NBA labor talks break off

NEW YORK – After three days of mediation, labor talks between NBA owners and players once again broke down, further jeopardizing the league’s 2011-12 season. No future meetings are currently scheduled.

“We understand the ramifications of where we are,” NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. “We’re saddened on behalf of the game. …Ultimately, we were unable to bridge the gap that separates the two parties.”

While federal mediator George Cohen spent three days trying to keep the talks amicable and moving, it was clear after the latest impasse that the level of trust between the two sides has deteriorated. Players Association president Derek Fisher accused league officials and owners of lying to the media and fans.

NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the league wasn't ready to announce any additional game cancellations.
(AP photo)

“They’re interested in telling one-sided stories that are not true,” Fisher said.

Silver didn’t announce any further cancellations to the schedule, but league officials planned to meet on Friday with NBA commissioner David Stern. Stern, who didn’t attend Thursday’s negotiations because he was ill with flu-like symptoms, said last week he would consider canceling games through Christmas if a new collective bargaining agreement wasn’t reached by Tuesday. Those plans were postponed after the two sides made minimal progress on small labor issues in the first two days of meetings with a federal mediator.

Nevertheless, talks once again broke down on the proposed revenue split. Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said the league’s owners delivered the players an ultimatum that they must agree to a 50-50 split of the basketball-related income. Hunter said the players had proposed a band that would see them receive a minimum of 50 percent and a maximum of 53 percent each year, depending on how the league did financially.

When the owners didn’t budge on their 50-50 demand, Hunter said he and Fisher suggested the two sides table the revenue split and resume negotiations on other system issues.

[Related: NBA city mayors sign plea to end lockout]

Hunter said the owners then made clear they wouldn’t continue talks unless the players accepted the 50-50 proposal – a precondition the league has previously tried to attach to negotiations. “Take it or leave it,” Hunter said of the offer.

The players received 57 percent of BRI under the previous collective bargaining agreement.

“We’ve made concession after concession,” Hunter said. “… They knew when they presented what they were presenting to us that it wasn’t going to fly.”

Thursday’s mediation session came after the league’s owners met for their board of governors meeting in which they discussed a new revenue-sharing plan designed to address some of the financial disparity between large- and small-market owners. Union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, a newcomer to the talks, came to the mediation session to represent the hard-line stance of the board of governors.

“Something happened in that board of governors meeting,” Kessler said. “Yesterday we thought we were moving toward a deal. Suddenly, today, they spend very little time negotiating. As soon as we got in there and presented our offer and without caucusing, they said, ‘We don’t have to do anything else. We can tell you right now we’re at 50 percent, and it has to be our way.’

“We adjourned, we came back with the players. They said, ‘We will not agree to anything else unless you agree to 50 percent. I couldn’t believe it.

Players Association president Derek Fisher is flanked by Chris Paul and Maurice Evans at a news conference after labor talks broke down.
(Getty Images)

“We were told Paul Allen was there to express the views of the board of governors, and that view was ‘our way or the highway.’

“They were carrying out a mandate they were given. This is a sad day for fans, because someone in that board of governors was sent to blow us off, blow the fans off.”

Union officials think the league’s hard-line owners – most of them in small markets who aren’t on the labor relations committee – are making it difficult for the two sides to reach a compromise. Hunter cited the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry Buss, the New York Knicks’ Jim Dolan, the Miami Heat’s Micky Arison and the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban as owners who are willing to make a deal.

“But I think there are a group of small-market owners who are dug in, and they’re carrying the day,” Hunter said.

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Silver and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, who heads the league’s labor relations committee, tried to characterize the players as having walked away from the talks because the owners weren’t willing to budget from the 50-50 proposal. Said Fisher: “You guys were lied to.”

Silver said the owners are not willing to trade a better revenue split for system issues designed to improve the competitive balance among the league’s teams. Silver and Holt said the league wants a system more similar to that of the NHL, which lost an entire season in negotiating its previous labor agreement.

Holt said the league remains optimistic the two sides will eventually reach an agreement.

“We’ve kind of worn each other out,” Holt said. “…We need some fresh air and maybe some fresh thoughts, and try to get back together.”

The owners and players union admitted making some progress on minor issues. Among them:

• The two sides are nearing a compromise on the annual midlevel exception starting at $5 million with annual raises over three years, sources told Y! Sports. Two weeks ago, the NBA was proposing a $3 million starting salary for the midlevel.

In previous days, the owners and players agreed on starting the midlevel exception at $4.8 million. The sides had differed on the length of contracts teams could offer players with the exception, as well as the percentage of annual increase. The players were willing to reduce the maximum length of midlevel deals from five years to four, but the owners wanted the length dropped to three years.

Now, they’re close to compromising on a $5 million starting salary with a maximum length of three years.

• The owners also are proposing a “bonus pool” of money for high-achieving young players with performance-based incentives. Under the proposal, players would be rewarded for winning Rookie of the Year and making All-Star teams and other accomplishments. The union wants young stars such as the Chicago BullsDerrick Rose(notes) and Los Angeles ClippersBlake Griffin(notes), who have out-earned their rookie-scale contracts, to have quicker access to more lucrative extensions. Currently, a rookie contract can be renegotiated between the third and fourth seasons, and goes into affect after the fourth and final year of the initial deal.

• As CBS Sports reported, the proposed amnesty clause that will allow teams to cut loose one problematic contract per team at the conclusion of the lockout will allow for teams to have 75 percent of the money taken off the salary cap over the length of the deal. The player will become a free agent, and the team will have only 25 percent of his annual salary on the books going forward. Players will still receive the full amount of money they’re owed under the contract.

The biggest hurdle left in discussions for the new amnesty clause, sources told Y! Sports, is how long teams will have to pay the player the money owed him. Will it be over two years, five years, seven years? The teams want the bought-out player to be paid over a longer period of time, while the union wants the money paid in shorter order. This is an area where a compromise will easily be found, sources said.

“It is unfortunate that after 30 hours of negotiations in front of a federal mediator that we were unable to have any major progress,” Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love said in an email to Y! Sports. “Hopefully we can get back to the negotiations and come to a fair agreement on the significant issues separating the two parties. Potentially, more games could be canceled as a result of today and it is disheartening to have no clear end in sight.

“Heading forward we will continue to remain united and wait for a fair deal.”

Yahoo! Sports’ NBA reporter Marc J. Spears contributed to this report.

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Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 20, 2011