|The NBA and its players hold a press conference after 3:30 a.m. to announce the tentative deal. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- The NBA will be back on Christmas Day, pending approval of a tentative settlement of a lengthy, combustible lockout that came closer than ever before in league history to swallowing an entire season.
A 66-game schedule beginning with a triple-header -- likely the originally intended season openers centered around a Finals rematch between Miami and Dallas -- will begin Dec. 25 once the agreement is finalized, vetted by an army of attorneys and approved by the players and owners.
"We expect our labor relations committee to endorse this deal, this tentative agreement, and we expect our Board of Governors, at a meeting we will call after that, to endorse the deal," commissioner David Stern said Saturday at a 3:40 a.m. ET news conference that followed a 15-hour negotiating session at a Manhattan law firm. "And we expect that a collective bargaining agreement will arise out of this deal as well."
Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, which will be reconstituted as a union after disbanding Nov. 14 and taking its fight to the federal courts, estimated that the process -- including a vote by the union membership -- could be accomplished in three days to a week.
"I think it was the ability of the parties to decide it was necessary to compromise and to try to put this thing back together some kind of way and to be able to put an end to the litigation and everything it entails," Hunter said. "And we just thought that rather than try to pursue this in court, it was in both of our interests to try to reach a resolution."
Both sides will meet with their attorneys later Saturday and begin the process of withdrawing the lawsuits each has filed against the other. After convening at least twice by phone during the negotiations Friday, the owners' labor relations committee will be briefed on the details of the agreement Saturday. At the same time, details of the broad agreement will be refined and B-list issues resolved, leading to a frenzied run-up to a shortened free-agency period -- which could be so compressed it may coincide with the estimated start of training camp on Dec. 9.
"We're confident that once we present it, [the players] will support it," Hunter said.
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If all goes smoothly, the season likely will open with the three marquee matchups it was intended to -- albeit 55 days behind schedule. The original opening day slate was Boston-New York, Miami-Dallas and Chicago-Lakers. All-Star weekend in Orlando will go off as scheduled, and the NBA Finals will be pushed back about a week.
"We're excited to bring NBA basketball back," Stern said.
The talks got back on track this week after the players rejected the owners' most recent ultimatum on Nov. 10, dissolved the union four days later and filed a series of antitrust lawsuits against the owners that threatened to produce a $6 billion damages judgment if the entire season were lost. But neither side wanted to litigate the dispute to its conclusion in the courts, which would've cost not only the season, but years of lawyering and untold destruction of fan interest.
"The lawyers will handle a lot of the heavy lifting," union president Derek Fisher said. "For myself, it's great to be a part of this particular moment in terms of giving our fans what it is that they so badly wanted and want to see."
Since the talks took on the format of a litigation settlement and seemed to have exhausted all avenues with the existing rosters of negotiators, they needed a voice of reason to guide them. In stepped attorney Jim Quinn, the former NBPA outside counsel who played a pivotal role in ending the 1998-99 lockout on the even of Stern's deadline to cancel the entire season.
Quinn reached out to both sides over the past week and presided over a secret settlement meeting Tuesday at the offices of his firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges on Fifth Avenue. Fisher and Spurs owner Peter Holt, chairman of the labor relations committee, flew to New York for Friday's negotiating session after Quinn's back-channel work had set the table.
Interestingly, Quinn was not present for the negotiating finale. Neither was NBPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, who had been quietly pushed out of his role as lead negotiator. Stern, Holt, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, general counsel Rick Buchanan and deputy general counsel Dan Rube closed the deal for the owners. The players were represented by Hunter, Fisher, executive committee member Maurice Evans, general counsel Ron Klempner, economist Kevin Murphy and two outside attorneys.
According to Yahoo Sports, however, Kessler reappeared at a crucial juncture of Friday's talks and proposed a 51-49 split of basketball-related income (BRI) in favor of the players that left owners dismayed when they were consulted by phone. The two sides had previously agreed to a 50-50 split of BRI, but one option to achieve that was a model that would give the players a range of between 49 and 51 percent.
Under the owners' most recently proposed system, the players felt it would have been almost impossible to achieve the 51 percent ceiling. Feeling emboldened by their antitrust lawsuit and the leverage it might provide -- and confident that a nearly $3 billion giveback over 10 years by agreeing to reduce their share significantly from the 57 percent they received in the prior agreement -- the players went into Friday's session hoping to get significant movement on a list of six outstanding system issues. In practice, achieving what they were seeking on most or all of those issues would have by definition, resulted in a chance to get closer to the 51 percent of BRI.
Neither side divulged details of the agreement reached early Saturday, but sources said the players were most concerned about the availability of the mid-level exception and sign-and-trades for luxury tax-paying teams and the definition of a tax-paying team. But they felt that it was possible to get the owners to agree to four-year mid-level deals for non tax-payers (instead of alternating three- and four-year deals) and higher max contracts for star players who achieve certain benchmarks while under their rookie contracts (increasing the max from 25 percent of the cap to 30 percent). The players also were pushing for significantly enhanced qualifying offers for restricted free agents, which they believed along with a shorter match period (from seven days to three) and fully guaranteed qualifying offers -- both already agreed to -- would create a more liberal market for those players.
With some movement from the owners on those technical aspects, the players' negotiators believed they could present a deal that the union membership would embrace despite the massive economic concessions, shorter contracts, smaller raises and other restrictions the owners insisted on to address their dual problems of $300 million in annual losses and competitive imbalance. Under the paradigm previously agreed to, the players retained guaranteed contracts; fought off the owners' efforts to impose a hard team salary cap; withstood their attempt to shrink max salaries and roll back existing contracts; and kept the existing salary cap (about $58 million) and luxury tax level ($70 million) in place for the first two years of the 10-year agreement. The owners also agreed to increase the minimum team salary from 75 percent of the cap to 90 percent -- a provision that, along with a vastly enhanced revenue-sharing plan, will ensure that low-revenue teams will compete for free agents and spend money on players.
A person familiar with the agreement said the owners' greatest compromises were in the areas of restricted free agency and the middle class. There was some compromise on the issues of sign-and-trades and mid-level exceptions for tax-paying teams.
"I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free agency market in the way they’ve been able to in the past," deputy commissoner Adam Silver said. "As I said, it’s a compromise. It’s not the system we sought out to get, in terms of a harder cap. But the luxury tax is harsher than it was in the past deal, and we hope it’s effective. You never can be sure, with how a new system will work. But we feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships."
Stern downplayed the players' antitrust lawsuits, which were consolidated and refiled in Minnesota this past week, as a significant factor in achieving the deal. With 30 days needed to prepare for a Dec. 25 start, the negotiators for both sides had pushed their slow, often painful dance to the last possible moment before the lockout would've wreaked devastating effects.
"Despite some bumps even this evening ... the greater good required us to knock ourselves out and come to this tentative understanding," Stern said.
They almost knocked everybody else out with them, but the exhausting NBA lockout finally is tentatively over.
"Let's go play basketball," Holt said.