV, in addition to whatever nuggets we can gleam from our guys David Aldridge of TNT and NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner on Twitter.
Now, a little table-setting for this morning’s session …
Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated: At long last, the NBA looks forward to a day of promise. For the first time since Dirk Nowitzki‘s Mavericks finished off LeBron James‘ Heat in the NBA Finals four months ago, the league is within reach of rescuing itself from ruin. On Friday, the owners and players will convene in the privacy of a New York meeting room in order to salvage the NBA’s season by seeking accord on the crucial elements of a collective bargaining agreement that could enable basketball to be played by early December. Talk of salvaging an 82-game slate — as helpful as that would be financially and inspirationally — is far less important than getting the details right on Friday. The negotiators spent more than 22 hours Wednesday and Thursday hammering away at a new system of financial rules that can maintain guaranteed contracts and free-agent opportunities for players while shrinking the competitive gap between the richest and less-rich franchises. Those recent talks have provided commissioner David Stern with a vision for the rules that will govern the league in a new agreement, as he acknowledged Thursday night with unprecedented optimism. “I think we’ll get there tomorrow,” he said.
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Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: Before tackling the revenue split, the biggest hurdle left to solving the system issues appears to be with the use of midlevel and bi-annual exceptions for tax-paying teams. While details were still unclear how a punitive luxury tax system would work for teams exceeding the salary cap, one league source involved in the talks told Y! Sports on Thursday night: “The tax is not the issue. The exceptions are where the fight is.” The owners have largely relented on letting players use their “Larry Bird rights” to re-sign with teams that are over the cap, but the owners don’t want to permit teams paying luxury tax to be able to sign players to the midlevel and bi-annual exceptions, a source said. The two sides could be closing on a three-year maximum for signing players to the midlevel exception, starting at $5 million per season, sources said. The two sides still have a litany of “B-list” items that they barely discussed in the process, including the draft age minimum, code of conduct for players, drug testing and pensions. Nevertheless, those items often fall into place quickly once the major issues are resolved in talks
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Chris Sheridan of Sheridanhoops.com: Once again, the sides stayed away from the most thorny issue: The split of revenues known as basketball-related income. The owners are offering a 50/50 deal, the players are asking for 52.5 percent, and hardliners on both sides believe the other side should be giving the most when they try to meet somewhere in the middle. The subject has not been discussed since last Thursday, when the owners’ 50/50 offer was presented as a “take it or leave it” ultimatum and led to the acrimonious breakup of the talks. They have taken to calling it “the elephant in the room,” and the elephant will be front and center first thing in the morning, Hunter said as he left the talks. The sides have made progress on many salary cap system issues, but how punitive the new luxury tax will be remains a particularly sore sticking point. The 23 hours have been spent methodically plodding through several other system issues, and a middle ground still needs to be found on several of the particulars (i.e. maximum annual raises, which the union wants to keep at 10.5 percent for unrestricted free agents and 8 percent for others. The owners have been asking that those percentages be cut to 4.5 and 3, respectively, and it is unclear if they have moved off that position). Stern was asked straight up whether it would be a failure of the sides didn’t get a deal done in the next couple days. “Yes.”
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Ken Berger of CBSSports.com: With negative rhetoric at a minimum only a week after the negotiations collapsed last Thursday over the BRI split, team executives around the league were beginning to prepare for a deal to be consummated. Several team executives have postponed international scouting trips they’d normally take at this time of year so they can be in place if and when a deal is agreed to. If a deal is reached, it will take about 30 days before the regular season can begin: at least two weeks to write up the agreement and have it ratified by both sides, and at least a week each of free agency and training camps/preseason games. But while Hunter said the two sides are “within striking distance of getting a deal” on the system issues and moving on to BRI, Silver cautioned that the two sides are “apart on both” the system and the split. Asked about the gap on the system issues, Stern said, “We are not close enough right now. But I expect with a good night’s sleep, we’ll both come in with resolve to get closer.” But team executives who’ve heard this twice before, only to see the talks blow up — on Oct. 4 over the BRI split and Oct. 10 over the system — remained cautiously optimistic Thursday. One executive confided that his gut tells him “this will blow up one more time.”
