LOS ANGELES – Just before the All-Star break, LeBron James expressed hopefulness that progress could be made in the NBA’s labor talks so a lockout could be avoided. On Friday, James willingly accepted the leadership role that comes with his stature and called out certain hard-line owners for being unrealistic in their demands.
James was one of several particularly vocal players in Friday’s bargaining meeting, and sources told CBSSports.com his chief complaint was with hard-line owners who’ve bought their teams in recent years and are now trying to dramatically alter the financial system they willingly bought into.
“This has been a 57 percent system for years,” said a person who was in the meeting, paraphrasing James’ message. “This has been a system with guaranteed contracts forever. What did you guys expect? What did you think you were getting into?”
That was among the highlights in an otherwise uneventful bargaining meeting, in which no actual negotiation was accomplished. Though the list of players in attendance was far longer than at last year’s All-Star meeting – in addition to the executive committee and some of the same top-flight stars who attended in Dallas, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Baron Davis, and Al Horford were among those in the room – the tone was much less contentious. But a compromise is no closer to occurring.
“I’m worried about the league,” Dwyane Wade said. “It’s not just about myself, it’s about the future of the NBA. We want to make sure this game continues to grow and continues to prosper. We don’t want lockouts. We want this game to go on for many, many years, and we understand that a deal has to be done. Both sides have to come to an agreement. Neither side is going to come to an agreement if we can’t meet halfway.”
Though National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said the owners’ hard-line position “kind of softened” by the end of the meeting, the owners still are no closer to making a second proposal to counter the players’ proposal. The owners haven’t offered anything new in terms of a formal proposal since submitting their initial slash-and-burn document 13 months ago.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be a formal, written proposal coming from them any time soon,” Hunter said.
And absent that, nor will there be one from the players.
“We won’t submit another proposal” before the owners do, Hunter said. “That’s out of the question. … If we’re going to avoid a lockout, they’ve got to move off the dime.”
Hunter said he will meet with commissioner David Stern next week after the All-Star break and schedule a series of negotiating sessions that will begin in the next 1-2 weeks.
“I’m going to tell my guys to be prepared for a lockout,” Hunter said. “… We’ve got four months. And we’re going to see what we can do in the next four months. If it comes together, good. If it doesn’t, then we put our players on notice.”
Hunter did not back down from his previous prediction that a lockout is 99 percent certain, but said, “We’re going to negotiate. We’re going to make every effort. I keep saying the same thing. I’m beginning to hear myself, like an echo. We’re going to make every effort to negotiate. We want a deal. Our guys do not want to be locked out. But given no choice … if you don’t give us any choice and our only alternative is to fight, then we’ll fight.
“If it means that we’ll have to lose a season to get a deal we can live with,” Hunter said, “we’re willing to do that. We don’t want to, but we’ll suffer some pain.”
The owners James and other players were taking aim at in the meeting were the new, hard-line group that has come into the NBA in recent years – including the owner of James’ former team, Dan Gilbert. Owners like Gilbert, the Suns’ Robert Sarver, the Celtics’ Wyc Grousbeck and the Wizards’ Ted Leonsis weren’t around for the last lockout and rely more on the financial success of their NBA teams than the old-school owners ever did.
It is those new owners, sources say, who are pushing the hardest for dramatic changes, including a hard cap and a reduction in contract length and guarantees. Sources say the players in the meeting were incredulous that owners are suddenly so hellbent on changing the rules they signed up for. The owners offered no response to the challenges issued by LeBron and several other players, sources said, but listened to their concerns in what was termed a “cordial” and “amicable” meeting.
Hunter also said that when the union’s University of Chicago economist asked owners if they would be asking for the same changes if they were making more money, the response was, “Yes.” This was the most significant moment in the meeting, Hunter said, with owners revealing that their goal is not to cut losses but to increase profits.
“We may never have a consensus on what the numbers mean,” Hunter said.
Two key issues that are expected to become contentious – a possible franchise tag and the contraction of teams in underperforming markets – did not get much attention in Friday’s meeting. But Hunter reiterated his insistence that the players will not agree to a deal without seeing details of a vastly improved revenue-sharing system – the creation of which the owners believe should be handled separately from bargaining.
As for an issue that affects a certain free agent-to-be who faces possibly losing millions if he opts out of his contract rather than sign an extension before June 30, sources say Carmelo Anthony emerged from the meeting with no more knowledge about the issue than he came in with. Earlier in the day, when asked about the risk of entering free agency in the first year of a potentially punitive CBA, Anthony replied, “That’s why I’m about to go meet with Billy Hunter.”
“You’ve got guys who’ve negotiated their contracts this past year – LeBron, Chris Bosh, etc.,” Hunter said. “Does that the mean that if a guy like Carmelo comes up while we’re negotiating and if the franchise player tag gets introduced and adopted, that he now suffer as a consequence because he can’t go out on the market? I don’t know if that’s acceptable to me.”