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Not enough common ground yet for lockout to end soon

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Adam Silver (left) and David Stern await word on a case review from the NLRB. (Getty Images)  
Adam Silver (left) and David Stern await word on a case review from the NLRB. (Getty Images)  

The calendar marches on, and so do the NBA's collective bargaining talks. But marching toward what? Doom or breakthrough?

After a week mixed with progress and disappointment, the two sides will reconvene Wednesday in New York for a staff-level meeting that is expected to set the stage for the heavy hitters to take one more crack at compromise before the inevitable postponement of training camps and preseason games must begin.

Is there reason for optimism? That depends on what each side brings to the table, and whether the lawyers and money people can carve out any common ground for the lead negotiators to work with when they are expected to meet Thursday.

Priorities and motivation are on the side of compromise, as both sides recognize time is running short to preserve an on-time start to the season. But motivation to bargain is one thing; getting it accomplished in ways that will satisfy the hard-liners on both sides is quite another.

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One small news item before we break down where each side stands after the 82nd day of the lockout: The case file in the union's unfair labor practices charge against the NBA is due to leave the National Labor Relations Board's regional office in New York on its way to the advice division and general counsel in Washington, D.C., this week. The file includes a recommendation from the regional office, which is not disclosed to either party, according to two people familiar with the process.

This is hardly a sign that a decision on whether to issue a complaint against the NBA -- which the National Basketball Players Association is hoping would lead to a federal injunction lifting the lockout -- is necessarily on its way any time soon. NLRB lawyers in Washington will exhaustively review the work of the regional office before making a ruling -- or not making a ruling. What the NLRB would seem to prefer -- and what both sides in the labor impasse seem to recognize -- is that solutions to the lockout will not be legal ones, but instead will be negotiated at the bargaining table.

Which brings us to the matter of where each side stands heading into this latest round of crucial negotiations:

  Owners/league: League officials emerged from a full meeting of the Board of Governors in Dallas last week once again denying a rift in the ownership ranks. But the most important issue for the owners to tackle is not reining in various factions, but agreeing on the substance and timing of a new revenue-sharing plan. This is the aspect of competitive balance that the owners have always had in their power to control, and the need for unanimity on this point is paramount to negotiations progressing with the players.

Much has been made of which owners will go to the wall for a hard cap and which won't, but commissioner David Stern seemed to downplay the owners' intransigence on system changes when he said last week that everything would be negotiable when the talks resumed. Indeed, people familiar with the league's bargaining position maintained last week that the owners are willing to negotiate the specifics of a new system, but will remain committed to the requirement that it gives all 30 teams an equal chance of competing. Some of this can be achieved through system changes, and some of it is in the owners' hands through enhanced revenue sharing. The devil is always in the details, and after two years it would appear to be time for the owners to come forward with some.

  Players: The union, too, is coming off a challenging week. Facing increasing decertification pressure from high-profile agents, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter signaled to the owners' bargaining committee a willingness to make an economic move that both sides believed would be significant enough to lead to agreement on the split of revenues. (The players, having offered to reduce their take of BRI from 57 percent to 54.3 percent in the first four years of a six-year proposal, are believed to be willing to bargain down to the 53 percent range.) But Hunter's olive branch came with sharp objects attached -- an unwillingness to move further on the money if the owners maintained their insistence on instituting a hard salary cap.

In fact, with Hunter under considerable fire from the agents, who have grown impatient with his bargaining and legal strategy, he and union president Derek Fisher were forced to spend more time reassuring players last week than negotiating. According to a person familiar with the meeting, Hunter gave an impassioned speech to an assembly of about 40 players in Las Vegas on Thursday in which he made clear that he would never accept a deal that included a hard cap. Once the players were informed of the union's willingness to compromise on dollars but not on certain aspects of the system, sources said some of the more skeptical players came away with renewed faith in the ability of Hunter and Fisher to hold their ground.

What the players want next from the league -- and what they hope to receive Wednesday and Thursday -- are specifics of the owners' plans to enhance revenue sharing and, just as important, a commitment for when and how the league plans to implement the changes. As top negotiators from both sides have stated, the pieces of the negotiation are separate, but they're all tied together. How much money being diverted to alter competitive balance is coming from the players, and how much is changing hands among owners? And what is the timetable for both?

Is there enough common ground to offer hope that a deal is imminent? In my opinion, it's still too early. Neither side is wedded to the idea that training camps and preseason games must be preserved, so it wouldn't be surprising to see both delayed in the coming days. On the other hand, if there is agreement -- or at least the possibility of agreement -- on the revenue split, compromising on certain aspects of a new system should take days or weeks. Not months.

At some point, the owners' allegiance to a hard-cap system and the players' refusal to accept one will collide in a moment of truth for both sides. It is at that point when each side will have to determine the difference between what it wants and what it needs from this negotiation.

If the owners have moved off their initial demand for the players to take a 33 percent pay cut -- down from 57 percent of BRI to 35-40 percent -- and if they, as sources indicate, are willing to move off their proposal of a multi-year salary freeze, then what happens next? Presumably, the players will have to be willing to discuss what specific system changes they'd accept and which ones they wouldn't. My guess is, that conversation doesn't begin until the owners divulge at least some details of their plans to aggressively share more revenues among themselves.

So it's all separate, and yet it's all tied together -- whether in a neat package or tangled mess remains to be seen.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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