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Howard Beck of the New York Times: Once the system issues are resolved, the parties need to close the gap on how to split revenue. They are two-and-a-half percentage points apart, the equivalent of about $100 million a year. The union might be more inclined to accept the league’s proposed 50-50 split, or close to it, if the system is palatable. “The two are interrelated,” Hunter said. Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner, said the two issues are “not necessarily related,” but noted that “for deal-making purposes, everything’s on the table, and there’s no question that trades are often made when you have the final pieces of a deal that you need to put together.” The season was scheduled to begin Nov. 1, but the first two weeks have already been canceled, and the rest of November is at risk. The league needs three to four weeks to start the season once a deal is done, meaning opening night might not occur until Dec. 1. League officials, anticipating a resolution, are quietly preparing for an 82-game season. The N.B.A. has begun calling arenas across the league, asking them to keep dates open in late April, according to arena officials. Each team would lose about 12 to 15 games with a Dec. 1 start. But they could reclaim a half-dozen or so games by extending the season through the end of April, two weeks past its usual conclusion. The rest of the games could be made up by adding an extra two to three games per month.
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Henry Abbott of Truehoop.com: A third contributing factor, according to multiple sources, has been the absence this week of one of the union’s most feared negotiators, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler. Owners make no bones of the fact that Kessler, the first name in American sports law, is a bear in the bargaining room. Some point out that the NFL players got a deal only after Kessler left the room. (Kessler might point out that the NFL players didn’t get the best deal.) Much was made of Portland owner Paul Allen‘s appearance in last week’s mediated session. The suggestion was that he was there to send a message that owners were holding a hard line. NBA sources, however, say it was nothing of the sort. In fact, they say, he was there at the invitation of the NBA’s negotiators to watch Kessler. Allen was one of several owners who thought Stern and Silver had made players an overly generous offer of 50 percent of basketball-related income. The league’s lead negotiators essentially replied: Go see for yourself. You think you can get Kessler to go for 47 percent? Good luck to you. In the ongoing dance between Hunter and NBA agents — many of whom feel Hunter is soft, risk-averse or ineffective — Kessler has been seen as something of a shield for Hunter. If a tough lawyer such as that will go for Hunter’s deal, who are the agents to complain? But that shield has been out of action and not, sources insist, because he is in the doghouse.
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Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: Not that you need any more evidence that the NBA labor contretemps is all about money, but the fact the league and players’ union are racing toward a new collective bargaining agreement largely can be attributed to the calendar and the potential game dates contained therein. The carrot in the narrowing distance is an 82-game schedule. The players want it so they can collect a full year’s salary. The owners want it because, assuming they get the deal they want, and they will, they’d love to spread it over a complete schedule of games. There is local television and radio revenue to be pocketed here. The NBA has talked about the need to create a level playing field for teams in the smaller markets, but the only real competitive balance at stake is on the bottom line, not the baseline. So, as the sides spoke again yesterday, the number 82 was a Holy Grail of sorts. Speaking of the lure that brought the NBA and players back to the bargaining table after an ugly break six days earlier, union executive director Billy Hunter mentioned the schedule. The league already has “canceled” two weeks of games, but everyone involved knows there will be a reconfigured slate when the lockout is lifted. “If there was any hope of trying to recapture the lost games and be able to complete a full season of 82 games, then there had to be a way to get back and talk,” Hunter said. Asked if he was hopeful of getting in a complete season, Hunter said, “Yes, I assume that if a deal can be achieved say between now and Sunday or Monday of next week, I think it’s possible.” He then added: “It’s going to be somewhat stressful because of probably the need to do some back-to-backs, as we did in (1999) when we came out of the lockout.”
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Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee: Once this impasse is all over, remember, everyone affiliated with the league will sit around a campfire and croon about making love instead of labor war. And for the ensuing decade – possibly beginning with an 82-game 2011-12 schedule – fans can ignore explanations about the gnarly luxury tax, midlevel exceptions and Larry Bird rights, and table the debate about whether a real partnership exists if one party grabs more than a 50-50 slice of the basketball-related pie. Attention instead will be devoted to LeBron James and his recovery, Dirk Nowitzki and his ring, Steve Nash and his age, the Lakers and no Phil Jackson. Closer to home, of course, the clock is on the Kings and the community’s attempts to secure financing for a new sports and entertainment complex to house youngsters Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson and rookie Jimmer Fredette. But before we can start arguing again about hoops, about trying to squeeze 82 games into a compressed season, a deal has to be finalized. Which means that for the immediate future, the squeeze is still on Stern, Hunter, Silver and Fisher. If an accord is reached within the next day or two – and NBA teams are prepping as if the end of the lockout is near – they can pat themselves on the back for ending the second regular-season work stoppage in history. If not? Let’s not even go there.