Progress breeds optimism, labor deal “within striking distance”

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Friday could be the day.

But if not Friday it may be this weekend — the NBA season is close to being saved. Maybe not all of it, but most of it, enough to have an asterick-free, credible NBA season. Progress through two more days has everyone, even the participants, hopeful.

NBA Commissioner David Stern says it would be a failure if there is not a new NBA labor deal reached in the next few days.

“There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get a deal done but we’re going to give it a heck of a shot,” Stern said in a post-talks press conference (broadcast on NBA TV).

That statement was made after more than seven more hours of talks on Thursday. That followed a marathon 15-hour session Wednesday, and Friday morning the two sides will be back at it at 10:30 a.m.

There is a real sense of optimism that a deal is near, a framework that would start the clock toward the opening of training camps and the start of the NBA season around Dec. 1.

If you want a really good sign, Stern stood in the back of the players association press conference and laughed with union head Billy Hunter on issues. The two sides don’t go near each other’s press conferences when there is acrimony.

Reports are that progress was made on the luxury tax issue on Thursday, which had been one of the key sticking points of the talks so far. The owners had wanted a more punitive tax that kept big spending teams in line, the players wanted something more akin to the old system. We don’t know what that progress looks like but there are multiple reports of the gap on that issue being closed. We have heard that things such as the Bird rights (allowing teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own free agents) and allowing teams in the luxury tax to make trades will be part of the new deal, increasing player options on where to play and for how much.

“I think we’re within reach (on system issues), within striking distance of getting a deal,” Hunter said.

There are still big hurdles ahead, ones that could mean negotiations will need to go through the weekend or even into next week.

For one, the two sides have yet to talk about the split of basketball related income (BRI) — the revenue that comes into the league through ticket sales, television deals and just about everything else down to hot dog sales in the arenas. That has remained a key sticking point, the owners wanted a 50/50 split (which isn’t a true even divide, the owners take expenses off the top), while the players have not gone any lower than 52.5 percent. There had been a sense that if the “system” framework was in place BRI would be easier to divide, but that is not necessarily the case.

Stern said he expects everything to be discussed on Friday, and Hunter told Chris Sheridan BRI would be the first thing discussed Friday. (Which means a long meeting Friday is a good sign.)

One other challenge — once a deal is reached, Stern and Hunter need to sell the deal to their hardline constituencies. That has blown up previous progress in these talks (we’re looking at you, Kevin Garnett and Paul Allen).

But right now there is a real optimism around the league that a deal is close. Team general managers have cancelled scouting trips to be ready for a free agency period, team ticket sales offices have started making calls to renew seats and agents are starting to pitch teams about their clients (through back channels).

It feels like a deal is coming sooner rather than later. But after this long and bitter fight that has seen the first two weeks of the regular season cancelled, until Stern and Hunter are shaking hands on a podium nothing is certain.

LaVar Ball confronts wrestler at WWE event (video)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LaVar Ball has brought his Big Baller Brand from the basketball court to the wrestling ring.

The outspoken father of NBA draft No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball showed up with the newly minted Los Angeles Laker and another son, 15-year-old LaMelo, for a live segment on Monday’s “WWE Raw” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

During the segment, LaMelo Ball twice used the n-word, which was broadcast over the air. WWE says in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the language “was not scripted nor reflects WWE’s values.”

For LaVar Ball’s appearance, the ring was decorated with mannequins displaying his Big Baller Brand clothing line. He got in a heated confrontation with WWE wrestler The Miz, and took his shirt off to cheers from the crowd.

Bulls, with Michael Carter-Williams, first team to decline extending qualifying offer to Rookie of the Year

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Just four years ago, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year.

Now, the Bulls don’t even see a $4,187,599 qualifying offer as worth extending.

David Kaplan of CSN Chicago:

Credit Sam Hinkie for trading Carter-Williams (to the Bucks) at just the right moment, netting the 76ers a valuable Lakers first-round pick that Philadelphia used to trade up for Markelle Fultz. Carter-Williams hasn’t nearly lived up to the typical production of a former Rookie of the Year.

The Bulls got Carter-Williams far cheaper from Milwaukee, for Tony Snell (who had a breakout year with the Bucks). But Carter-Williams continued to regress in Chicago. It’s just hard for a point guard with such a shaky outside shot, and Carter-Williams’ injuries haven’t helped.

With a smorgasbord of point guards that now includes Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, the Bulls can move on.

Carter-Williams can probably latch on as a backup point guard somewhere. As an unrestricted free agent, teams will have greater comfort pursuing him. But this is a blow for someone with such a big accolade on his résumé.

Celtics’ reported plan: Sign Gordon Hayward, trade for Paul George

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The Celtics are trying to sign Gordon Hayward.

They want to trade for Paul George.

It seems those goals are not mutually exclusive.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Boston Celtics are pursuing an aggressive summer plan of sequencing the signing of free agent Gordon Hayward and relinquishing the assets needed to complete a trade for Paul George, league sources told The Vertical.

For salary-cap purposes, Boston wants a Hayward commitment before it can finalize a trade for George and secure the most dynamic free-agent coup in franchise history, league sources said.

For Boston, here’s the hitch: While Indiana believes Boston can offer the best possible package, the Pacers may be unwilling to wait until the start of July free agency on Boston’s timetable and could turn toward making a deal elsewhere for George, league sources told The Vertical.

The Celtics can clear cap space to sign Hayward. They have the ammo to trade for George. They could do both.

But, as covered before, there’s probably not a path to signing Hayward and extending George’s contract.

So, how much would Boston surrender for George on an expiring contract? The risk he walks in a year, particularly for the Lakers, should lower the Celtics’ offer.

Still, Boston could trade for the Pacers star and roll the dice on re-signing him. Playing with Hayward – and Isaiah Thomas and whichever other players the Celtics keep in this arrangement – would be pretty appealing.

Rumor: LeBron James would ‘never’ join Clippers

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The Clippers hired Jerry West, in part, to help lure LeBron James.

But even with LeBron-to-Los Angeles (Clippers or Lakers) rumors swirling, that plan might not even get off the ground.

Mike Wise of The Undefeated on Freddie and Fritz:

I’m going to give you something on this show, and this is breaking news. Nobody else is going to have it.

I got from a very good authority – a very good authority – that LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I can’t tell you who, but I’m going to tell you it’s somebody that knows, and LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I don’t know if that’s because he remembers what the Clippers used to be, or he just doesn’t want to put his lot in there, or he thinks Steve Ballmer is just too animated on the sideline.

He’s never going to be a Clipper. I’m just telling people right now, for your edification. I’m breaking this on the Freddie Coleman and Fitz show.

I don’t believe in “never” in situations like this. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, teams are just laundry. The Clippers can change owners, general managers, coaches, players. LeBron would remain absolutely opposed to joining?

Maybe, but I won’t go that far without knowing his reason for resisting the Clippers. A lot can change between now and 2018, when LeBron can opt out.

One of the Clippers’ biggest selling points was always going to be Chris Paul, LeBron’s close friend. Reading the tea leaves, maybe this is a sign Paul will leave this summer – for the Spurs, Rockets or somewhere else.