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.

Rajon Rondo calls Chris Paul ‘horrible teammate,’ denies intentionally spitting on Rockets star

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Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul don’t like each other. Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife don’t like each other.

And Rondo isn’t letting sleeping dogs lie after the league concluded Rondo spit on Paul and suspended both players for their roles in the Lakers-Rockets fight Saturday.

Rondo, via ESPN:

“Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate. They don’t know how he treats people. Look at what he did last year when he was in LA; trying to get to the Clippers locker room. They don’t want to believe he’s capable of taunting and igniting an incident.

“Exasperating and spitting are two different things. He comes out and says I spit and the media sides with that.”

“Y’all are playing me with these tricks or these mind games, tampering with the evidence,” Rondo told ESPN on Tuesday. “Ain’t no way that I intentionally spit on you with my body language the way it was.

“One, if I spit on you, bottom line, there is not going to be no finger-pointing. If you felt that I just spit on you, then all bets are off. Two, look at my body language. If I spit on you on purpose, I’m going to be ready for a man to swing on me. You ain’t going to have my hands on my hip and my head look away at someone if I spit on them. After the [expletive] goes down, within 30 seconds, you run and tell the sideline reporters that I spit on you? If I spit on you, you are trying to get to me. You not trying to make up a story so you can look like a good guy. It makes no sense to me.

“I was going to let it rest. I wasn’t going to say much. But now I have kids and I teach my kids to speak up for themselves and don’t let the world tell their story.”

Video clearly shows Rondo spitting on Paul. Was it intentional? I can’t read Rondo’s mind. But intent should matter only to a degree. Rondo didn’t control his saliva well enough to ensure he didn’t spit on Paul. That alone should be a violation. Otherwise, players would fill their mouths with spit, start jawing with foes and let it fly wherever it goes.

Was the video we saw tampered with? I’d love to hear more about this conspiracy theory. That’s juicy, though for now (and probably forever), completely unsupported.

Rondo’s explanation that he would have looked more ready to fight if he intentionally spit on Paul also lacks credibility. I mean, maybe. But I’m also not convinced Rondo (or anyone) was acting completely rationally in that heated moment. Assigning cold logic to his actions after the fact doesn’t sway me.

Rondo also brings up the Rockets trying to fight the Clippers, Paul’s former team, after a game last season as evidence of Paul being a poor teammate. If anything, that shows how great of a teammate Paul can be. He wasn’t even with Houston a full year, and his new teammates were already ready to support Paul in his own battle.

Of course, Paul can also be a bad teammate in some ways. So can Rondo.

They’re both intensely competitive. I believe Paul can escalate a confrontation, just as I believe Rondo could.

But I saw Rondo do it this time.

Bucks owner: NBA would have forced team to leave Milwaukee if new arena not built

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The NBA won’t expand anytime soon, but there’s still demand to get a team in Seattle and any number of cities. That means the quickest path could be a current franchise moving.

It won’t be the Bucks, who are playing in a new arena in Milwaukee this season.

But it could have been.

Bucks owner Marc Lasry, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

“We were going to do everything we could to stay in Milwaukee,” Lasry said. “That was ultimately something that was outside our control in that the NBA wanted a new arena, and if we couldn’t get one, they would have forced us to move.”

“For me, I never wanted to be anywhere else, and the simple reason is I like going to games there. We were going to do everything we could to stay in Milwaukee.”

If Lasry and co-owner Wes Edens would have done “everything we could to stay in Milwaukee,” Wisconsin governments did a terrible job negotiating the arena deal. Taxpayers are spending $457 million (more, if you count the absurd naming-rights situation) on the arena. Why pay so much for what will surely be a money-loser for the public? Maybe there’s an intangible value in keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee, but if Lasry and Edens were so determined to get the arena built, they could have contributed more than the $174 million they did.

Instead, they got the state and city to cover most of the costs and are now taking a victory lap.

Now, the NBA can use this as an example to other places: Publicly fund a new arena, or lose your team. And the cycle will continue.

Laker fan drains halfcourt shot… but security shuts down celebration with team

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LOS ANGELES — It was a great night for Ali Sabbouri.

The 26-year-old was selected to take the half-court shot at the end of the third quarter of the Laker game Monday night, and the Anaheim resident walked up and drained it. He was instantly $30,000 richer.

Then he ran around and celebrated as the crowd goes nuts, he gets a high-5 from the Laker girls — but watch security waive him off when he wants to get high-5s from the Lakers’ players.

That is hysterical. I’d feel sorry for Ali not getting a dap from LeBron James… but $30,000 will more than make up for that.

Lakers coach Luke Walton rips officiating: ‘I wasn’t going to say anything. I was going to save my money, but I just can’t anymore’

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The Lakers are 0-3 with LeBron James, and pressure is mounting.

One way to release it: Venting about officiating.

Lakers coach Walton via Kurt Helin:

“Let me start here. … I wasn’t going to say anything, because I was going to save my money. But I just can’t anymore.”

“It’s 70-something points in the paint to 50-something (74 to 50), again they outshoot us from the free throw line, 38 free throws (the Lakers had 26),” Walton ranted after the game. “Watch the play — watch the play where I got a technical, watch what happens to LeBron James’ arm. It’s the same thing that James Harden and Chris Paul shot 30 free throws on us the night before. Then LeBron pulls up on a screen and somebody’s trying to fight over it, same thing they shot free throws on. Same thing.

“We are scoring 70 points a night in the paint. We’re putting pressure on. Josh Hart, watch how plays the game, played 40 minutes tonight, all he does is attack the rim — zero free throws tonight. Zero. I know they’re young, but if we’re going to play a certain way then let’s not reward people for flopping 30 feet from the hole on plays that have nothing to do with that possession. They’re just flopping to see if they can get a foul call. And then not reward players who are physically going to the basket and getting hit. That’s not right.”

I’m not certain Walton will get fined. These comments are borderline. But he asked for it, and the league might abide.

The numbers Walton cites are not convincing. Sometimes, one team deserves more free throws than the other. Maybe the Lakers outscored the Spurs by so much in the paint because the Spurs kept ceding baskets inside rather than fouling and the Lakers kept sending San Antonio to the line for free throws, which don’t count as points in the paint. Also keep in mind: Los Angeles outscored the Spurs 41-7 in transition. Many of the Lakers’ paint points came against a defense not positioned to contest shots, with or without contact.

But Walton is fighting bigger battles – taking heat off his team for losing, showing his players he has their back, making referees think twice on foul calls. If Walton achieves those objectives, a fine will be well worth it.