NEW YORK -- After more than two years of often rancorous negotiations, rifts within each side, finger-pointing and name-calling, the NBA and its players have reached a moment of truth in their quest to reach a collective bargaining agreement that would preserve an on-time start to the 2011-12 season.
After setting the table in a five-hour meeting Monday involving a small group of negotiators, the league and union will convene separately and then sit down for a crucial full bargaining session Tuesday. Though the meeting is expected to include at least 10 owners and multiple players accompanying the union's bargaining committee, neither side could say with any certainty whether the moment has arrived to make their last, best offers.
What is clear is that some significant movement will be necessary to at least begin closing the enormous gap between the two sides' positions on the two main issues -- the split of revenues and the cap system -- or the rest of the preseason schedule and some regular season games will be at risk.
"We both understand that if we don’t make our best offers in the next few days, we’re going to be at the point where we’re going to be causing damage to the game, to ourselves, and they're going to be out paychecks," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said.
But even as both sides recognized the gravity of Tuesday's meeting with the scheduled regular season opener less than a month away, the potential for trouble already was brewing.
As opposed to going into the meeting with the more productive small-group format, Tuesday's session is expected to include a potentially strong showing from players who are not on the executive committee. Though it was not clear Monday whether a similar contingent of stars who attended Friday's meeting -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and others -- would be present Tuesday, it was that very format that nearly resulted in the talks blowing up when players became so irate with the owners' intransigence that they threatened to walk out of negotiations. According to sources, Kobe Bryant -- fresh off a promotional tour of Italy, where he is contemplating a potentially lucrative deal with Virtus Bologna -- and Amar'e Stoudemire are among the players interested in attending the bargaining session.
In addition, the Celtics' Paul Pierce -- who was among the stars present Friday and who stuck around for Saturday's and Monday's sessions -- will take on a prominent role in the negotiations again on Tuesday. Though Pierce has previously expressed interest in being involved in the union -- perhaps even as a committee member and vice president -- his presence is notable for more than his star power. Pierce's agent, Jeff Schwartz, is one of seven powerful reps who wrote a pointed letter to their clients urging them not to agree to any further reductions in their share of basketball-related income (BRI) or any further restrictions to the system beyond what the union has negotiated.
In the letter, agents Schwartz, Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose, Henry Thomas and Mark Bartelstein warned their clients not to rush into a deal and encouraged them to demand to see the league's full financial statements from the previous six-year CBA -- including related-party transactions, which can make it difficult to identify profits and losses on a team-by-team basis.
This same group of agents has been pushing for the players to decertify the union in the face of the owners' demands of massive and fundamental changes to the league business model. Though the letter did not mention decertification, it potentially undercut the negotiating power of National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher, who have offered to drop the players' share of BRI to 53 percent and signaled a willingness to go to 52 with certain conditions, sources said.
The agents' letter explains the impact to the players of accepting 52 percent -- a $200 million giveback that atones for most of the owners' $300 million in losses last season -- and warns that there are "monumental repercussions" associated with giving back any more, a high-profile agent told CBSSports.com.
"All that’s going on right there is, (the owners) have a captive audience and they just keep going for more," the agent said. "If the players just walk away from the thing right now -- 'We decertify, we're done' -- they get their deal at 53 and it’s over with. Why keep talking to them? You think the owners are going to walk away from this deal right now at 53 percent? No way."
UPDATE: But there was disagreement among two agents familiar with the letter as to what was meant by "no further reductions" in BRI. One said the intent was to urge clients not to accept any further reductions in what the union already has offered -- believed to be 53 percent, with the possibility of going down to 52 percent under certain conditions. However, another agent with direct knowledge of the conversations that led to the drafting of the letter said it was agreed that players would be advised not to vote for any deal that includes a reduction in BRI from the 57 percent the players received under the previous agreement.
"We shouldn't give back anything," the agent said. "With record TV ratings, record revenues, and global growth, why should we?"
An agent who has long been frustrated with the path of negotiations -- and fearful of the outcome -- told CBSSports.com, "If this is the best we can do, then why the hell haven't we decertified?"
Late Monday, Fisher responded with a letter of his own to the union membership -- his second strong rebuke of the dissatisfied agents in less than a month -- saying the agents' letter to clients "includes misinformation and unsupported theories."
According to two people familiar with the NBPA's strategy, Hunter has never closed the door on decertification. But he has no intention of calling for a decertification vote or disclaiming interest in representing the players -- either of which would send the case to the federal courts under anti-trust law -- until the National Labor Relations Board rules on the union's unfair labor practices charge against the league. If the NLRB issued a complaint, it could lead to a federal injunction lifting the lockout. The NLRB has been investigating the union's charges since May, and there is no timetable for a decision by the agency's general counsel in Washington, D.C.
