Are owners, players closer to a deal than it seems? Maybe.

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David Stern spent a lot of his post-negotiating session Tuesday trying to make a point — that the players walked away from a fair deal, a 50/50 split of “basketball related income.” It felt like spin at the time, in part because it was an informal concept and part just how Stern portrayed it.

Well, it was his spin. But a few reports from inside the bargaining room – particularly by Ken Berger at CBSSports.com — have leaked out and the reality of those informal conversations was that the owners and players made real progress. The two sides may only be a couple percentage points apart, meaning more like $80 million a year than the $240 million in the last formal proposals from either side.

Still, that may well not be enough to save the start of the season. There are a whole lot of hurdles in the way to make a deal a reality.

Here is how Berger describes what was discussed.

The league’s offer, according to three people familiar with it, came in a range of 49-51 — with 49 percent guaranteed and a cap of 51 percent, the sources said….

While the owners were caucusing, a member of the players’ group returned with a counterproposal — approximately 52 percent of BRI for the players with no additional expenses deducted. The players’ counterproposal followed the format presented by the owners — a 51-53 percent band with 51 percent guaranteed and a cap of 53. League officials rejected the offer, the sources said.

So while Hunter and Stern remained publicly entrenched in the economic positions of their most recent formal proposals — with the players asking for 53 percent and the league offering effectively 47, the reality is this: the gap has closed to 2 percentage points of BRI, the difference between the midpoint of the two offers.

For the record, union officials are ticked at Stern for taking a side conversation public.

There is hope there, if you’re feeling optimistic (50-52 percent range seems the middle ground, although how many expenses the owners get to take off the top impacts that number). That said, there are also a whole lot of hurdles between where the sides are late Tuesday night and where they need to be to get to a deal. Likely too many.

The primary one is that no talks are scheduled. David Stern sounded like a man who wanted to talk again and he is waiting until Monday to cancel regular season games in hopes the players union will make one more push, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo. However, union chief Billy Hunter sounded like he was in no rush to meet again saying talks may not resume until next month.

That was in part because of the constituency in the negotiating room. Agents and star players — guys like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant who were there Tuesday, and LeBron James who was there last week — do not want the union to accept anything less than 53 percent of BRI. The entire rank and file does not feel the same way, but the stars are the hardliners and they likely can pull a majority with them right now.

Which brings us to the next big hurdle — Hunter and Stern both would really have to sell a deal like the one informally discussed. Hunter already has agents talking decertification of the union and sending letters out to clients telling them not to accept a deal they don’t like. The stars can afford to hold out and be hardliners. Hunter would have to convince a majority of players this was a good deal.

Stern has his own hardline owners, smaller market owners and ones who bought in at high prices and want a labor win. This deal would be a major labor win, but would it be enough of one to please most owners? There are some out there that want players to lose paychecks and feel the sting, expecting that to lead to a better deal for owners.

Then there are the system questions — if the players come all the way down to 52 percent of BRI they are going to demand a soft-cap salary system similar to what has been in place. That could be a hard sell with some owners in smaller markets that want to handcuff the spending power of larger markets.

That’s a big mountain still to climb.

But, they can climb it this week or they can pay a lot of lawyers a lot more money for a month or two then climb that exact same mountain later. It’s up to them. All that hangs in the balance is the NBA season and killing the momentum the league has built up in the past couple seasons.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”

 

Report: Hornets’ center Cody Zeller out six weeks following knee surgery

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Charlotte just cannot get over the injury bug this season, and we found out last week it had struck again.

Now we know how severe the damage is, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Ouch.

Zeller has been solid off the bench behind Dwight Howard this season, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a night. He plays around the basket, 75 percent of his shots come at the rim, but his efficiency has dipped a little this season and he is shooting just 50 percent inside the restricted area.

The Hornets had to start the season without Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams has missed time as well. On top of that, coach Steve Clifford had to take a leave of absence from the team for personal health reasons. Stephen Silas has stepped in to replace him.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.