Posted Oct 1 2011 7:38PM - Updated Oct 1 2011 9:28PM
NEW YORK -- The longest negotiating session yet in the NBA labor talks produced only modest progress Saturday, offering neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown. No new collective bargaining agreement but no cancellation of games, regular season or even preseason (officially), either.
Instead, it was more of the same: Meetings Monday (small group) and Tuesday (large group) back in Manhattan.
On the first day of the lockout's fourth month, negotiators for the owners and the players spent more than seven hours discussing system issues -- the salary cap, luxury taxes, other structural clauses -- either face-to-face or in their respective huddles.
No time, however, was spent discussing the economic elephant in the room, union attorney Jeffrey Kessler and others said. That is, the split of basketball-related income that will either green-light or red-light every other topic in play.
"We're not near anything," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "But wherever that is, we're closer than we were before."
Said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association: "They put some concepts out, we put some concepts out and we're still miles apart. There's a huge ... gap that, I don't know whether we're going to be able to close it or not."
Ninety-three days in, lest anyone forgets.
At Hunter's suggestion, the sides agreed to "de-couple" the financial and system issues in Saturday's session. This was done, the two sides said, to hone in, maybe take a stab at dividing-and-conquering. Then again, it might have been a case of being so far apart on the former that they opted to take a crack at the latter.
"It at least helped us to focus on a couple of issues," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. "Some of the earlier meetings had been a little bit more rambling in terms of various issues raised, put on the table, taken off the table. Here, there was an agreement there was a set of issues that both sides went back and forth on, and I think it was very helpful."
In fact, there had been attempts at tackling each issue separately in September and even back in June. But the calendar wasn't providing the same urgency then that it is now -- what should be the start of training camps Monday instead will bring only more talking.
The first week of preseason games (Oct. 9-15) has been canceled and it seems only a formality until the balance of October dates will get zapped too. That puts something even bigger on the line: The league's regular season is scheduled to open Nov. 1. But Stern said there would be no cancellations of practice or real games announced Monday.
While Hunter was the one who raised the "de-coupling" idea of money and structure for Saturday, even he acknowledged that the beams inevitably cross. To put it simply, if the economic split -- which favored the players 57/43 in the old CBA -- was appealing enough to one side, it probably could tolerate all sorts of structural concessions. And vice versa.
"When you're talking about the system, you're still sensitive or conscious about the number," Hunter said, "because the number is going to have an impact on the system.
"If we say that we don't want an egregious luxury tax, well, they may want one and it depends on where the number is going to be set what the tax might look like. So if you say you're going to postpone talking about one, it's still in the back of your mind."
Hunter confirmed that the owners' offer on BRI continues to be a 46 percent share for the players. The union has been seeking 54 percent or something closer to it. In lieu of "hard cap" verbiage, the owners have proposed a stiffened and escalating luxury tax that would go from a dollar-for-dollar penalty for exceeding the cap to 2-for-1, 3-for-1 and 4-for-1 levies.
There was a smaller number of players at Saturday's session -- no Dwyane Wade, for one, or LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul -- but several stayed over from Friday, including Paul Pierce, Ben Gordon, Baron Davis and Arron Afflalo. The 10 owners on hand were the same, and both Stern and Hunter said the discussions benefited from the added voices.
As for the tone and intensity of those voices -- Stern admitted to his "heated exchange" with Wade on Friday -- Hunter said: "It was mellow. ... It was nice. There were some light moments where we laughed, and other moments when the voices go up if somebody says something or you think folks are trying to push something on you that they know you don't want.
"But we're all professional. One minute we're at each other and the next minute, we're sitting around drinking tea and talking about something that's much more pleasant."
Stern joked, when asked, that he had wrestled Wade to the floor Friday. He added: "I would guess that neither of us remembers, but there was a heated exchange of some kind. I feel passionately about the system that we have and what it has delivered and what it should continue to deliver for the players and the owners. And he feels passionately too."
Davis, veteran point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, exited the session before its midpoint and called it "very constructive." He also minimized the rancor in the room and said of the Stern-Wade episode: "I think a lot of that was blown out of proportion."
A report on NBA.com required clarification too. Stern did seek out Hunter for a brief conversation, prompting a resumption of Friday's talks. But contrary to information provided to NBA.com, no formal apology to Wade was offered or sought.
As the Saturday session went on -- bumping into a lavish evening wedding at the luxury hotel in midtown Manhattan and mingling the participants for a spell -- it seemed as if serious progress might be made. Instead, it's as if the two sides rolled a proposed Sunday meeting into Saturday's.
Why no talks Sunday? "I generally don't work on Sundays," Hunter said. "I go to church on Sundays. We took off for Rosh Hashanah [Thursday]."
A day to break, review and formulate was likely anyway, though, so if the sides had met on Sunday, Monday probably would have served that purpose. Now the principal figures -- Stern, Silver, Hunter, Kessler, union president Derek Fisher and a couple more -- will gather Monday, with the committees returning to the table with them Tuesday.
Said Stern: "If we didn't think there was any hope, we wouldn't be scheduling the meetings. But that's the best I would say right now."
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