In the letter, which says that negotiations have reached "a critical stage," the agents told their clients that the owners' proposal will "cripple your earning potential and the earning potential of every future NBA player." Among other things, the agents urge their players to:
* Reject any further reduction in the percentage of BRI the union has negotiated.
* Maintain the existing structure of the Bird and mid-level exceptions.
* Resist any reduction in the current maximum player salaries.
* Maintain current contract length at existing levels.
* Keep unrestricted free agency the same and improve restricted free agency.
In addition, the letter urges players to demand a full vote of the union membership on any proposal agreed to by the NBA and NBPA negotiators. The vote that ended the 1998-99 lockout was a show-of-hands vote after players had only 24 hours to review the proposal. Only 184 of the more than 400 players actually voted.
"If and when there is a proposal that we feel is in the best interests of us as players, each of you WILL have the opportunity to vote in person," Fisher said. "It's in the union bylaws, it's not up for negotiation."
One of the agents concerned about the outcome said he would not allow what he called a "sham" vote on a proposal agreed to by the NBPA. "I'm telling you right now, I won't stand for it," the agent said. "Not on my watch."
It was this and other unpredictable elements -- such as how unified the small- and big-market owners are on missing regular season games and revenue sharing -- that made it almost impossible to predict how Tuesday's meeting would play out.
"If it’s a very short meeting, that’s bad," commissioner David Stern said. "And if it’s a very long meeting, that’s not as bad."
Stern had said Saturday that no decisions would be made before Tuesday on canceling the remainder of the preseason schedule if no deal were reached. Once Monday ended, however, the league entered what Stern had referred to as a "day-by-day" period where decisions would have to be made. According to several team executives, agents and others with a stake in the process, there is a widely held belief that the first chunk of regular season games would be canceled in the absence of significant movement by the end of the week.
Beyond the stated goals, talking points and hidden agendas that have infiltrated each side, the moment of truth is cloaked in one obvious reality: For a deal to be consummated this week, one side or the other is going to have to reveal its true position -- in bargaining terms, the "last, best offer."
"Neither side has been speaking in those terms," Silver said.
Beginning Tuesday, they will have to.
"Each side has preserved its right to be where it is, knowing that there’s a heart to heart that will ultimately take place," Stern said.
In other words, it's time for the B.S. to stop and for the cards to be laid on the table. When that happens, how that happens, and who throws the first card will be a product of the tone that is set Tuesday.
"There’s always a Magic card in somebody’s back pocket that they say, ‘I know this will get the deal done,'" a team executive said Monday. "And you don’t want to show that card until you absolutely have to. At some point, does somebody whip out that card?"
Though the two sides continue to hold diametrically opposed positions on what kind of system they want -- hard cap, soft cap, flex cap, guarantees and spending exceptions -- they both agree that system issues will not cause them to miss games or cancel the season. This is primarily, if not ultimately all about the bottom line: money.
"We’re apart on the split," Stern said. "But we know that the answer lies between where they were and where we are. And without defining ours, or defining theirs, I think if there’s a will, we’ll be able to deal with both the split and with the system issues."
The most recent formal proposal from the owners would've given the players a flat $2.01 billion in salary over the first eight years of a 10-year deal, though sources say league negotiators have since modified that position slightly to a model that would give the players roughly 46 percent of BRI on average over the life of the deal. The players have been holding firm to an offer in which they would accept a pay freeze in the first year of a new deal -- the same $2.17 billion they received in salary and benefits last season -- with the BRI split in the 52-54 range thereafter.
Based on the league's current bargaining position, even if the players offered to receive 49 percent of BRI -- thus accounting for all of the owners' $300 million in stated losses -- it still would not be acceptable to the owners, who are seeking the opportunity for every team to make a profit in addition to increased parity they believe can be achieved through a combination of systemic changes and more robust revenue sharing. One prominent agent told CBSSports.com Monday that the owners' position is "out of touch with reality."
"These guys think they're entitled to have a business that’s fool proof," the agent said.
Said another: "Why do the most powerful and successful businessmen in the world need protection from agents and players in negotiations? If they don't want to pay the money, don't pay the money."
And if the owners maintain this bargaining position on Tuesday? If their bargaining position is real, with no magic cards hiding in their back pockets?
"Then I tell them," one of the agents said, "see you in court."