There is a perfect storm of circumstancial information brewing Friday to suggest that the NBPA and NBA are on the verge of completing a labor agreement to end the 2011 lockout and being the 2011-2012 NBA season.
Here's where we're at as Friday's meetings get underway:
The New York Times is reporting that the league has contacted arenas to urge them to hold April arena dates. In short, they're working to secure an 82-game schedule as discussed Thursday, by extending the season and filling in games.
League officials, anticipating a resolution, are quietly preparing for an 82-game season. The N.B.A. has begun calling arenas across the league, asking them to keep dates open in late April, according to arena officials.via For the N.B.A., Negotiations Are Taking ‘Baby Steps’ - NYTimes.com.
Each team would lose about 12 to 15 games with a Dec. 1 start. But they could reclaim a half-dozen or so games by extending the season through the end of April, two weeks past its usual conclusion. The rest of the games could be made up by adding an extra two to three games per month.
Trust us, we'll have a lot more to say about the merits and detriments of trying to force in an 82-game season after missing a month if we get a season. But the bigger story right now is that the league isn't dragging its feet on setting up for the future. It's getting out ahead in anticipation of a deal being struck. This is the new reality after this week's meetings. As Billy Hunter put it Thursday night, the two sides are "within striking distance."
Meanwhile, the breakthrough that has lead to all this goodwill going into Friday's talks? From Sports Illustrated:
Perhaps more important as a sign of progress: The source told SI.com the league has indeed come off its proposal to triple and quadruple penalties for annual taxpayers. It still wants to punish such teams somehow, and it has proposed doing so via increasing the tax rates by a set dollar amount rather than a multiplier. Both sides are mum on the precise details, but the effect would be to limit penalties in the highest tax bracket to something like $4 to $5 for ever $1 over a certain threshold. That’s still quite high — the Lakers last season could have paid as much as $60 million in tax, rather than $20 million, under such a system — but it represents a step down from the harsher system, where ratios could have hit 10-to-1 and beyond for repeat payers.via The Point Forward » Posts Deal is near as players, owners return to table «.
Also, the league has agreed that even teams who pay the tax should share in the revenue the tax generates, a source said. Under the old system, if a team went even $1 over the tax threshold, it forfeited its right to a share of the total tax pot — a check that can range from $2 million to $3 million in a typical season. The two sides are still working out the details, but that represents an important concession to the union.
To boil this down: the players were concerned that a punitive tax system which essentially discourages all spending over the cap would significantly limit players' earning potential. And that's a big deal for them. So the fact that the league has come off it and is working to keep the spending down without lowering a concrete ceiling is huge. Yahoo! Sports reported Friday morning that the "the tax isn't the issue" according to a source, that the debate has come down to the exceptions. Those are things which can be finagled and managed.
So what's the deal with the exceptions? SBNation's Tom Ziller does a great job breaking it down:
But the creation of a second cap at the luxury tax line opens up a whole new zone of negotiation. Should the new collective bargaining agreement contain clauses that allow teams over the actual salary cap to do certain things (like use the sign-and-trade and mid-level exception) but don't allow teams over the luxury tax line to use those tools, the luxury tax line will become a huge deal. Flexibility is king in the NBA, and by creating separate sets of rules for teams over the cap and over the tax line, you do more to tamp down payrolls than any sort of graduated tax could.via NBA Lockout On Verge Of Deal Creating Two Salary Caps - SBNation.com.
It's no wonder that the players' union is fighting the last battles of the system negotiations along these lines. Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the hang-ups on system issues at this point revolve around rules for using the mid-level and bi-annual exception, as the owners want to limit the use of those for tax-paying teams and the players want to keep the exception open to everyone. This is why the battle has settled here: threatening high-spending teams with limitations to their flexibility is more powerful than making them pay a 200 percent tax.
In essence, the system that's starting to take shape doesn't prevent teams from being able to spend a ton of money, which is what the players want, but punishes them by removing their ability to make moves after spending that much, which is what the owners wanted. It disincentivizes teams from spending unless they absolutely should. Which is what everyone wants in the first place. It's almost like... a compromise! So glad it only took us two years and a month of canceled games to get here.
ESPN's TrueHoop brought in a buried lede that has significant impacts in figuring out the dynamics of what's going on with the negotiation. Paul Allen was reportedly the hard-hand brought in to bust the union in last week's doomsday Thursday meetings which broke down. But...(from TrueHoop):
NBA sources, however, say it was nothing of the sort. In fact, they say, he was there at the invitation of the NBA's negotiators to watch Kessler. Allen was one of several owners who thought Stern and Silver had made players an overly generous offer of 50 percent of basketball-related income. The league's lead negotiators essentially replied: go see for yourself. You think you can get Kessler to go for 47 percent? Good luck to you.via Three reasons for the new mood - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN.
In the ongoing dance between Hunter and NBA agents -- many of whom feel Hunter is soft, risk-averse, or ineffective -- Kessler has been seen as something of a shield for Hunter. If a tough lawyer like that will go for Hunter's deal, who are the agents to complain?
But that shield has been out of action and not, sources insist, because he is in the doghouse.
Kessler stands as the leverage for the players, proof that while the union membership may be weak and fractured, the leadership is not. That's a monumental game changer, considering that days after that meeting of disaster, we're here, again, "within striking distance" of a deal.
And finally, a word of caution. Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reports that while progress has been made, the two sides are closer than ever, the tone has shifted, and beams of sunlight are creeping in, we're still in the dark, and with both sides expected to tackle BRI first on Friday, the whole thing could collapse at any moment. From Berger:
But while Hunter said the two sides are "within striking distance of getting a deal" on the system issues and moving on to BRI, Silver cautioned that the two sides are "apart on both" the system and the split. Asked about the gap on the system issues, Stern said, "We are not close enough right now. But I expect with a good night’s sleep, we’ll both come in with resolve to get closer."via Stern on labor deal: Friday's the day - CBSSports.com.
But team executives who've heard this twice before, only to see the talks blow up -- on Oct. 4 over the BRI split and Oct. 10 over the system -- remained cautiously optimistic Thursday. One executive confided that his gut tells him "this will blow up one more time." "
"There’s no guarantees we’ll get it done," Stern said. "But we’re going to give it one heck of a shot (Friday)."
The momentum boat has never had more speed for shore. The two sides have never been so laughy and smiley with one another, to their faces. The league is planning for a deal to be had. The union's description of the talks has altered dramatically, from "concepts" and "ideas" to "the deal" and "within striking distance."
Friday's not the last day, and we've seen this process go awry too often to feel safe. But there's light at the end of the tunnel for the first time since July 1st, and for once, it's not a train.