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Steve Aschburner

Labor talks to resume, but calendar still might not be right


Posted Sep 26 2011 11:16PM - Updated Sep 27 2011 6:23AM

NEW YORK -- As labor talks resume Tuesday on day No. 89 of the NBA lockout, both sides have "events" on their side that might suggest a newfound seriousness, and perhaps even bestow some leverage, to move the negotiations along.

The owners inflicted the first actual damage on the NBA schedule late last week, postponing the start of training camps Friday and canceling the first week of preseason games (43 in all). Practices and tune-up games are not the equal of regular-season showdowns either in importance or revenue, but a willingness to whack the former suggests an openness to zapping the latter, if that's what management decides it will take to get the deal it craves.

The players, meanwhile, got another letter from union president Derek Fisher urging unity and the patience needed to outlast what Fisher portrayed as an ownership group divided on the issues of a hard salary cap and revenue-sharing. "There are a number of team owners that will not lose the season over the hard cap system," Fisher wrote in the letter obtained by ESPN.com.

So each has the other side right where it wants it? Not exactly.

There still is leverage to come, if either side wants or needs it. With arrows still left in their respective quivers, in fact, it is possible that the time still is not right for a compromise.

But look at it this way: The owners seem to view the current crop of NBA players as more or less the same as those who participated in the 1998-99 lockout. As in, vulnerable to a bunch of free spenders in their midst who will cry "Uncle!" with their second missed paycheck, if not their first.

They seem to be underestimating the players' preparedness this time, whether in their private handling of money or from the structuring of contracts to stretch 2010-11 pay closer to the coming season. Let's not forget, either, the influx of cash -- modest by percentage (eight percent-plus) but considerable enough for a lockout kitty -- being rebated to the players from the league's escrow account this month.

The owners also might be underestimating the job options available to players overseas. No one claims that NBA players need to find 100 percent employment in Europe, Asia or elsewhere; a critical mass of stars-mixed-with-role players working abroad might be enough to rattle owners. (It could backfire, too, if those left behind begin to feel more desperate and vote accordingly. But the larger point is, global job opportunities were nearly nil in the last lockout.)

Meanwhile, the union might be working from some risky assumptions about the owners. The players seem to be counting on a group of 29 to splinter and cave -- over financial and philosophical differences -- before its own group of 450 starts to seriously fray. Even though a few rebellious owners still would have to corral 16 votes to shape a settlement their way. Just 10 percent of the players popping off, however -- and remember, they don't face $1 million fines for their free speech -- could quickly create momentum in a direction the NBPA would not welcome.

If the players know anything about their owners, they surely know that these entrepreneurs and businessmen have game-planned every possible scenario for these negotiations. The start of camps and the first week of preseason games, for instance, didn't get cancelled by accident. It was a shot across the union's bow by bottom-liners comfortable in picking up and aiming that particular gun.

And since the lockout has gone this far, the players have to wonder: Why would the owners end it now? If management doesn't get the concessions it wants in September, why would it wait until October, November or beyond? And if the owners did get from the players now what would be, in a perfect world, a perfectly acceptable compromise, why wouldn't they turn the screws a little further and hold out for even more? Right up to and possibly beyond the point of decertification by the union and a lost season for everybody?

They know the players aren't as frantic as they'll eventually get. They have targeted this offseason for years as the one in which some hits might be taken, some sacrifices made to push down player compensation to a happier, more profitable place. What, they're going to blink on the brink of getting what they desire?

So it's true that the union canceled a regional meeting in Miami on Tuesday so that Fisher, executive director Billy Hunter and the attorneys could meet again in New York with NBA commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and labor-relations chairman Peter Holt. A session Tuesday afternoon possibly could bleed into a Wednesday gathering.

It's true, too, that camps were supposed to open next Monday (media days) and Tuesday, hammering home the urgency not to burn through October. Everything on the NBA calendar is vulnerable once it gets about two weeks out, so the real games of Nov. 1 soon enough will be on the clock.

From all outward indications, the time is right for the owners and the players to make a deal. From the inside? Maybe not so much. But they'll be talking again Tuesday.

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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