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David Aldridge

As latest deadline nears, time has come for some diplomacy

Posted Nov 9 2011 3:09PM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- We're at the diplomacy stage.

This is the time when both sides talk to one another through the media as much as they do with one another, even as they trash the media for inaccurate or slanted reporting that each side has gone to great lengths to slant in their direction over the months. But we are useful tools (make sure you keep the "useful" part in front, please), so if this is what is needed to end this thing, like Bill Withers said a long time ago about something else entirely, keep on using me, until you use me up.

For example, for all the talk about how united the players were on Tuesday -- and the visual of standing 40 strong behind executive director Billy Hunter and union president Derek Fisher was a powerful one -- the message the union sent to the league was this: We can move on 50 percent of Basketball-Related Income. You, the owners, can get a favorable BRI split.

"The players are clearly of the mind that it's an unacceptable proposal," Hunter said during the union's news conference Tuesday. "But because of their commitment to the game and their desire to play, they're saying to us that we want you to go back, and see if you can get a better deal. And that we're prepared, we're willing to authorize the board to move on certain things if in fact we can get the things that we've said we need in the system."

And when Commissioner David Stern talked to us Tuesday night on NBA TV, and I asked him if there was any wiggle room left from owners on the system issues that the players say must be changed, he was quite specfic.

"As of Saturday, or Sunday, at 3 in the morning, there was none left," he said. I do not want to put words in his mouth, but my interpretation is thus: No wiggle room on the offer the players made over the weekend, which was for "50 percent plus one," a 51-49 split of BRI for the players in which 1 percent would be set aside to help retired players with benefits and health care improvements. But, as Stern knew when he talked to us, the union had indicated a willingness to move off of that proposal to get a deal done. There may be business to be done on the system if you'll give me some more BRI sugar.

And when Hunter talked with me on GameTime a few minutes later, he made a point to discuss the current leadership of the union board, as well as the cross-section of players that came to Tuesday's meeting, as a sign of how unified the players were --and, by inference, what the league could face in future negotiations if the makeup of the board changes.

"The fact of the matter is, that these players may be even more strident (than in 1998)," Hunter said. "And I keep saying it, it's almost like a joke. But I may be the pacifist in the room. I may be the guy who's more interested in getting a deal maybe than some of the players. And so I have kind of, many times I have to talk them off the cliff. And say to them, 'listen, it's not about pride and ego. It's about what's right, what's fair, what's reasonable. And that's all we're talking about."

Translation: you really want to deal with an agent-led union the next time?

All of that is to say this: Wednesday is the day all of the trends of these eight months - - the hard-line stance of small-market owners to change the previous system, the equally hard-line stance of agents looking to hold the line on player givebacks and their willingness to hold Hunter's feet to the fire to do so, the ability of Hunter and Stern to hold the line against the forces that would like to see both of them out of the way -- come together, in what is expected to be one more meeting before the league's deadline before it takes last weekend's proposal off the table and replaces it with a more punitive one.

The union laid out its five chief system issues Tuesday: the prohibition of sign-and-trade deals for teams over the tax threshold; the league's "mini mid-level" for tax payers of only two seasons, starting at $2.5 million in the first season, and which could only be used every other year (the union has proposed a four-year deal starting at $5 million that would also be limited to every other year); the "repeater tax" amount the league seeks to levy on teams that go into the tax for a third time or more in a five-year period (which is on top of the increases to the dollar for dollar tax in the previous CBA that the union has signed off on); the so-called "cliff" that would penalize teams that go into the luxury tax infrequently as harshly as teams that do it reguarly, and the additional escrow teams are seeking from the union in case the players wind up with a larger share of BRI than they're supposed to get.

The union doesn't like any of these, but I suspect the sign-and-trade ban, the repeater tax and mid-level exception differences are the ones that stick in the craw the most.

Do you know how many teams have paid the luxury tax three times or more in a five-year period since the implemenation of the tax in 2005?


This is according to cap guru Larry Coon's numbers. Please feel free to look for yourself; I'm sure he'll love the additional page views. (It's under question 16: "What is the Luxury Tax? Why does it exist? How is it determined? Who pays it?")

Dallas has paid the tax every season since '05, for a total of six times overall. The Knicks paid every season from '05 to 2010, a total of five times. The Celtics have paid the tax four straight seasons since 2007, as have the Lakers. The Cavaliers paid three years in a row from the 2007-08 season through the 2009-10 season. The Nuggets went into the tax three times in a period from the 2006-07 season through the 2009-10 season. And the Spurs paid tax three times in the period from the 2005-06 season through the 2009-10 season. (Orlando has paid the tax three times, but not in a five-year period.)

Seven teams. That's about 23 percent of the league. And, one suspects, Cleveland won't be paying luxury taxes again any time soon, the Spurs will be done as soon as Tim Duncan calls it quits and the Melo-less Nuggets are no longer on the fast track. And with the huge increases in penalties for tax payers already agreed to by the two sides, who in his right mind would start paying the tax now? So, really, we're talking about four teams that are likely recidivists in the future -- the Mavs, Knicks, Lakers and Celtics. It's hard to believe the league is willing to stand on principle on an issue that practically affects 13 percent of its teams.

Along the same lines, though, the union can't seriously maintain that it cannot abide an abolition of sign-and-trade deals by tax payers. By its own account, such trades have occurred just five times over the past few years. Is giving up something that is such a miniscule part of the NBA transaction landscape worth $2 billion of your time?

Keep a few other things in mind as well as we get through this pivotal day -- while also keeping in mind that, while the sides still have a ways to go to make a deal, we are about two months ahead of where we were in '98:

* It's true, the league has said it will put a new, harsher proposal on the table at 5 p.m. Wednesday that goes back to the 53-47 BRI split in favor of the owners and the "flex cap" NHL-style, harder salary ceiling. But even if the NBA does so, it's just a proposal, not an ultimatum. Which means it can be negotiated up as well as down. Just because the owners start there doesn't mean they finish there, and if you dovetail some give by the players on BRI with some give by the owners on the system, you get very close to a deal.

* There are a good portion of hard-liners among the owners. But guess who isn't a hard-liner? The owner of the New Orleans Hornets, which just happens to be the NBA. And guess who else probably isn't today? Atlanta Spirit, the new/old owners of the Atlanta Hawks, who were put back in charge of the franchise last week when Alex Meruelo's deal to buy the team fell through. It's a pretty good guess that Atlanta Spirit will be willing to eschew whatever concerns it may have about a new deal in order to secure the help of one David J. Stern to help it make the best possible sale for the team. Those are two important votes the Commish has in his back pocket. And who knows how many other teams are on the block, and whose owners that are otherwise hawks might fall in line to facilitate a future sale?

The beat goes on. The season, alas, does not.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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