NEW YORK -- After nearly eight hours of bargaining Saturday, negotiators for the NBA and its players association broke for the weekend -- still with no agreement and no regular season games lost, but "closer" to a compromise on system issues, commissioner David Stern said.
At the suggestion of National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, the two sides "decoupled" the issues of the split of revenues and the system that would go with it, attempting to "break down the mountain into separate pieces," NBPA Derek Fisher said. The two sides exchanged proposals "back and forth," players' committee member Maurice Evans said, and agreed to meet again Monday in a small group with only the top negotiators and attorneys and Tuesday with the full bargaining committees.
"We're not near anything," Stern said. "But wherever that is, we're closer than we were before."
Hunter characterized the two sides as being "miles apart" even on the system issues that separate them as the owners and league negotiators try to incorporate system changes they feel "entitled to," Hunter said, by virtue of dropping their insistence on a hard team salary cap. Stern said no announcement regarding further preseason games being canceled would be made Monday, but warned that it's "day by day" after that.
Stern did not answer a direct question about when regular season games would have to be canceled, saying, "Stay tuned."
"I don't know whether the 11th hour is Tuesday or not," Hunter said. "... Time is moving in that direction."
The "modest movement" on system issues that one person in the negotiating room described to CBSSports.com came only after the two sides, at Hunter's suggestion, agreed to separate the division of basketball-related income (BRI) from the system issues such as the cap, contract length, nature of exceptions and luxury tax. The decision to tackle the two major sticking points in the negotiations separately came after players threatened to walk out of the bargaining session Friday upon learning that the owners have not moved off of their standing economic proposal that would give the players a 46 percent share of BRI -- down from the 57 percent they received under the agreement that expired July 1.
"We're very far apart in BRI and made no progress in that," NBPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said. "So we tried to see if we could make any progress in something else."
Of course, the system changes each side would be willing to tolerate in a finished agreement would be inextricably linked to the split of revenues. According to a person briefed on the negotiations, the players would be willing to accept more system restrictions if they achieved a BRI share of 53 percent, but there is no chance they would accept what the owners are proposing at their current offer of 46 percent or modestly more than that.
For example, at 53 percent there would be a willingness on the players' part to discuss modifications to the mid-level exception, eliminating base-year compensation and other restrictions such as the owners' proposed luxury-tax system, which in its current form would charge a tax of $1-$4 depending on how far over the tax a team spent. The owners have proposed reducing the starting mid-level salary at $3 million, while the players have signaled a willingness to negotiate down to $5 million from last season's level of $5.8 million.
In addition to BRI and system issues, the other key piece of the puzzle is the owners' revised revenue sharing system, which Stern has said would triple and then quadruple the existing pool of $60 million. On Saturday, Hunter called the owners' revenue-sharing plan "insignificant." Sources say it isn't just the amount of revenue sharing, but the timing of its implementation, that is holding up that part of the deal.
Under the owners' revenue-sharing proposal, the Lakers would contribute about $50 million and the Knicks $30 million toward an initial pool of $150 million, sources said. There is reluctance, according to one of the people familiar with the talks, on the part of small-market teams to increase the players' share of BRI to beyond 50 percent without a stronger commitment from the big-market teams to share more -- and to share more quickly in the first year of the deal. Some big-market owners are pushing for a more gradual phase-in of their increased sharing responsibilities and are reluctant to take the hit this coming season, one of the people with knowledge of the talks said.
Given the sheer numbers of issues and the distance between the sides, Hunter said, "It's a pretty wide gulf that we're dealing with."
But make no mistake: While the two sides remain entrenched on economics and don't see eye-to-eye on system, either, the work of building an agreement from the ground up -- piece-by-piece through a system both can agree on -- and then backing into the economic split is the only way this is going to get done in time to preserve regular season basketball.
"We weren't going to be able to make major, sweeping progress on the entire economics and the system at the same time," Fisher said. "We felt that maybe if we split them up and try to go at them one at a time ... we can at least get some momentum and some progress going."
The passion and emotion that were exhibited Friday were replaced by a "mellow" astmosphere on Saturday, according to Hunter. This was partly due to the negotiating process being focused on specific system issues as opposed to being more "rambling," as deputy commissioner Adam Silver said, and hinged on avoiding -- for the time being -- the most difficult problem facing the negotiators: how much of the league's $4 billion each side gets.
In addressing the passion that erupted early in Friday's session attended by superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and others, Stern acknowledged a "heated exchange" with Wade. Without addressing the specifics of how Wade took exception to Stern's pointing and lecturing, Stern said, "I feel passionately about the system that we have and what it has delivered and what it should continue to deliver for the players and the owners. And he feels passionately, too. And I think that if anyone should step up on that, it’s my job, on behalf of the owners, to make the points that need to be made."
The stars were mostly absent Saturday, with LeBron, Wade and Melo heading to North Carolina to play in committee member Chris Paul's charity game. Among the players joining Fisher and committee members Evans, Roger Mason, Theo Ratliff and Matt Bonner on Saturday were Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Arron Afflalo and Ben Gordon. The owners' committee was the same as it was Friday -- i.e. no Mark Cuban or Wyc Grousbeck -- with James Dolan leaving early to join the NHL's Rangers on an overseas trip.
Silver singled out Pierce in particular for being vocal in the bargaining sessions, and joked, "You have have heard Dwyane Wade had a few things to say in the meeting. ... The owners certainly heard the passion from the players and right back at them from the owners."
So what happens next? In a perfect world, the small groups of top negotiators are able to tailor the issues discussed the past two days into the framework of a system each side can agree to. Then, as Hunter said, it has to be "linked up again" with the split of revenues. To get all owners on the same page, the sharing of that revenue has to be addressed, too. In the absence of significant progress by Tuesday, the league will have to cancel another week or the remainder of the preseason schedule. Regular season games wouldn't be far behind.
But if a deal is going to get done to avoid all that, this is the only way to do it: divide the mountain of problems up and tackle each one separately. The stakes only get bigger, and the positions more entrenched after the next five days. The mountain gets bigger.
"The window is now to get a deal," one front office executive said.
And if not now? Brace yourselves.