Are owners, players closer than we think to a deal?

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The conventional wisdom — based on the words out of the mouths of David Stern, Billy Hunter and basically everyone who has been in on one of the NBA labor negotiations — is that the two sides are nowhere near a deal. They are finally getting serious about the negotiations, but the sides remain far apart.

Or are they?

Not according to Chris Sheridan — he formerly of ESPN and the Associated Press, one of the better league-wide reporters out there, who has started his own site (We wish him luck, he’s one of the good ones and you should be reading his stuff.)

Sheridan reports the two sides are closer than you think to a deal.

Yes, under the 10-year collective bargaining agreement the owners have proposed, the gap is indeed somewhere in the area of $7-8 billion range….

Moreover, if you look at years 1, 2 and 3 of the proposals, the sides are a total of $870 million apart. (The players are asking for $2.17 billion in salaries and benefits in 2011-12, $2.33 billion in ’12-13, and $2.42 billion in ’13-14. The owners are offering a flat $2 billion per year.) Or to put it another way, in a business that brought in $4.2 billion in revenues last season, the sides are only $170 million apart for next season….

But here is the key thing, the two most important words to keep in mind as this lockout plays itself out: Aggregate dollars. Right now, the owners have offered the players slightly more than $12 billion in total compensation over the next six seasons. The players are seeking just under $15 billion.

Somewhere in between $12 and $15 billion lies the settlement number, and they’ll get there one way or another.

I want to believe, but….

First off, that is still three billion dollars we are talking about, a healthy chunk of change by even Warren Buffett’s standards. Also, the owners last proposal decoupled league revenue and the salary cap — the players will not stand for that. The players know big television deals are coming and they want a cut.

The other real question to me is: Who is driving the bus on the owners side? Remember, David Stern works for the owners, he has a lot of power but he works at their discretion. There are some owners out there — small to middle market owners who leveraged themselves to buy these teams in the last decade — who want to radically change the economic landscape of the league right now. So far, the harsh rhetoric and the harsh proposals from Stern have been put out to placate those hard liners.

But how far can Stern come off that line? He’s not coming all the way to the players side, certainly. But how far can he come, and on what timeline can he make those steps? As Sheridan notes, issues like a hard-cap are tricky. Do you think the league — coming off a season of the best television ratings and fan interest since the Jordan era — wants a true hard cap that breaks up the Miami Heat? You may hate the Heat, but you watched them in very large numbers. Is breaking up that trio (or forcing the Lakers and Mavs to break up their teams, or squashing what the Knicks are trying to do in New York) really good for the business of the league? Do the smaller market owners care? Is this something where the transition to a harder cap (stiffer fines for going over a luxury tax number, which is the likely compromise) takes place over five to six years not two to three? And we haven’t even touched yet on getting the owners to agree on a revenue sharing deal.

The players are going to have to give up more than they have given up right now to get a deal done. Their best offer is not on the table yet. Neither is the owners. In that sense, there is room or optimism. But when those offers are down on the table, I’m not convinced the gap is as small as Sheridan suggests. Even if I want to believe he is right.

James Harden scores 34, Rockets hold off Timberwolves 129-120

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists, and Houston held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-120 on Sunday night for the Rockets’ 26th win in 28 games.

The West’s top team led by as many as 25 before the Timberwolves, holding on for dear life in a tightening playoff race, pulled within five in the fourth. The loss dropped the Wolves into the eighth playoff spot after they started the day in a three-way tie for fifth.

Harden had 11 points in the final 6:34, including a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left that effectively secured the win.

Chris Paul and Clint Capela each had 16 points for the Rockets.

Jeff Teague led Minnesota with 23 points, Andrew Wiggins had 21, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jamal Crawford each added 20.

The Wolves got a burst of energy after a fourth-quarter scuffle between Gorgui Dieng, Paul and Gerald Green. Green was ejected for coming to Paul’s defense after a frustrated Dieng pushed him down after a foul. With the pumped-up crowd chanting “Gor-Gui!,” Derek Rose had back-to-back layups to pull the Wolves to 109-102. But Paul hit a jumper with Crawford in his face, and Harden easily drove past Dieng for a layup to give the Rockets some breathing room.

