Sides beginning to sense urgency as lockout stalemate continues
Friday's meeting yielded some optimism, but little progress toward a new deal
Paul Pierce played a pivotal role Friday, unifying players and providing leadership
If the lockout goes into the season, David Stern predicts positions will 'harden'
NEW YORK -- No deal is imminent, and ending the lockout may not be possible in time to save a full 82-game season. So went the sobering message that was delivered between the lines Friday, at the end of the first day of a long weekend of NBA lockout negotiations.
"There are a lot of so-called secondary issues that haven't even been discussed among the parties," said NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver. Those problems will need significant time to resolve, but the owners and players can't broach those differences until they've dealt with the larger issues of how to divvy up $4 billion in annual revenue and how the competitive balance of the league should be organized.
Each side appears committed to its point of view, as demonstrated by the appearance of 11 owners and more than 15 players at the session, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce. Their powerful presence led to a few confrontations with the owners, as hinted by union president Derek Fisher.
"In a long meeting of this magnitude you're going to have volatility back and forth," acknowledged Fisher, the Lakers' five-time champion point guard. "We tried to do the best job we can -- stepping out of the room when necessary, continuing dialogue when necessary.
"It's an open room. Everyone is an adult. We can say things we feel need to be said. At the same time, this is business and there's a certain level of professionalism that is required. Anytime it gets personal, emotional, then it's our responsibility to bring it back and keep everybody focused on what the goal is, and that's to get an agreement done."
There was widespread speculation entering the weekend that the union might be willing to make compromises in order to salvage the income from a full 82-game season. But two union sources said the players agreed to hold firm during an emotional private meeting Friday before the afternoon negotiations, with crucial leadership provided by Pierce, the 2008 NBA Finals MVP of the Celtics.
The union leadership reviewed the recent give-and-take of the negotiations amid repeated questioning by Pierce and heated talk from James. Others spoke up as well, but when Pierce was told that the union had already offered to cut its revenue-share from 57 percent to 54 percent of Basketball Related Income (BRI) in order to help the owners deal with their operating losses, he urged his fellow players to unite behind Fisher and union chief Billy Hunter in not yielding further.
Of course it is understood that the players will eventually have to make additional compromises in order to reach an agreement; the union has admitted it was willing to make a larger financial concession as recently as Sept. 13 in exchange for maintaining the current luxury-tax system. It also must be noted that the owners will argue -- with equal frustration -- that the union's current downgrade to 54 percent of revenues doesn't cover all of their reported losses.
What matters most to the players this weekend is their ability to remain unified, and to that end they succeeded. They entered the negotiating session believing they were on the same page. One union source said Pierce had a "galvanizing" impact on his fellow players.
"I've been here, I've seen the first lockout [as a rookie in 1998-99], I understand fully what's going on," Pierce told SI.com. "It's just about driving the best deal for both sides so we can start the season, that's basically what we're trying to do."
Pierce has long been a leader within the union. He is known to have a good relationship with Hunter, and it was Pierce who came up with the idea of outfitting the players with "STAND" T-shirts (implying they would stand together) last June as the lockout approached. Pierce deferred to Fisher when asked if the union should make further financial concessions. "We're making our moves, that's where we stand," said Pierce. "It's a process. It's hard to say are we closer or are we farther [apart]. Right now we're just putting all our ideas out on the table."
One issue that has contributed to the union's reticence has been the owners' ongoing negotiations to share revenues among themselves. NBA commissioner David Stern said the players were told Friday that the owners were zeroing in on an agreement that would redistribute revenues at triple the current rate next season, and rise to quadruple the current rate by year three. "We're not finished with that yet, because we're tweaking it vis a vis our teams," said Stern. "But we told the union that."
The fact that the owners have yet to finalize an agreement on revenue sharing one month before opening night has contributed to the union's skeptical view that the players are being asked to do what the owners of the richest franchises are unwilling to do -- to make the painful sacrifices that will help make small-market teams profitable. But Silver noted that revenue sharing won't undo the $300 million in losses suffered by the league overall this season.
"Revenue sharing doesn't change the aggregate economics," said Silver. "The union understands that as well. They have our financials. They know what our goals are."
And back and forth the arguments go, never quite connecting on the same plane.
The most promising news is that the two sides were planning to meet again Saturday morning, with the understanding that Stern has no intention to cancel the entire season if an agreement isn't reached soon. "The only thing that we said is that it's hard in terms of negotiations if you start to lose regular season games, because both parties' positions harden," said Stern. "That's why I'm so delighted that large numbers of players came in today and we were able to assemble our [owners'] committee almost at full strength."
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