NEW YORK -- As the basketball world awaits a crucial phase of the NBA labor talks next week, the devil we don't know has been in the details of accelerated negotiations that concluded Thursday with a second 5 1-2 hour session in as many days. And while the tone and pace of talks has picked up, CBSSports.com has learned that there has been no formal movement in either side's position on the biggest sticking points in the deal: the split of revenues and the cap system.
According to five people briefed on the three days of high-level talks over the past two weeks, the two sides essentially are in the same place they've been since the owners' most recent formal proposal in late June: billions of dollars apart.
"I don't think they've made any progress there at all," one of the people briefed on the negotiations told CBSSports.com. "They're talking a lot, and the conversations are more cordial. But as far as the real numbers, I don't think there's anything there."
Before panic sets in, it is not necessarily a doomsday scenario that no new numbers have been agreed upon because, as two of the people with knowledge of the talks said, exchanging formal proposals was not the objective of this week's negotiations. This, in addition to the agreed upon strategy for neither side to discuss specific negotiating points, explains the vague answers given Thursday by union president Derek Fisher and deputy commissioner Adam Silver when pressed on whether new proposals have been exchanged.
"Ideas, proposals, concepts and numbers" have been discussed, Silver said, while Fisher said "tons of ideas" were exchanged. What this means is that Tuesday's full negotiating session including the complete bargaining committees for both sides could be extraordinarily significant. The larger meeting will serve as a litmus test for the concepts discussed in smaller groups consisting of Silver, commissioner David Stern, Spurs owner Peter Holt, deputy and general counsel Dan Rube for the owners and Fisher, executive director Billy Hunter, general counsel Ron Klempner, outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and economist Kevin Murphy for the union.
"Next week's really important," one of the people briefed on the talks said.
But another person connected to the talks at the highest level stressed that the significance of Tuesday's meeting would be greatly enhanced only if one side or the other decided it was time to transform the ideas discussed at recent meetings into a formal proposal. Technically, it is the owners' turn to make one, as the players were the last side to do so June 30 before the lockout was imposed.
"The reality is, until one side or the other is ready to make significant movement, nothing is going to happen," the person said.
According to one of the people familiar with the talks, Fisher's statement Thursday about making sure "our general membership" agrees with ideas before he can "sign off on those type of deals" suggested that negotiators presented new concepts that must be vetted with a larger group of players before they can be negotiated further. The goal Tuesday will be to see if the conceptual, small-group discussions can provide any framework for the larger groups until the owners disperse for their Board of Governors meeting in Dallas. Both sides seem to be feeling a sense of urgency to present a significant status report to their constituents on Thursday, when the players also have scheduled a meeting in Las Vegas to update union members on the talks.
It's when you consider the possibility that each side may prefer to report to its constituents that it is holding the line and not making any more concessions that the prospects for a breakthrough seem remote.
"They're bringing the full committees in to sit down with each other and see if they can make any progress by Thursday," one of the people with knowledge of the talks said. "They'll either say, 'Here, we've made progress and here's where we're at,' or, 'We're not making any progress and we're light years apart.'"
Sources say the two sides are trying to tackle the biggest obstacle first -- the split of revenues -- before fully addressing the system by which the money will be distributed. One of the people informed of the state of negotiations said the players have expressed a willingness to compromise on the split of revenues -- they received 57 percent under the previous deal and have proposed 54.3 percent as a starting point in a new collective bargaining agreement -- if they can keep many aspects of the current system in place, such as guaranteed contracts and contract lengths. But if asked to accept a dramatic decrease in their percentage of BRI and a curtailment of guarantees, rookie scale, cap exceptions and contract lengths, "I think the players would fight that to the end," one of the people said.
The owners' proposal to cut salaries and hold them steady at $2 billion a year "is a big point," one of the people said. "But the cap is an even bigger point. The players are willing to give back more if the structure and the NBA operating the way we've always known it stays the same or similar."
As Silver has said on more than one occasion, the owners are unified in their belief that they cannot continue operating under the current system.
The most recent concessions by the owners that were made public included a "flex-cap" with a $62 million midpoint and a sliding scale up and down -- similar to the cap system implemented in the NHL after a lockout that cost the entire 2004-05 season. On June 23, the players declined to counter that proposal after Hunter called the owners' demands "gargantuan" and said, "We just can't meet them." At the time, the owners also expressed a willingness to relax their insistence on eliminating fully guaranteed contracts -- which Hunter has called a "blood issue" for the players.
The players' most recent publicly known concessions included a $100 million-a-year salary reduction over a five-year CBA -- which Stern called "modest" and league negotiators view as more of a $100 million-a-year decrease in salary growth. Subsequently, the players offered a more owner-friendly split of future revenues and added a sixth year to their proposal, which Stern rejected June 30 because he said it would increase the average NBA player's salary from its current level of $5 million to $7 million by the end of the proposed deal.