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Steve Aschburner

With busy week, lockout reaches first major crossroads

Posted Sep 12 2011 9:41PM - Updated Sep 13 2011 6:52AM

NEW YORK -- A series of NBA-related meetings this week in Manhattan, Dallas and Las Vegas, one might argue, could be to a timely resolution of the league's labor lockout what Punxsutawney Phil is each year to Groundhog Day.

We're talking real either-or stuff here. As in, either the clouds part, the sun shines and there's progress bordering on a breakthrough in the tricky negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement ... or NBA fans find themselves facing two more weeks -- or months, or longer -- of shadows and uncertainty over the entire 2011-12 season.

Rather than an early spring, what the basketball set has at stake now is a routine autumn, one in which training camps open on time, preseason games delight crowds in Fresno, Wichita, Grand Rapids and Albany and all those involved -- players, coaches, referees, concessions workers and so on -- hit the ground running on Nov. 1 for a full season.

Both NBA commissioner David Stern and National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, when their meeting adjourned last Thursday in New York, said there was time to get a deal and preserve the season. If this week comes and goes without movement toward the middle in this labor dispute, that claim likely won't be made anymore.

Camps are due to open Oct. 3. The first tune-up games are set for Oct. 9. The last time NBA owners locked down the sport, back in the 1998 offseason, one exhibition game (Miami vs. Maccabi Elite of Israel) got whacked by Sept. 10. Two weeks later, 24 more were scuttled and the start of camps got pushed out indefinitely.

So while a deal eventually will turn on the issues and how well the owners and the players close the considerable gaps in their respective positions, the calendar is prepping for its close-up, too.

"If there's any intention of trying to get [camps] started on time, then we both have to figure some things out very quickly," said union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers. "That's just the reality of the situation."

After meeting three times in a span of eight days in small-group sessions -- just four or five principals per side -- the talks Tuesday will necessitate a move from a suite to a board room: The owners will be represented by Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and their labor relations committee, headed by San Antonio owner Peter Holt. The players will have members of their executive committee in attendance, doubling or tripling the contingent -- Fisher, Hunter, economist Kevin Murphy, attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and Ron Klempner -- that handled the most recent sessions.

The larger groups haven't met since late June, when talks broke down and the owners imposed the lockout on July 1. For the past two weeks, having fewer voices (and agendas) in the room led to a noticeable seriousness of tone, an absence of fire-bomb rhetoric and a sense -- undocumented and uncorroborated, but still a sense -- of progress toward, well, some sort of mutual understanding.

Coming strong with numbers now could be either an opportunity to share the results and fresh ideas with the full committees or it could simply amp up the noise and dissent in the room. That's why the adjective "pivotal" is being tossed around a lot -- no one seems to know quite which way the process will pivot.

After Tuesday's session, with the possibility of more talking Wednesday, the two sides will retreat to consider and discuss the latest developments. The owners' Board of Governors meeting will be held Thursday in Dallas, while a large number of players will get a report that day from Fisher, Hunter and the rest at the Impact Basketball camp in Las Vegas.

The key issues remain: the split of basketball-related income and a hard vs. soft salary-cap system. In the just-concluded CBA, players received 57 percent of BRI, leaving the owners with 43 percent -- and claimed losses of $300 million for the 2010-11 season. The owners are seeking a hard salary cap, they say, to control payroll costs and ensure competitive balance between large- and small-market teams.

The union believes that a hard cap would lead to few guaranteed contracts. It has offered to cut its share of BRI to 54.3 percent, while urging more aggressive revenue-sharing between teams as a path to competitive balance.

The two sides, while not divulging details of the latest talks, spoke of "ideas" that they discussed, though neither the owners nor the players was believed to have submitted a new formal proposal. "I wish that I was in a position to say we knew when NBA players would be back on the court and we're getting close," Fisher said, "but we're just not at the point where we can make those type of statements."

By the end of this week, maybe, they will be. Good or bad.

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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