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Ball Don't Lie

NBA cancels remaining November games, will not play a full 82-game season

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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NEW YORK — After a promising seven-and-a-half-hour Thursday negotiating session that stirred optimism in some quarters that the end of the four-month-old NBA lockout was near, labor talks between the NBA's owners and the National Basketball Player's Association (NBPA) again broke off Friday afternoon without a completed deal.

After approximately six hours of discussions, the sides again failed to reach agreement on several key issues, most notably the division of basketball-related income (BRI). Shortly after talks ceased, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that NBA games scheduled through Nov. 30 would be canceled, and that losing the full month of November meant the end of any hope that the league would play a full 82-game slate.

"It's not practical, possible or prudent to have a full season now," Stern told reporters. "We held out that joint hope together, but in light of the breakdown of talks, there will not be a full NBA season under any circumstances. And I say that with apologies to the municipalities in which we play our games, to the workers who earn their living in our buildings and from businesses around the buildings."

No negotiating sessions are yet scheduled; how long the NBA's hibernation will continue remains an open question.

"I'm not really in a position to say or assume when and how this broke off and when we'll meet again, but we're here," said Los Angeles Lakers point guard and union president Derek Fisher. "We've always been here."

That's it. That's the news. The news, the weather and the traffic. Definitely the business and, in a sense, the obituaries. Everything but the sports.

After months of back-and-forth negotiations marked by several sharp shifts in stances, "particularly in the last two weeks," NPBA Executive Director Billy Hunter said one thing has remained constant — the fact that the league keeps moving the goal posts.

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"Remember, a week ago, we were at a 'take it or leave it' [point] at 50/50," Hunter said, referring to the league's proposal of a BRI division in which the NBA and the NBPA would each get 50 percent of revenues. "So we talked about parking the [BRI] number and then talking about the system. And they refused."

The league has couched the 50/50 proposal as a fair deal, and on its face, it sounds like one — you take half, I take half. But as a number of writers, including SB Nation's Andrew Sharp, have noted, a 50/50 deal would actually represent a significant concession for players — about a 12 percent reduction in their slice of the pie — on top of the myriad "system issues" concessions in areas like contract length and guaranteed salaries that ownership had previously demanded.

Under the present system, players take in 57 percent of BRI. The union had previously brought its offer down to a 53 percent share; on Friday, Fisher and Hunter said the players would be willing to knock that down to 52.5 percent. According to Hunter, the league then indicated that their offer was actually to give players 47 percent of BRI, "but they would be willing to go to 50," a significant step backward representing hundreds of millions of dollars in sacrificed revenue. (Stern later called the 50-to-47-then-back-to-50 shift that Hunter described "an utter misrepresentation," claiming that the league said "we were at 47, but I wanted to reiterate that today our offer was 50.")

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"So we've talked for two days about the system, but what we're saying is that it appears that the more we give on the system, we're kind of, maybe, painting ourselves into a corner, because we've told them that we don't want a hard cap," Hunter continued. "... And you get there [on the hard cap discussion], and then all of a sudden, they say, 'Well, we also have to have our number [on BRI].' And we say, 'Well, wait a minute. You're not negotiating in good faith. We trusted you one more time, and one more time ...' It's sort of like the serpent and the frog. You've bitten us."

Eventually, Hunter said, ownership reiterated its previous stance.

"They got to the place where it was, again, 50/50, take it or leave it — that's what it came down to in the end, if we're going to take the covers off this thing," he said. "... So we said, 'Well, today we're leaving it, like we left it last week. We're going to leave it right here.'"

Though he did agree that progress had been made on multiple fronts, including contract length and a guarantee that players' current contracts would be honored in full, Stern predictably had a different take on how matters dissolved.

"There were two or three open items left on the system issues, on which, as I said, we made good progress, and then we turned to the subject of how to divide basketball-related income," Stern said. "I summarized the positions of the parties previously, and said that the NBA owners were willing to go to 50 percent on the percentage split of BRI. In effect, a 50/50 split. Billy Hunter said that he was not willing to go a penny below 52, that he had been getting many calls from agents, and he closed up his book and walked out of the room. And that's where we are."

Stern repeated the "Billy left the room" beat several times during the press conference, driving home a talking point very specifically intended to guide fans to the conclusion that the players are to blame for the continuation of the lockout. Asked by Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald whether the league had reached its "bottom line" in negotations, Stern said, "I don't know — we always agree to meet. We made an offer, and that was our offer, and because that offer was less than 52 percent, Billy Hunter said, 'That's it,' and he left. And I'm not going to project future negotiations or even negotiate with Billy through you in the media."

The likelihood, of course, is that this all gets worse before it gets any better.

While Fisher was using phrases like "We didn't want to rush through this today" and "We're hopeful that soon enough, we can get back at this and close this out," Hunter was saying there was no way the NBPA would agree to a 50/50 deal as it's been proposed, which makes the sides sound much further away from a deal than they were when they broke Thursday night. For his part, Stern said that additional cancellations and the lost game revenues that come with them will spur the league to "recalculate how bad the damage is," which could mean that 50/50 is the best offer the players are likely to see for some time.

"We've lost approaching $200 million in the loss of the preseason; we're going to lose several hundred million dollars more" with the November cancellations, Stern said. "So the NBA's next offer will reflect the extraordinary losses that are starting to pile up now. You can assume that our offer will change to reflect the changed economic circumstances."

The offer may change, but if the comments made by the principal negotiators on Friday evening offer any insight, the acrimony likely won't. If it doesn't, the cancellations could continue, the season could be further truncated, and players and owners alike could feel quite a squeeze.

When games are lost, "I would say both sides are very badly damaged," Stern said. "The amount of dollars lost to the owners is extraordinary, and the amount of dollars lost to players under individual contracts is also extraordinary. There will be two severe sets of losses. But that's what happens in a labor dispute when there's a shutdown."

There's a third set of losses, too, of course. That one didn't really get addressed too much today. Four months in, with the he-said-he-said abounding and the season continuing to shrink, it seems like it might not get much attention any time soon.

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