NEW YORK-- Launching a grim opening salvo in what is expected to be a contentious labor negotiation, NBA owners have sent their initial proposal to the players association and are pushing for some elements of a "hard" salary cap as well as a drastic reduction in player salaries, CBSSports.com has learned.
The proposal, sent to the union earlier this week, seeks a reduction in the players' share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to well below 50 percent, according to a person familiar with the document. Owners also are seeking some elements of a hard cap -- a departure from the current luxury-tax system -- and a reduction in the length and amount of max contracts.
Owners and players will meet in Dallas during All-Star weekend for their first face-to-face bargaining session as they try to reach an agreement before the current deal expires in 2011. The talks coincide with the NFL's labor negotiation, in which owners have proposed an 18 percent pay cut for players.
Billy Hunter, executive director of the players association, did not return calls seeking comment on the proposal, which is sure to set a serious tone in talks aimed at averting the league's first lockout since the 1998-99 season. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said league officials would have no comment.
Owners are seeking significant changes to the league's financial structure as many of them face massive losses in the wake of the global economic crisis. In addition to lowering the players' overall share of basketball-related income (BRI), owners are pushing for some elements of a hard cap to replace the current luxury tax system, in which teams with payrolls above the tax line subsidize those staying below the limit, which was set at $69.9 million this season.
But players already are facing a reduction in salaries next season, when the cap is expected to decline from the current level of $57.7 million to between $50 million and $54 million. Most team executives working on financial projections for next season are predicting a $52 million cap.
Union president Derek Fisher, speaking Sunday before the Lakers played the Celtics in Boston, predicted that the owners would "overreach" with their initial proposal and said the players would strongly oppose a dramatic reduction their share of BRI.
One prominent player agent, speaking to CBSSports.com about the impending labor talks, called a hard cap "untenable," but said the owners' financial losses a similar request for pay cuts by NFL owners create a double-whammy of leverage.
"The players will talk tough, but I'm not sure they have a whole lot to hang their hat on," the agent said. "If the NFL is cutting salaries, I think you can expect something similar in the NBA."
If the owners succeed in implementing some version of a hard cap, management sources predict it would drive player salaries down precipitously. The players likely will argue that the luxury tax system is working as a payroll impediment. Only a handful of the highest-revenue teams pay luxury tax in a given year, and a flurry of trades prior to the Feb. 18 deadline will illustrate the union's point. The majority of trades that will be consummated will be driven by teams trying to pare salary to avoid clipping the luxury tax line.
"An NFL-style hard cap is going to blow the minimum-salary and mid-level players completely out of the water," one person familiar with the owners' proposal said. "In any hard-cap system, the owners are going to pay the stars. If there are no exceptions and no ways to exceed the cap, everybody else is going to be left with the scraps."
Perhaps that is why the owners want to go farther than changing the rules; they want the league's highest-paid players to take a haircut, as well. Owners are seeking to reduce the maximum length of contracts to five years for players re-signing with their current teams and to four years for players signing with new teams. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, in effect since 2005, players re-signing with their current teams can be under contract for a maximum of six years. Other free agents can sign for a maximum of five. This would be a way to avoid star players' salaries remaining high while the second- and third-tier players bear the brunt of the overall payroll reduction.
As CBSSports.com reported Jan. 29, a segment of ownership believes that reducing the length and amount of max contracts would wipe out the owners' collective financial losses by itself. But by pushing for a significant reduction in maximum salaries, the owners would be alienating the players who produce the vast majority of revenue for their teams; fans pay to see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, not Daniel Gibson and Dorell Wright.
“If they don’t like the new max contracts, LeBron can play football, where he will make less than the new max,” one team executive told CBSSports.com last week. “Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won’t make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years.”
The negotiations also have implications that are much more immediate than a potential lockout to start the 2011-12 season. Numerous marquee stars, such as James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, have the ability to opt out of their contracts July 1 and become free agents. Most of those players and their agents already were expecting a less favorable CBA in 2011. But if a drastic cut in max contracts becomes inevitable as part of a new labor agreement, such players might be even more motivated to opt out and sign long-term deals under the current deal. Just another wrinkle that could make what is expected to be the biggest free agency period in NBA history even bigger.