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Steve Aschburner

Last, best chance to preserve season begins now

Posted Sep 30 2011 7:29AM

NEW YORK -- Enormous consequences.


Big numbers, big names (including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) and big wallets in a big room in the Big Apple.

Driven finally by an unyielding calendar to seek a resolution to its three-month-old labor dispute (lest it face some ugly mixed bag of or-else's, should it fail), the NBA is about to embark on a weekend the likes of which it hasn't endured in 13 years.

With the 2011-12 season on the line -- to start, in part or in whole -- the details, sub-plots and moving pieces of progress toward a possible settlement will increase geometrically when owners and players meet Friday, with time blocked out Saturday and Sunday should talks merit it. The stakes, meanwhile, have gone up exponentially since NBA commissioner David Stern talked of the urgency at hand.

"Let's get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season," Stern said Wednesday after a session that set up these next several. "That's what's at risk this weekend."

Pulses may quicken but the pace of the negotiations still might not. There were, first of all, conflicting interpretations of some of Stern's comments that day. Some media folks thought he was threatening to cancel the season unless a deal gets done in coming days. Others thought he was focused only on the damage that will be inflicted on the opening weeks of what, under normal circumstances, would be the NBA's most highly anticipated season since ... well, last year.

A few felt the commissioner was signaling to both sides, but particularly to the players, that contract offers and lockout ramifications would only get nastier if the league's opening night Nov. 1 and some number of subsequent games get scuttled.

So far, the price paid for three months of lockout -- a lost offseason, preseason games already canceled and those still to get whacked and an inevitable rush-job through free agency and training camps -- has been the equivalent of a fender bender: unfortunate but driveable.

What happens next, if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't soon approaching handshake form, will be a 14-car freeway pile-up at rush hour. With broken glass, twisted steel, costly repairs and (gulp) casualties.

Losing regular-season games means revenues foregone on all sides. Tickets get refunded, sponsorship deals need adjusting, broadcast money eventually must be rebated. Players start missing paychecks, each bi-monthly pay day (for the majority of players paid from November through April) representing 8.3 percent of their salaries. The ripple effect on other workers -- vendors, ushers, employees in restaurants and other businesses near NBA arenas -- begins to hit hard.

There would be prices paid as well with those who seriously follow pro basketball, with casual sports fans, even with the population that ordinarily couldn't care less about the NBA. The league would, respectively, open wounds, lose standing and risk looking silly against the backdrop of a hemorrhaging job market and an ailing U.S. economy.

Both sides are coming with numbers this weekend. Most or all of the owners' 11-member Labor Relations committee is expected to attend, with Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, attorneys and perhaps with a few more interested moguls.

The union will be represented by president Derek Fisher, executive director Billy Hunter and NBA players who serve on its Executive Committee. Also Hunter invited stars such as James, Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and other marquee names to the weekend sessions. One reason is to make sure all classes of players -- rank-and-file and franchise guys -- participate at what could become the crunch time of these negotiations. Another is to put recognizable faces out front for the union in the secondary battle over public relations and goodwill.

The specifics of each side's proposals -- or "ideas and concepts," as they've become prone to saying -- have changed incrementally since the lockout was imposed on July 1. And both stressed when they wrapped up Wednesday that a deal was not close.

"No, I can't say that common ground is evident. But our desire to try to get there, I think, is there," Fisher said. "We still have a great deal of issues to work through. So there won't be any magic that will happen this weekend to just make those things go away. But we have to put the time in."

The owners' two main issues remain: the amount of money dedicated to player compensation, as dictated by the split of basketball-related income, and the salary-cap system in which it is delivered.

Significant changes to both are needed, Stern and Silver have said since negotiations began nearly two years ago, to stem what became a $300 million combined shortfall in 2010-11, consistent with the losses in each of the six years of the recently completed CBA. Twenty-two of the 30 franchises, the owners contend, were not profitable last season.

The soft salary-cap familiar to most fans -- replete with exceptions for most coveted star players and free agents -- has led to disproportionate payrolls in which, Stern has said, only the elite teams seem to have a realistic chance of winning a championship. "Even if a league where one team could pay [$100 million] to its roster [and] another team could pay 50 ... would be economically successful," the commissioner said in mid-September after the Board of Governors meeting in Dallas, "our owners and our fans don't want it because it wouldn't be competitive."

The owners, after earlier pushing for a hard cap in which all teams would work under the same salary ceiling, lately has proposed a more stringent luxury-tax approach. Rather than a dollar-for-dollar levy on payroll above the specified cap, they have talked of a 2-for-1, 3-for-1 and even 4-for-1 penalty to discourage largesse. Any additional money generated by a tougher tax would, like the current version, be spread to the league's have-not teams as part of its revenue sharing.

The players consider a hard cap a "blood issue" in these talks and aren't much more interested in harsher tax that might achieve similar results. Their objection: A harder cap would lead to shorter and fewer guaranteed contracts because teams would need to free up payroll before it could improve their rosters. Stars still would get paid -- but role players could be pushed downward financially via shorter deals and less job security.

The players, facing givebacks from the start of these negotiations, have moved from their favorable 57/43 split of BRI to something closer to 53 percent. The owners reportedly want to get that share below 50 percent, though a compromise within a point or two of 50/50, in one direction or the other, is believed to be workable.

Assuming, that is, a thousand other details could be worked out and a variety of ancillary issues -- such as dueling NLRB complaints and parallel lawsuits over the union's decertification prospects -- get resolved.

Egos, for instance. Some of the coverage resulting from Stern's calendar-driven comments Wednesday portrayed them as a threat to the players in general and a challenge of Hunter's autonomy specifically. Wanting to disprove those points could get in the way of productive bargaining this weekend.

Also, there still are reports of factions within the owners' group. If the hard-liners simply aren't ready to make a deal now -- figuring they can squeeze the players for more concessions in the next one, two or three months (or longer) -- the meetings Friday, Saturday and beyond could be more talk-and-walk than make-or-break.

There has been plenty of the former. It sure feels like time for the latter.

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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