NEW YORK – The NBA canceled the first two weeks of its 2011-12 season after failing to reach a new labor agreement with its players.
"We remain very, very apart on all issues," Stern said after league representatives met with Players Association officials for about seven hours on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to save the Nov. 1 scheduled start of the season.
Stern said the cancellations guarantee the league will have a shortened season for the first time since the 1998-99 season when another owner-imposed lockout limited NBA teams to playing just 50 games. The cancellations include all games scheduled through Nov. 14.
"With every day that goes by, there will be further reductions on what's left of the season," Stern said.
Stern hinted that the owners' proposals to the players might only get worse so they can recoup losses incurred by the cancellation of games. Many players have long expected the league would wait until the players started missing paychecks to see if the union would settle for a less favorable deal.
"They are more dug in than before, but it goes back to a comment David made to me several years ago," said Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. " 'This is what my owners have to have.' And I said, 'The only way you’re going to get that, is if you’re prepared to lock us out for a year or two.' And he’s indicated to me that they’re willing to do it.
"So my belief is that everything he’s done is demonstrating that he’s following that script."
The two sides spent Sunday night and much of Monday negotiating system issues that had the league's owners pushing for harsh taxes for big-spending teams, a lowering of the midlevel salary-cap exception and the narrowing of players’ “Larry Bird” exception rights. The biggest obstacle in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement had been the split of the league's revenue, or basketball-related income (BRI), but Stern said two sides probably could bridge that gap once they clear the "system hurdles" – primarily the structure of the league's salary cap.
The owners want to reduce the annual midlevel exception for free agents from $5.8 million to $3 million with a maximum contract length of two years, league sources told Yahoo! Sports. The owners also want to limit the maximum length of contracts to four years for players re-signed by their own teams and three years for players joining new teams, sources said. The union didn't want to go below five and four years. The current maximums are six years for players re-signed by their own teams and five for other players.
The owners also want to greatly penalize teams that exceed the salary cap, sources told Y! Sports, proposing that teams won't be allowed to pay the luxury tax more than twice in five years. Tax-paying teams also could be restricted from using the Bird exception to re-sign their own players.
While Stern claims the owners are no longer seeking a hard salary cap, Players Association president Derek Fisher(notes) said the proposed penalties for tax-paying teams will essentially act the same as a hard cap on player salaries.
"You can't say you're moving away from a hard cap, but then do everything else that brings about the same result," Hunter said. "You've compressed salaries, and then you've fixed it so nobody is going to spend. You've got a hard-cap situation. That's the reality.
"If it quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it's a duck. The tax system they wanted to impose would create a quadrupling of the tax."
NBA owners have sought to reduce the players' share of BRI from the 57 percent they received in the previous labor agreement. The players have proposed dropping to 53 percent while the owners' last formal proposal wanted a reduction to 47 percent.
Stern suggested last week the two sides agree to a 50-50 revenue split, but the players balked, not wanting to accept such a deep cut without the owners first preserving many of the old system issues from the previous CBA. Stern said Monday that the players union originally floated the 50-50 idea, which Players Association officials disputed.
"We have a gulf that separates us," Stern said.
The two sides don't have any future meetings scheduled, but will stay in communication, Stern said.
Though both Stern and Hunter expressed optimism the two sides would reach agreement before the entire season is lost, some team executives fear the league and union will now dig in and progress will be even harder to come by.
"I think the best-case scenario now is 50 games, but I can see the whole season gone," one team general manager told Yahoo! Sports.
Hunter plans to meet with players in Los Angeles on Thursday. "Unfortunately, we probable need to miss a few games in order for [the owners] to be convinced that there is resolve among the players," Hunter said. "My players are not going to fall apart. I spent 2½ years getting them ready."
With the league's owners seeking such drastic changes to the current system, the union has understood it would have to face the threat of a damaged season.
"We anticipated being in this situation," Fisher said, "and here we are."
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