NEW YORK -- The NBA made its last offer that will contain a 50 percent revenue share for the players Thursday night, and commissioner David Stern shifted the pressure to the union by tantalizingly attaching the possibility of a 72-game season starting Dec. 15.
"There comes a time when you have to be through negotiating, and we are," Stern said.
The players, expressing disappointment that the league did not respond with more system compromises after they'd signaled their willingness to accept a 50-50 revenue split, will bring the proposal to their player reps Monday or Tuesday to see if they will recommend the proposal to the union membership for a vote.
"The idea ... is to sit down with them and say, ‘You sent us out to get something, here’s what we’re coming back with,'" said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. "'Now let’s sit down and decide what our next option is, what are we going to do.'"
The players' options are few, and none of them particularly appealing. They can put the deal to a vote, and if passed, they would be locked into a proposal that is an unmitigated victory for the owners -- one that shifts $3 billion over 10 years from the players to the owners and also dramatically restricts the rules governing team payrolls, player contracts and player movement. If the player reps tell the union leadership they want to reject the proposal, then Stern said the league's negotiating position will revert to a 47 percent share of revenues for the players along with a hard team salary cap and rollbacks of existing contracts -- the so-called "reset" proposal whose introduction at 5 p.m. Wednesday was delayed while the two parties bargained for 23 hours over the past two days.
"We have made our revised proposal," Stern said, "and we're not planning to make another one."
Another outcome likely will begin to unfold Friday before the union even decides whether to accept the proposal -- and would continue to progress regardless of the outcome of next week's player rep meeting: Agents dissatisfied with the deal the union has negotiated and the intransigence of league negotiators already have more than 200 signatures on decertification petitions which are ready to be submitted to the National Labor Relations Board requesting a vote to dissolve the union, according to a person familiar with the plans.
Such a move would threaten to torpedo whatever support there is among the union membership to approve the owners' offer, and if it resulted in the players deciding not to vote on the proposal or voting it down, could throw the 2 1-2 year negotiations into the chaos of an anti-trust lawsuit -- virtually guaranteeing that the 2011-12 season would be lost.
If the player reps recommend that the rank-and-file vote on the owners' offer, that process could be accomplished within a matter of days -- as could approval by the owners' Board of Governors. A decertification vote would not be scheduled by the NLRB for about 45-60 days -- if the agency authorizes the vote at all. Typically, it does not do so when there is a pending unfair labor practices charge filed by employees.
Ultimately, the purpose of a decertification effort is securing an injunction or temporary restraining order from a federal judge as the result of an anti-trust lawsuit, which also would subject the league to the possibility of treble damages -- triple the players' economic losses resulting from the lockout. A faster route to the same outcome would be if union leaders stepped down via a disclaimer of interest, but that method faces a more difficult legal test in court.
If the owners' proposal passed, a new 72-game schedule would be drawn up -- deputy commissioner Adam Silver said those logistics already have been handled -- and a breakneck, one- or two-week free agency period would ensue along with shortened training camps and a limited preseason schedule. The marquee Christmas Day games would be preserved, and All-Star weekend would occur as scheduled Feb. 24-26 in Orlando.
"I'm hoping personally that's where we are now and we can get back to playing," Silver said. "But I understand from the union's standpoint it's a difficult pill to swallow right now. But that, once again, over time, we'll be proven right and this will be a better league for the players, the teams and the fans."
Union president Derek Fisher, sitting next to Hunter with several forlorn committee members standing behind him, seemed to hold out hope for a replay of what transpired over the past few days -- when the players successfully stopped the clock on Stern's Wednesday ultimatum to accept his previous proposal. After meeting with the reps, Fisher said the plan would be "either continue to negotiate currently from where we are or realize that maybe the NBA, this is their last, best offer and we’ll have to make decisions accordingly at that point."
Stern, who spoke with reporters after Fisher and Hunter, made it clear that the only choice was the one behind curtain No. 2.
"The negotiations are over," Stern said. "The negotiations on this proposal are over."
Like most moves the league has made in the negotiations, which hit Day No. 133 Thursday since the lockout was imposed July 1, the characterization of this proposal as "revised" was a stretch, according to multiple people familiar with it. Among the tweaks to the unresolved system issues entering the past two days of talks, the owners agreed to increase the mid-level exception for luxury tax-paying teams to three-year deals starting at $3 million. The exception, which was for two years starting at $2.5 million under the previous proposal, would be available every other year for teams above the tax threshold.
Though full details of the owners' revisions weren't crystallized Thursday night, it is believed that they agreed to make sign-and-trade transactions available to tax-paying teams with certain restrictions and make other minor revisions to issues the players indicated they needed changed in return for their economic concession from 51 percent of BRI to 50: the luxury tax "cliff" that affects teams that wade into the tax and the repeater tax for teams that stay above the tax threshold for a third time in five years.
Given that teams have only remained over the tax that long seven times since the luxury tax was introduced in 2005, according to NBA TV, the issue wasn't one of substantial concern Thursday, according to sources in the negotiating room.
However, some new issues came to the forefront that concerned the players' negotiators when it became clear that the league's proposal would restrict teams from using a full mid-level exception -- four-year deals starting at $5 million -- if the signing itself pushed the team over the tax. Union negotiators want the mid-level restriction to kick in only if the team already is above the tax line before it uses the exception. The league's version is the one that is in the current proposal, according to a person who has seen it.
Nonetheless, Stern characterized the league's movement -- with the backing of labor relations committee chairman Peter Holt and the full committee, which was consulted via phone Thursday night -- as "several well-intentioned efforts to move to them on a variety of concerns."
But it is clear that chaos would ensue, not to mention catastrophic economic damage to both owners and players, if the proposal is rejected. As a result, Stern and Silver will have to consider whether their owners pushed too hard and tried to extract too thorough a victory -- one that would quickly be transformed into a loss for all sides if the deal is not one that can be sold to the players and agents who already are prepared to blow up the union.
"We moved as far as we could move," Stern said.
Despite the losses incurred by the players, not the least of which is an average $300 million-a-year giveback that absolves all the losses the league said it was suffering, the union did preserve several system provisions that would evaporate if the league reverted to its 47 percent proposal next week. Among the most important items, the union fought off the league's attempt to impose a hard team salary cap and maintained the structure of max contracts. And although the players would give back $3 billion over 10 years, with a conservative estimate of 4.5 percent annual revenue growth, player salaries would grow to nearly $3 billion by the 10th year of the deal.
And while salaries and benefits would stay flat at approximately $2.17 billion for the first two years of the deal, that provision would allow the league to keep the salary cap ($58 million) and luxury-tax level ($70 million) unchanged until adjustments for the new system would take hold in the third year.
"It’s not the greatest proposal in the world ... but I have an obligation to at least present it to our membership," Hunter said. "And so that’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got members of our executive board standing behind us, and they all agreed that we needed to sit down and discuss it with all of the reps and collectively decide what it is we should do."
Even if the players agree to the framework of the deal, Hunter said there are at least 30-40 so-called B-list issues that need to be resolved -- among them, the age limit, drug testing, player disciplinary measures and work rules such as practice schedules and days off. In addition, some players and agents will resist the notion of player salaries this season being prorated to 72/82nds based on a reduced schedule that resulted from the owners imposing a lockout -- especially since the big revenue generators like Christmas Day games, All-Star weekend and playoffs will be preserved.