Minnesota’s 19-6 run made it 115-110 with 3:58 to play before Trevor Ariza hit a 3, and the Rockets were able to answer every Wolves bucket to hold off the rally.

The game was seemingly over by halftime; Houston shot 63 percent, hit 11 3-pointers and led by as many as 24 in the first half while turning the ball over only three times. Harden had 10 assists in the first half, when the Wolves were as close as three before Houston reeled off a 12-0 run and didn’t allow Minnesota to recover.


Jimmy Butler targeting return to Timberwolves before end of season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Jimmy Butler could return to the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves before the end of the regular season, if he stays on track with his rehabilitation from knee surgery.

Butler spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since the meniscus injury he suffered Feb. 23 at Houston . He confirmed an initial recovery estimate of four to six weeks. Even on the long end of that timetable, he’d likely have two games with the Timberwolves before the postseason.

Butler said he’s confident in both his ability to heal in time and the team’s ability to hang on to a spot in the playoffs. The Wolves entered their game against the Rockets in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, but no room for a slump.

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Gerald Green ejected for pushing Gorgui Dieng into stands (VIDEO)

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I don’t know why everyone in the NBA is so geeked this weekend. Coaches are getting fined, referees are throwing dudes out left and right. Maybe it’s because most of us recently saw the sun for the first time in five months, although I couldn’t tell you for certain.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets went head-to-head on Sunday, something had players on both sides itching. Early in the fourth quarter, Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng got into it with Houston’s Chris Paul and Gerald Green.

The incident came as Dieng was being defended by Paul in the low post. Paul was whistled for a foul while trying to get the ball away from Dieng, but even after the whistle blew the Rockets guard did not stop trying to get the ball. Dieng responded by pushing Paul, who fell to the ground as if someone cut the strings on him.

That prompted another whistle from the refs, and a crowd of players ensued. Green rushed to push Dieng, sending the Timberwolves center into the stands.

When the scene settled, Dieng was issued a technical foul and Green was ejected.

After the game, Dieng told reporters he thought Paul’s constant digging for the ball was a cheap shot, so he responded in kind.

Minnesota, energized, tried to make a late push on the top team in the Western Conference but came up just short. Houston beat the Timberwolves, 129-120.

Alvin Gentry, Stan Van Gundy fined $15,000 each for criticizing officials

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All is not right between NBA players, coaches, and the referees. What else is new?

After contentious games on Saturday night, both Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry expressed their opinions about what they felt was a poor officiating.

Van Gundy — whose team lost to the Portland Trail Blazers as they continued on to their 12th straight win — complained that his players were being “screwed” as they were knocked down, hammered, and hit. Gentry was especially infuriated after a late foul call went against his team as James Harden was hit on the hand while shooting a 3-pointer.

Now, the NBA has announced that both coaches have been fined $15,000 each for public criticism of officials.

Things were slated to get better between the NBRA and NBPA after the All-Star break. The two sides were supposed to have a meeting which discussed some of the more concerning trends that players and coaches have publicly complained about this year. That meeting got moved up to December, with more talks to come later. It’s not clear if they’ve done any good.

Right after All-Star Weekend guys like LeBron James were still making waves about how they are being officiated. Coaches like Doc Rivers continue to openly complain about the referees and draw fines. Van Gundy and Gentry are just the latest additions to the list, and it’s unlikely they’ll be the last before the season ends.

Hell, the end of the game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors was just about as bad as we’ve seen all year. In that game, Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected after a comment made by a fan sitting near the floor was incorrectly attributed to him.

The NBA lost a lot of veteran officials due to retirement in the changeover to this season, and the transition has been rough. They’re going to need to figure some things out over the summer. I expect bigger announcements about those efforts to come out after the NBA Finals as a means to restore public faith in the officiating crews.