The two sides agreed Monday to resume talks for the first time in nearly two weeks, according to sources close to the situation, with discussions commencing Tuesday aimed at resolving lawsuits recently filed by the players. Talks are expected to resume Friday after a break for Thanksgiving, with almost no wiggle room left to get a deal done in time for Christmas.
The primary push for the talks, according to The New York Times, is a desire to try to finally end to the five-month impasse in time to start the season on Dec. 25, which has historically marked the start of the NBA’s annual introduction to the national network TV schedule. But the latest talks are considered part of settlement talks relating to the litigation as opposed to outright negotiations, according to the Times.
The Times also reported Wednesday that the league has a 66-game season lined up if the sides can agree to the outline of a new labor deal in time for Christmas Day games. NBA commissioner David Stern has said on numerous occasions that the league needs a month after the sides shake hands to finish putting a new labor deal in writing and allow for a compressed training camp and free agency period before the regular season begins.
NBA Players Association attorney Jonathan Schiller, in a statement issued Wednesday night, confirmed the scheduling of “preliminary settlement discussions with the NBA immediately after Thanksgiving.”
Yet there were sources on both sides late Wednesday preaching caution, noting that the talks have collapsed several times when a deal appeared to be within reach.
Sources identified Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers as the teams pushing hardest behind the scenes for a deal in principle by the end of the weekend to ensure that a “representative” season can be staged.
And at least three teams that requested anonymity, according to interviews conducted Wednesday by ESPN.com, are highly optimistic that the framework of a deal can be struck by Monday.
But one source close to talks, referring to those aforementioned collapses when a deal seemed imminent at various points during the past two months, said Wednesday night: “Are the parties talking again? Yes. Have they done anything [significant]? No.”
Sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard that, in addition to the lawyers on both sides that have joined proceedings, many of the negotiators involved in this week’s talks are the same ones who were negotiating before the union filed a “disclaimer of interest” last week: Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver on the league side; Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and Ron Klempner on the players’ side. Hunter and his team are prevented from negotiating a new labor agreement now that the union has disbanded, but settlement talks could lead to the reforming of the union, which could then ratify a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Times, meanwhile, reported that Hunter has hired Jim Quinn, formerly the union’s chief outside counsel, to replace union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler and help Hunter complete the deal. Kessler has had a combustible relationship with Stern and other owners during the past few months of negotiations; Quinn played a similar closer’s role in the 1998-99 lockout and is said to have good relationships with both Hunter and Stern after years of participating in such talks.
One source told Broussard that it was Quinn — a litigation lwyer with a long history of representing player organizations in the NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the NHL in addition to the NBA — who brought the parties back together Monday.
Yahoo! Sports, which first reported the resumption of talks Wednesday, reported that union president Derek Fisher has not been part of this week’s negotiations. The union filed the disclaimer last week to dissolve itself and file a series of antitrust suits against the NBA in Minnesota following the latest breakdown in talks, but those legal machinations could prevent Fisher from rejoining the talks so as to ensure that the league can’t accuse the union of dissolving itself as a mere negotiating ploy and continuing to operate with same basic structure as before.
The NBA said Wednesday that “it remains in favor of a negotiated resolution (to the lockout)” but declined to comment further.
A 66-game game season, with the playoffs pushed back at least a week later than normal, would be 16 games shorter than the usual 82-game regular season and six shorter than the 72-game season with a Dec. 15 start date that Stern offered to the union before it disbanded.
There were three games on the league’s original Christmas schedule — Boston at New York on ESPN, followed by an ABC doubleheader featuring an NBA Finals rematch pitting Miami at Dallas and Chicago visiting the Los Angeles Lakers — but league officials are expected to draft an entirely new schedule if a deal can be struck to save the season.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Stern has privately surveyed a handful of owners about their willingness to ease the restrictions on the proposed mid-level exception in a new labor agreement, one of the biggest areas of contention on the players’ side.
The players continue to push for the full mid-level exception to be made available to all teams — not just teams under the luxury-tax threshold — and sources say league officials have discussed whether to make that concession in their next proposal to the players.
Based on the league’s most recent proposal rejected by the union on Nov. 13, teams that stay out of luxury-tax territory would be able to offer free agents the full mid-level exception, worth $5 million annually for a maximum of four years. But tax teams would be restricted to offer a so-called “mini” mid-level worth a maximum of $3 million annually over three seasons.
It is believed the league’s next proposal to the players will contain tweaks to some of the “system” issues that the players have strongly objected to in recent negotiations. The players have long insisted — in exchange for accepting a 50/50 split of annual basketball-related income after earning a 57-percent share of BRI in the final year of the previous labor deal — that the league’s proposed restrictions against luxury-tax teams must be relaxed.
The Times reported that the two sides have essentially resumed talks from where they were Nov. 10, working from a league-issued proposal that features a 50-50 split of revenues, shorter contracts and various restrictions on the league’s biggest spenders.
Neither side, according to The Times, has yet attempted to back away from previously negotiated “system” specifics, keeping alive hope that the owners and players can reach an agreement on the five or so system issues that prompted the players — complaining that the rules would too severely restrict player movement — to reject the NBA’s offer and dissolve the union.
David Boies, one of the attorneys representing the players, has repeatedly said he hopes that the NBA will be moved to settle out of court rather than risk a potentially lengthy trial that could end with players being awarded roughly $6 billion in damages.