NEW YORK -- There were no fireworks, no tantrums and no tirades. There was all the resignation and disappointment of doomsday, but none of the reality.
The reality is that the NBA owners and players, after showing most of their cards Tuesday in a bargaining session that failed to save an on-time start to the regular season, are approximately $80 million-a-year apart on the economics of a new collective bargaining agreement, multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations told CBSSports.com.
Though no additional negotiations are scheduled and the process now enters the dangerous and unpredictable phase where any slipups could jeopardize a large chunk of the regular season, the two sides are closer than they publicliy divulged in a pair of dueling news conferences in adjacent meetings rooms of a Times Square hotel.
Here is where they are, according to multiple people involved in the negotiations: After the owners offered the players a 50-50 split of revenues that effectively was a 47 percent share with about $350 million in expenses deducted first, the two sides met in small groups in the hallway while each side's larger group caucused in separate rooms. As the hour grew late, the tension was rising and becoming palpable. Both sides recognized it was time to try everything possible to make a deal.
In the group for the league side were commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee. For the players, it was union president Derek Fisher, outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and two of the brightest stars who attended Tuesday's crucial bargaining session -- Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, according to one of the people with knowledge of the side meeting.
In that group, the league -- sensing that the opportunity for a deal was there -- proposed essentially a 50-50 split with no additional expense reductions over a seven-year proposal, with each side having the chance to opt out after the sixth year, one of the people said. This was the offer Stern described in his news conference Tuesday evening, one that he and Silver thought would be enough to finally close the enormous gap between the two sides.
The league's offer, according to three people familiar with it, came in a range of 49-51 -- with 49 percent guaranteed and a cap of 51 percent, the sources said.
Stern told the players and Kessler that he was bringing this proposal to his owners in an attempt to sell it, making no bones about the fact that he would. In fact, Stern said in the news conference, he did sell it. The owners were prepared to sign off on this 49-51 percent band, and with many of the most polarizing system issues resolved, the framework of a deal was in sight.
While the owners were caucusing, a member of the players' group returned with a counterproposal -- approximately 52 percent of BRI for the players with no additional expenses deducted. The players' counterproposal followed the format presented by the owners -- a 51-53 percent band with 51 percent guaranteed and a cap of 53. League officials rejected the offer, the sources said.
So while Hunter and Stern remained publicly entrenched in the ecoomic positions of their most recent formal proposals -- with the players asking for 53 percent and the league offering effectively 47, the reality is this: the gap has closed to 2 percentage points of BRI, the difference between the midpoint of the two offers.
With each percentage point of BRI worth about $40 million, the two sides -- who were at one time $8 billion apart over 10 years -- are now a mere $80 million apart on an annual basis. So you can see what the two sides saw Tuesday -- the road to a deal that both sides eventually can find a way to live with that is better than the alternative of missing a substantial portion of the regular season.
UPDATE: Though there were no immediate plans for the two sides to meet Wednesday, two people close to the discussions said a Thursday meeting was possible. Several key parties to the process will be unavailable from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.
Complications remain, of course, not the least of which is the fact that this sidebar, informal discussion of the two BRI bands would have to be worked through the formal process of getting each side's committee to sign off -- and then, it would have to be negotiated further. Also, by walking out without a deal Tuesday, the players' association is subject to the influence of agents who have made it clear they are unhappy with the course of negotiations and have openly threatened encouraging their clients to decertify the union.
Two people with direct knowledge of the strategy being invoked by a group of seven super agents who wrote a letter to their clients over the weekend said the group -- including Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Dan Fegan, Jeff Schwartz, Leon Rose and Henry Thomas -- is willing to accept no less than 52 percent. There is disageement within the ranks on that figure, with a hard-line faction pushing for the players not to retreat at all from the 57 percent of BRI they received under the previous CBA.
The more time that goes by without closing the now comparatively narrow gap between the two sides, the more opportunity there will be for players and their agents to apply pressure to the union -- and perhaps even encourage clients who are unhappy with the course of negotiations to hold a decertification vote, which would stall the talks.
One of the people with direct knowledge of the super agents' strategy said at least two strong voices in that camp have quelled their pursuit of decertification, which would remove the process from the negotiating room and throw it into federal court under anti-trust law. Such a move at this stage, the person with knowledge of the agents' approach said, would inject too much chaos with a deal within reach.
With most system issues preserved from the previous deal, one of the high-powered agents has told associates that he would accept 52 percent and "call it a wrap," a source said Tuesday.
Recognizing the uncertainty and risk that lies ahead -- the rest of the preseason was canceled after the bargaining session Tuesday and regular season games are potentially days away from being lost -- Fisher took direct aim Tuesday at the agents who have most vocally objected to the union's legal and bargaining strategies.
"The only people that really decide whether we accept and ratify a deal are the guys that are standing right here and the other 400-plus guys that aren't here right now," Fisher said, flanked by several committee members and superstars Bryant, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. "And not out of disrespect, I'm just not inclined to engage in a discussion about what a group that doesn’t control any part of this process has to say."