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Steve Aschbruner

Maybe Black Friday a day for crazy NBA deal

Posted Nov 25 2011 5:35PM

When the NBA labor negotiations broke down two weeks ago, disagreement over a half dozen or so significant "system issues" between the two sides was blamed. How significant? The owners and the players essentially had agreed on the money split -- going 50-50 on basketball-related income -- but only if each got what it wanted in the system.

And each wanted it all.

The owners came with a proposal detailing their wants on issues such as the mid-level exception, sign-and-trade deals and additional luxury-tax penalties on big-spending teams. The players considered that offer and, rather than countering this time, chose to disband their union and hit the NBA with an antitrust lawsuit.

Apparently the time had passed for tweaking or "you get three, we get three" horse-trading.

"We literally needed all six issues to make it palatable," said Maurice Evans, a member of the former union's executive committee and a Washington Wizards free agent forward. "And the additional issues -- the split contracts, the rollbacks on group licensing and state-of-the-art drug testing programs -- there were all kinds of additional items ... even the international expenses they wanted the players to share in. There were just too many issues that we could not resolve."

That's where collective bargaining officially ended on Nov. 14. That's where settlement talks unofficially began on Tuesday, now that attorneys from each side of the antitrust litigation are leading the discussions, even with familiar faces from both sides in the room and the legal gears still grinding.

And that's the backdrop against which they all were working -- talking, anyway -- Friday in what appeared to be an attempt to find compromise, step away from the lawsuit and salvage a 2011-12 NBA season that could begin by Christmas.

Derek Fisher, former president of the former National Basketball Players Association, was in New York for the settlement talks, with both sides reportedly agreeing that Fisher's involvement would not be taken as a sign that the union still exists as a formal bargaining agent for the players. Anything that transpires in such out-of-court discussions, analysts say, would not be used to support or attack either sides' legal claims.

David Boies, the players' lead attorney, was in the room along with Jim Quinn, now also working on the players' side. Quinn's involvement is presumed to be helpful in facilitating discussions given his long history with NBA commissioner David Stern, dating back to the Oscar Robertson case in the 1970s. Quinn had an active role in other CBA negotiations, including the 1998-99 lockout, and was suggested by as a potential voice of reason after an interview more than a month ago.

Other key players reportedly joined the lawyers as talks continued Friday, including Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and San Antonio's Peter Holt of the league's labor relations committee from the owners side. Fisher and former union executive director Billy Hunter were said to be in attendance for the players. But Jeff Kessler -- the outside counsel who has a contentious relationship with Stern and the owners -- was "involved" but not present, according to multiple media reports.

Now, Black Friday is a day known for outrageous, hard-to-believe deals. But could one actually be attainable in the NBA, if not on the actual day then at some point through the weekend?

"Maybe" seemed to be the safest guess. Talking is better than not talking, and the overlay of litigation may have added elements of uncertainty and seriousness to the dispute. The calendar was responsible for some sense of urgency -- though it's worth noting that Christmas came and went in 1998 without NBA games and there still was a season that winter (it ran 50 games from Feb. 5 to May 5, with a labor agreement on Jan. 6).

The bigger concern, though, is whether both sides could both be satisfied at this point, given the gulch between them when talks failed. If, as Evans said, the players need all remaining issues to go their way, that might be tough. Ditto if the owners do not budge considerably.

Some players still prefer to lean on their litigation. Some owners believe the players have not felt a financial squeeze enough, losing only one paycheck (the next is Dec. 1) and with an influx of last season's escrow money (and cut of BRI underage) hitting their accounts. And each time anyone speculates on a salvaged season with more games crammed in than the calendar would suggests -- a 72-game schedule starting Dec. 15, a 66-gamer that tips off on Christmas -- it would seem to argue against urgency.

Here are some of the biggest system issues still in dispute, with the owners' latest offer and the players' preference noted:

• Sign-and-trade deals: The owners are offering to continue these for tax-playing teams for the first two years of a new collective-bargaining agreement. The players want all teams to have access to them for the length of the CBA.

• Escrow money: The league wants escrow bumped from 8 percent to 10 percent of all players' contracts, with a "true-up" mechanism to take back more money across the board if their contracts exceed the 50-50 BRI split. The players are against the "true-up." [It is important to note that, in the zero-sum game of BRI, any money returned to either side -- this year's underage from the owners to the players or a hypothetical "true-up" going in the other direction -- it would simply align with the overall 50-50 split.]

• Mid-level exception: The owners have suggested alternating contract lengths per team of four years, then three years, then four and so on. The players want all non-taxpaying teams to have a four-year MLE each year. A starting salary of $5 million was acceptable to both sides.

• "Mini" MLE: Teams whose payrolls already are into luxury-tax territory would have a reduced MLE in the owners' offer ($3 million starting salary, three years maximum length). The players want all teams to have the same MLE ($5 million, four years). Players see this as a freedom issue -- they want the opportunity to go to a big-spending team for the same money as they could get elsewhere. And they believe that by keeping the big-spenders in the market, overall bidding would stay high. The owners want free agents steered, in essence, to other markets so that talent gets disbursed.

• "Repeater" tax: There remained some differences in the levies on teams venturing into tax territory in four of any five seasons. The owners sought additional penalties of $1 at each break point of $5 million in excess payroll; the players were at 50 cents at each.

• Sign-and-extend deals: This one has been dubbed the "Carmelo Anthony rule" because it would curb situations like the one that played out in Denver last season, with Anthony having leverage to both get traded to his team of choice and sign a maximum contract extension using "Bird" rights for free agents. The owners want a six-month buffer on such deals; a player couldn't be traded for the first six months after signing such an extension or he couldn't sign an extension for six months after getting trade. The players are against this -- and it's a big divide given how much speculation would occur in any salvage season over Orlando's Dwight Howard, New Jersey's Deron Williams and their future whereabouts.

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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