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Steve Aschburner

Labor talks difficult to gauge, will continue next week

Posted Sep 9 2011 6:41AM

NEW YORK -- After two weeks of meeting in the small groups that are so nimble in talking through the issues in the NBA's ongoing labor dispute, the two sides will open up their sessions next week to bigger numbers of owners and players.

Is that a good thing? Hard to say.

The possibility of meeting Friday for a third consecutive day was snuffed Thursday afternoon, with the parties agreeing instead to reconvene in New York Tuesday in the larger groups, bringing back into the room members of the NBA's labor relations committee and the National Basketball Players Association's executive committee.

But any negotiating momentum next week will max out at two meetings, because both sides have prior commitments for Thursday. The NBA has a Board of Governors meeting scheduled in Dallas, while the union will provide a lockout update in Las Vegas to players at the Impact Basketball fall league.

Which means what, exactly? Too soon to know.

And so it goes.

Absent any details for where the two sides stand in hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement -- What sort of split do they have in mind for basketball-related income? Any movement on hard vs. soft salary caps? -- it is difficult to gauge if the latest developments are positive, negative or somewhere in between.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern -- though he probably has an opinion in private -- wasn't willing to say which way the arrows are pointing in the shift from small groups to large.

"I don't really know that it's positive or negative," Stern said after Thursday's 5 1/2 hour session. "I just think it's time to bring the parties in the room who are ultimately responsible for either making a deal or deciding that there shouldn't be a deal."

Because the two sides have done such a good job after the past three bargaining sessions of buttoning up on specifics and rhetoric, the air time and stories in search of sound bites and incendiary quotes have had blanks filled in by media folks and fans.

The result has been a Rorschach test, people seeing what they want to see or, in some cases, what they most fear. Progress? Depends what the tea leaves or tarot cards say, apparently, because the men in the room have not been sharing.

And when you don't know what goes on inside a meeting, it can be tempting to pull undue meaning from the frequency, location, length or -- now -- the size of the meetings.

But frankly, at this point, the NBA lockout is the proverbial glass, either half-full or half-empty depending on your own outlook.

Consider these five reasons to be optimistic that a new CBA will be struck in time to preserve the entire 2011-12 season:

Meetings and more meetings

From the start of the lockout on July 1 to Aug. 30, the two sides met just once. Since Aug. 31, they have met three times for a total of about 18 hours, with another sitdown set for Tuesday. The latest sessions were narrowed to the minds and consciences that matter most. Now those 9-12 men will be augmented by other key voices, the first step toward selling the deal to the players and owners overall.

• Sticking to the agreement

If the parties can pull off their self-imposed "gag order" and keep the dial turned down on emotions and vitriol, they might manage to navigate the business differences between them too. There has been a sobriety around the latest talks, seemingly an acknowledgement that an NBA season is bigger than either side. Therefore, these custodians of the game need to do what it takes to preserve the coming 82-game schedule.

Roger Mason's tweet

Mason, a level-headed veteran most recently with the New York Knicks and a member of the NBPA's executive committee, either did or didn't put out a message on his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon that suggested a deal was close and there would be an NBA season. Mason, about 20 minutes later, disavowed the tweet, saying that his account had been hacked. Those who were skeptical of his explanation, though, felt that perhaps some progress had been made, with Mason getting an update from union president Derek Fisher or executive director Billy Hunter. (Fisher has a Twitter account while Hunter does not.)

The NBA knows its place

The NFL is the 800-pound gorilla of pro sports and what's left of October belongs to the MLB playoffs and World Series. But the NBA cannot allow itself to drop off fans' radar screens for a whole season or even half of its usual calendar. Christmas is a big deal to this league. Thursday night doubleheaders (and TNT's Inside the NBA wraparound show) are a big deal. The franchises can't withstand the marketing damage of a lost season and the players can't afford to lose a season's worth of wages that they could never make up. Besides, there's a "back to work" mentality that kicks in after Labor Day and, in this economy, that should mean 450 pro basketball players as well as all the arena and team workers, too.

Show them the money

The damage done by the lockout so far has been minimal. Even a rearrangement of October's preseason schedule wouldn't be too severe, since the games don't count and often aren't even broadcast. But the financial blows start to sting in November and they all know it. Owners like to collect money from ticket buyers, not give it back. As for the players, so resistant to the league's proposal of an 8 percent salary cut, consider this: Most of them get paid from November through April, two paychecks per month, for a total of 12. Missing just one of them would represent an 8.3 percent loss. Missing two would leave them worse off than any givebacks the owners are seeking.

Consider, now, these five reasons to be pessimistic that a new CBA will be struck in time to preserve the entire season:

Tick, tock

If this were an old Hollywood movie, the pages of a calendar would be fluttering by like leaves from a blower. Maybe new technology can shorten the lead time needed to postpone or cancel games, refund money, alter itineraries and so on, and maybe October really is an NBA straw man. But 13 years ago, the NBA only got to Sept. 10 before it sacrificed a game to the 1998-99 lockout, canceling an exhibition between Miami and Maccabi Elite of Israel. By Sept. 24, 24 preseason games were whacked and the start of training camps was postponed indefinitely. One day soon, something is going to go crunch in this lockout.

Tone isn't content

The meetings have been cordial. But there is no sense of movement from the sides' respective positions. In fact, going by what little has been offered, the union seems to be pitching alternative strategies that might help the owners address their financial and competitive-balance problems, so it doesn't bear the brunt of the desired "reset." Tinkering with the draft and rewriting trade rules could be examples of that. But the owners have been clear that slashing player compensation and installing a hard-cap system are vital to any new deal.

Size does matter

The small group approach is ending, or at least on hold for now. Getting more voices in the room means more attitudes, more opinions, more misdirection and more time lost to keep everyone on point. It's hard to envision the captains of industry who run the league's teams and, for that matter, the "brands" and mini-conglomerates who play in the NBA -- and their agents -- not airing their views and derailing what otherwise might have been productive smaller sessions.

Both sides are prepared for this

Some owners are said to be spoiling for a now-or-never fight. Players have been prepped by the union to boost savings and pare expenses. Some of them also have legitimate sources of basketball income from overseas teams. Certain agents seem unhappy about a settlement that might come too soon or easily. If we can learn of people who actually were disappointed that they hunkered down for naught when Hurricane Irene blew by them, it's reasonable to think there are some on both sides who want to see this get worse before it gets better.

It's all for appearances

The real cynics among us see what's gone on lately -- the respectful comments, not airing new grievances publicly -- as mere posturing to calm the public. Or maybe to convince the NLRB that each side is bargaining in good faith. Even if these latest sessions have been conducted in earnest, the good ol' college try doesn't assure a timely deal.

What both Stern and Fisher have been saying -- there's no deal until there's a deal -- seems to hold at this stage for any characterizations of the negotiations. There is no optimism or pessimism until there is a deal, either.

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

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