NEW YORK -- Calling it a "key moment" in efforts to reach a collective bargaining agreement, commissioner David Stern said Wednesday that the full negotiating committees from both sides will meet Friday and through the weekend as they try to save the 2011-12 season.
"There are enormous consequences at play here on the basis of the weekend," Stern said after league negotiators and representatives for the National Basketball Players Association met for a second straight day at an Upper East Side hotel. "Either we’ll make very good progress, and we know what that would mean – we know how good that would be, without putting dates to it – or we won't make any progress. And then it won’t be a question of just starting the season on time. There will be a lot at risk because of the absence of progress."
In addition to the players' executive committee and the owners' full labor relations board, union president Derek Fisher said several "key players" will be attending Friday's meeting. Among them are expected to be LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, sources said, with other stars like Amar'e Stoudemire and Kevin Durant possibly joining the negotiations.
Deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the two sides agreed to expand their presence because "whatever decisions we are now going to be making would be so monumental" as to require the presence of those who'd be signing off on them.
You didn't have to read to closely between the lines to catch the meaning from Stern and Silver, who sought to ratchet up the pressure on getting a deal or risk not simply an on-time start to the season, but indeed the whole thing. With training camps already postponed and a first batch of preseason games canceled, Stern said the two sides are "at a period of enormous opportunity and great risk."
"I can't say that common ground is evident, but our desire to try to get there I think is there," Fisher said. "We still have a great deal of issues to work through, so there won't be any Magic that will happen this weekend to just make those things go away. But we have to put the time in. We have a responsibility to people to do so."
The incremental rise in doomsday talk from Stern signaled that the negotiations are entering a new phase, where the threat of a canceled season will become a leverage point for both sides. If no agreement is reached by the end of the weekend -- the four-week mark before the scheduled regular season opener -- it would be virtually impossible to get a subsequent deal written, hold abbreviated training camps and a preseason schedule, and pull off a shortened free-agent period.
And yet neither side evidently was prepared to move enough Wednesday to get within reach of a deal. That moment of truth, one way or another, should come in the next 96 hours.
Once the league agreed to replace its insistence on a hard cap with the more punitive luxury tax and other provisions -- a "breakthrough," as one person familar with the talks called it -- it sparked "the process of negotiation" that the two sides have arrived at now.
"There could be some compromises reached," the person said.
According to multiple sources familiar with the talks, the owners did not enhance their economic offer Wednesday, instead focusing on using systemic changes to hit the number they are seeking to achieve -- still 46 percent for the players over the life of a new deal. The problem, sources say, is that the players are not willing to accept a deal at that percentage, and that some of the systemic adjustments the league has proposed as alternatives to a hard team cap will act like a hard cap -- such as a luxury-tax system that rises from dollar-for-dollar tax to $2 or more.
NBPA executive director Billy Hunter has called a hard team salary cap a "blood issue" for the union, and Fisher wrote in a letter to the union membership this week that he and Hunter will continue to oppose any deal that includes one "unless you, the group we represent, tell us otherwise."
In addition to what they presented as hard cap alternatives -- which also included a reduction in the Bird and mid-level exceptions -- league negotiators also have presented a concept that could drive a wedge in the players' association. In exchange for keeping certain spending exceptions in place -- albeit in a reduced form -- one idea floated by the owners was a gradual reduction in existing contracts -- the "R" word, as in rollbacks -- that would minimize the financial hit for players who will be signing deals under the new system.
Such a proposal would alleviate the problem of players such as James, Wade, Stoudemire, Anthony, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson having outsized contracts compared to stars who'd be faced with signing lesser deals under a new system. In essence, the players who already are under contract would take a percentage cut in the early years of a new CBA -- 5 percent the first year, 7.5 the second and 10 percent in the third year, sources said -- so that players like Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams wouldn't bear a disproportionate share of the burden when they sign their max deals under the reduced salary structure the owners are seeking.
The provisions are not geared strictly for the star class of players; in fact, the proposed rollbacks would be across the board, "for everyone," a person with knowledge of the idea said. And while this concept may alleviate the problem of having future stars bear more of a burden, it would create other problems -- not the least of which is the players' unwillingness to accept a percentage of BRI in the mid 40s that would make such rollbacks necessary.
It is for this, and other reasons -- such as restrictions the owners would want even in a soft-cap system -- that a person familiar with the owners' ideas told CBSSports.com Tuesday night that what they were proposing was deemed "alarming" by union officials.
And it is why Stern said Wednesday, "We are not near a deal."
"I'm focused on, let’s get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season," Stern said. "And that’s what’s at risk this weekend."
But amid all the comments made throughout these negotiations, it was an ordinary fan who hit a home run Wednesday with the most sensible statement yet. As Hunter and other union officials spoke with reporters on the street outside the hotel hosting negotiations, a guy in a white luxury sedan stopped in the middle of the street and started pounding on his door panel.
"We want basketball!" the fan shouted. "Stop the playing and get it done!"
He then drove off, heading west, having made the most sense of anyone.