Posted May 31 2011 10:34PM
MIAMI -- The suspense hanging over what could be anywhere from four to seven games between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat in The Finals is considerable.
It pales, however, next to the uncertainty, anxiety and nail-biting over the NBA's next game after that. Whenever it is played.
The league is a month away from another labor lockout, the inevitable result if the 30 NBA owners and the National Basketball Players Association are unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the current deal lapses June 30. It would send the teams and the players into a money-hemorrhaging limbo of unknown duration, jeopardize the 2011-12 season, bring to a halt forward momentum on all of the NBA's popular and commercial fronts and cost both sides enormous good will with pro basketball fans across the U.S. and around the world.
So if that's not incentive enough to get the principals in a board room, as soon as possible for as long as necessary, nothing is.
Which is what the league and the union will do Wednesday, with an extra bargaining session added to the two already set for Dallas next week.
"The question," NBA commissioner David Stern said Tuesday night, "is whether the owners and the players will be bold enough to do what has to be done here to keep this sport on the tack that it is on now, which is straight up."
Stern announced the large-group session in a news conference about an hour before tipoff of Game 1 at AmericanAirlines Arena. He said that 10 owners and a "large contingent" of players would meet on the off-day between Finals games at an undisclosed Miami location.
Amid all the urgency in Stern's message, delivered with deputy commissioner Adam Silver at his side, was a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud: The commissioner said he expected both sides to make their best offers before July 1, the date on which the potentially lengthy shutdown of all NBA business would begin.
Why would that be so?
"Because if they don't, then there's going to be a lockout that would destructive of our business from the owners' perspective and the players' perspective," Stern said. "So that's why we've schedule these sessions and why we've scheduled more."
Oh, so maybe the silver lining is more tarnished than shiny after all.
"Once you go into a lockout, everyone knows the offers get worse, not better," the commissioner said.
The gap between the two sides reportedly never has been greater. The league maintains that as many as 22 teams will lose money this season. That's the result, Silver reminded reporters, of a current deal that guarantees the players an increasing share of revenues growing more slowly than the franchise's non-player costs of doing business.
"For example," Silver said, "the three key players on the Heat [LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh] all have 10 ½ percent per year increases built into their deals for the next year at a point when revenues in our business are growing somewhere around three percent. It's a broken system."
The players, led by the union's executive director Billy Hunter, believe that the current system is working fine. They balk at the league's ambition to reduce payrolls by $700 million to $800 million and see provisions such as a hard-salary cap, shorter contracts and the loss of guaranteed money and cap exceptions as deal breakers.
Stern said again that the NBA has not proposed a "franchise player" tag similar to what the NFL has used to keep star players with their current franchises. And after leaving open during the news conference the possibility that a hard salary cap could cause a star-laden team -- Miami, for example -- to shed one of its hefty contracts and lose a player, Stern clarified later.
"That hasn't really been raised," he told a smaller group of reporters. "I would expect them to be together [under any new rules]."
Asked if the previous negotiating talks had produced any common ground, or if he expected some on particular issues in sessions Wednesday or next week, Stern was not encouraging.
"Nothing moves the needle until the needle is moved," he said. "In other words, we have no agreement at any point until we there is agreement on everything. So we don't break out [issues]."
In one lighter aside, Stern joked that "we told the players and the owners to bring their negotiating talents to South Beach." But it wasn't all that much lighter.
In other league topics:
• The Board of Governors approved the sale of the Detroit Pistons to a group of investors led by Tom Gores. The deal is expected to close this week.
• Stern let an easy alley-oop question about Dallas owner Mark Cuban's uncharacteristic public silence lately pass without slamming down a dunk. "It's too delicious, but I'll let it pass," he said. "I just think that he's trying to be as supportive as he can of his team, and he's doing a heck of a job."
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