The days of “at least they are still talking” being good enough are over.
Just the fact that NBA owners and the players union were sitting down in the same room together was progress enough for a while (because that was an improvement). No longer. Unless Commissioner David Stern and union director Billy Hunter leave a New York hotel Tuesday smiling and talking of serious progress toward the framework for a deal, there is no real chance of the NBA season starting as scheduled Nov. 1.
And it’s hard to see how the two sides — which have been meeting for two years without a deal — are going to suddenly find common ground in one day. Everyone needs to give up more to make a deal work but neither side seems willing to do so. Stern cannot just try to break the union, he has to give the players some victories that they can call a win and a fair deal (why else would they vote to ratify it?). The players — who have already given back more than $150 million a year in total salaries — will have to accept some additional spending restrictions by the owners (a more severe luxury tax on big spending teams) and more.
Both sides said after Monday’s smaller group meeting that Tuesday shapes up as the critical day. A number of owners and players will be in the room and will try to find their way to the framework of a deal.
If they don’t, expect an announcement from the league quickly that all of the NBA’s preseason games have been cancelled (already all games before Oct. 15 have been called off). A second announcement postponing the start of the NBA’s regular season will not be far behind. (It will take about a month from the day a handshake deal is reached to when the first NBA regular season game tips off, and right now there are 28 days left until the scheduled opener.)
The big issue remains the split of “basketball related income” or BRI. In the last labor deal the players got 57 percent and the owners blame that split for why they lost $300 million last season (a number in dispute). In their most recent discussions, the players have reportedly come down to 53 percent, but the owners are only offering the players about 48 percent. That is roughly a $200 million gap in year one of at least a six year deal. The bigger key is aggragate dollars over the life of the labor deal, but if the two sides are that far apart in year one it’s not going to get any better for them in year five. (I still expect the final deal to be around 51/49 with the players getting the larger share).
Beyond that there are issues of system — should there be a hard salary cap (the owners have backed off an NHL-style cap demand) or more like a soft cap that existed before? What kind of exceptions to the cap should their be and how many (for example, teams likely will have one “Bird rule” exception per year, where they can go over the cap to keep their own free agent)? What will the luxury tax structure be? None of this has been agreed to, either.
Then there are the outside pressures, like agents who are considering forcing decertification of the union against Hunter’s wishes, something reported by Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo. This would be the nuclear option, essentially agents trying to oust union chief Hunter and throw the issue to the courts. If there is no deal Tuesday, you can expect some agents to push for this.
With all that, it’s hard to see how the framework of a deal can be reached Tuesday. The gap is too wide and neither side seems willing to build a bridge. The owners have the leverage right now and seem intent on using it to get a resounding victory, even if that means games are lost.
It’s hard to see how the full NBA season can be salvaged out of all this. But if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen Tuesday.