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Commissioner David Stern and the players will meet on Thursday before the midnight ET deadline.
Image courtesy NBA TV

On eve of deadline, likelihood of compromise looks slim

By Steve Aschburner,
Posted Jun 29 2011 9:37PM

NEW YORK -- Just because the NBA's owners and players appear ready to pack it in, as far as negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that could preserve the 2011 offseason and quite possibly save the 2011-12 pre- and regular seasons, that doesn't mean everyone else is done bargaining.

For instance, we'll further the discussion with this: If the two sides can agree to continue talking, we pledge to watch round-the-clock replays of "The Decision" until a deal gets done. Repeated viewings of LeBron James and Jim Gray in that gym in Greenwich, Conn., would make for a better summer than what we're facing, if the league gets thrown into a lockout for the fourth time ever and first in 13 years on Friday at 12:01 a.m. ET.

Bargaining, at this point, beats denial (of how grave the situation has become) or acceptance (that labor peace will only be achieved after financial pain is inflicted). But bargaining is down to mere hours now -- if that, given the prospect of negotiators from both sides merely restating their current positions or maybe just glaring at each other at a noon meeting in midtown Manhattan.

After all, the opportunity to wrangle behind closed doors Wednesday came and went without a meeting. The likelihood of finding middle ground on so many divisive issues, moving off their diametrically opposed stands, in a single afternoon -- or making enough progress to extend the midnight deadline and turn a lockout into a less onerous moratorium -- looks to be slim.

Billy Hunter, excecutive director of the National Basketball Players Association, has been prepping his membership for the threat of a lockout for 18 months, before and throughout the multiple face-to-face sessions. David Stern, NBA commissioner, has identified that tactic of last resort as something to be avoided if at all possible.

Yet here they are, about to let the air out of a marvelous balloon of a 2010-11 season, doing -- times 30 -- what the Timberwolves did last week when the bounce they got from Ricky Rubio's arrival and Derrick Williams' drafting went thud with the awkward rumors about coach Kurt Rambis' ongoing limbo.

James caught untold grief last July for taking his talents to South Beach. The owners and the players, en masse, might usurp him atop roundball's list of reigning villains by taking their talents -- and their money and their diplomacy and any capacity for problem-solving -- and just going home.

No free agency (at least not until much later). No summer league. No rookies straining at their leashes, ready to go. No buzz about the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks or the Miami Heat's counter move next time. Nothing about the up-and-comers in Chicago or Oklahoma City or the proud regroupings in Boston, San Antonio or Los Angeles.

Normally in sports, when a conflict gets down to the final anything, the excitement builds, pulses quicken, interest grows, ratings soar. But deadline day for the current CBA -- D-Day -- is the anti-Game 7, the opposite of crunch time. Not to decide, in this case, is to decide. The winners, if there are any, might not be known for weeks, months or longer.

Think of a really great playoff game, deadlocked in the final minutes, heading into a timeout that does ... not ... end. Everyone stays in their huddles, nobody blows a whistle or sounds a horn, the commercial count stretches into the hundreds, then the thousands. And then your flat-screen goes dark.

"There's still such a large gap," union president Derek Fisher said after the players did not bring a fresh counterproposal to the most recent bargaining session last Friday. "We've expressed our reasons why we don't want to continue to move economically."

Economically, the players' most recent proposal offered salary givebacks estimated at $500 million over a five-year CBA, which would shave their share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to 54.3. The owners talked on June 21 of a deal that would guarantee $2 billion annually to the players in salary and benefits over 10 years, pegged to their current $2.17 billion share. But the union maintains that specifics of that plan would cut the players out of anticipated growth from television contracts and elsewhere, costing them a projected $7 billion over the term of such an agreement.

Beyond the disputes over actual dollars -- that is, over millions and billions of dollars across deals of whatever duration -- there is a philosophical difference over the hard salary cap the owners favor vs. the current "soft" cap with multiple exceptions. Also, the stalling talks are complicated by the parallel unknown of revenue-sharing among the 30 franchises.

Stern has said that 22 teams are losing money, contributing to a combined loss of about $300 million this season. The pressure on all teams, big-market and small, to compete in a system that permits richer owners to outspend some rivals by 100 percent, 150 percent or more is unsustainable, the league contends.

But the players believe they are being pushed to fix a problem that could be better attended to by owners evening out the disparities in income from, for example, local broadcast rights and ticket sales. The owners, competitive as they are, say they can address that topic in full only after they know what their player-compensation costs will be.

The players see the red ink sloshing at the ankles of struggling teams as caused, first and foremost, by poor management decisions (bad contracts given to the wrong players) along with some debt service on franchise purchases. The owners blame it on a system that punishes many of their number if they try to keep up with the big spenders -- or punishes them if they choose not to, leading to poor on-court performance, fan apathy and sagging attendance.

Teams in New York, L.A., Chicago or Miami need those in Sacramento, Memphis, Minnesota and Milwaukee for a viable, truly national league. The union has 450 jobs to defend rather than just 75 or 150 only if the weakest franchises continue to operate. In the black, ultimately.

"It was said 100 times in the meeting [Friday]: The system and the economics are intertwined in a way that it's hard to talk about one without the other," Fisher said.

In a matter of hours, the two sides might be talking about neither. The last time negotiations broke off and a lockout was imposed, back in 1998, 45 days passed before the owners and the players got back into a room. When they did, they stayed for only 90 minutes. No one seemed to feel any real urgency until paychecks failed to drop in players' mailboxes, until owners lost games, ticket revenues and sponsorship money.

NBA fans made and broke New Year's resolutions before the bickering parties agreed to a deal on Jan. 6, 1999. And that might be an optimist's prediction this time, if the owners' and players' heels are planted as firmly as they appear.

"This is a negotiation that is going to yield its endpoint," Stern has said, "and I think the one thing that's clear is that both sides have an enormous amount to gain from making a deal and an enormous amount to lose by not making a deal."

Midnight could become the negotiation's dead point rather than its endpoint. The losses start mounting from there.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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