NBA, players on cusp of agreement

NEW YORK – The NBA and Players Association have moved to the cusp of ending the four-month old lockout, and there's strong belief on both sides that Friday's bargaining session could culminate with the framework of an agreement to preserve most, if not all, of a full season.

"It's moved to a very good place," one source briefed on Thursday's 7½-hour bargaining session told Yahoo! Sports. "There's a strong expectation [within the negotiations] that hands will shake [Friday]."

Negotiations resumed at 10:30 a.m. ET Friday with talks expected to quickly progress to the proposed revenue split between the league's owners and players. Both sides sounded optimistic they could soon settle the major issues separating them from a new collective bargaining agreement.

"I think we're within reach – and within striking distance of getting a deal," Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said. "It's just how receptive the NBA is, and whether they want to do a deal."

NBA commissioner David Stern declared it will be a "failure" for the league's owners and players if a new labor agreement isn't finished within the next few days.

Hunter said both groups were "wiped out" after a 15-hour negotiating session that began Wednesday afternoon and lasted past 3 a.m. ET Thursday. It was easier to cut short talks on Thursday because union economist, Kevin Murphy, had to travel back to New York from Chicago. In resuming the talks on the revenue split (basketball-related income), Murphy is vital to the players' negotiations.

Before tackling the revenue split, the biggest hurdle left to solving the system issues appears to be with the use of midlevel and bi-annual exceptions for tax-paying teams.

While details were still unclear how a punitive luxury tax system would work for teams exceeding the salary cap, one league source involved in the talks told Y! Sports on Thursday night: "The tax is not the issue. The exceptions are where the fight is."

The owners have largely relented on letting players use their "Larry Bird rights" to re-sign with teams that are over the cap, but the owners don't want to permit teams paying luxury tax to be able to sign players to the midlevel and bi-annual exceptions, a source said.

The two sides could be closing on a three-year maximum for signing players to the midlevel exception, starting at $5 million per season, sources said.

The two sides still have a litany of "B-list" items that they barely discussed in the process, including the draft age minimum, code of conduct for players, drug testing and pensions. Nevertheless, those items often fall into place quickly once the major issues are resolved in talks.

So far, the union has tried to tie the age minimum to changes in the rookie wage scale. The union wants high-performing players to be able to renegotiate contracts sooner than between their fourth and fifth years in the league. The NBA has proposed a bonus pool that could add as much as 20 percent to players' rookie scale contracts for such accomplishments as Rookie of the Year and All-NBA teams.

The league can encourage players to stay in school longer if players don’t have to rush to the NBA to get the clock started on significant pay raises and free agency. The NBA wants American players to be at least 20 years old and two years removed from high school to be eligible for the draft. Under the previous labor agreement, the rule was 19 years old and one year removed from high school.

While the union would like to return to having high school players being able to enter the draft, they privately know that will never happen. In the end, they’re hopeful to keep the rule as it is.

The league and players union have moved closer to consensus on several important issues within the past two days. Sources said the sides have made significant progress on one of the labor fight’s most vexing obstacles: the luxury tax teams would have to pay for going over the salary. Nevertheless, there's still a couple sticking points with the tax that need to be resolved.

There was a significant effort among the NBA's owners to push hard to get a deal done with the players over the weekend, sources told Y! Sports. Stern wasn’t happy with the implosion of talks that occurred with him home ill last Thursday, and sources said he was more determined than ever to rally his owners to find some compromises to make a deal with the union.

"I leave these guys alone for a little bit of time," Stern said early Thursday, "and all hell breaks loose."

From front-office executives to player agents, optimism is rapidly rising that there's significant momentum toward reaching an agreement and saving most, if not all, of the 82-game regular season. Hunter said he "assumes" the full schedule could be saved if a deal is reached by "Sunday or Monday." Stern said the league will work with the union to schedule as many games as possible.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the two sides didn't discuss the split of revenue – a contentious issue in previous negotiating sessions – instead taking Hunter's suggestion they "park" the discussion while negotiating system issues.

The players would be willing to move closer to a 50-50 split on basketball-related income (BRI) if they can maintain comparable exceptions to the ones they had in the previous labor agreement – and a luxury tax that doesn’t too punitively discourage big-spending teams from exceeding the salary cap, sources said.

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The NBA ended talks last week when the union refused to accept an ultimatum on a 50-50 split of the BRI. The owners dropped the precondition of the players accepting that split and allowed talks to push into the system issues on Wednesday.

The sides had agreed tentatively on a $5 million midlevel exception late last week, but have been haggling on annual percentage raises and the allowable length of those contracts. The NBA wants midlevel deals to last a maximum of three years; the union wants four.

The progress on Wednesday night had been spurred by quiet talks between the two sides in the aftermath of an acrimonious and abrupt end of discussions last week.

“Clearly, things happened [in recent days] to get this from a ‘sad, sad day for the NBA’ and ‘you were just lied to,’ to a current tenor where all signs point to the real possibility of a deal,” one source briefed on the talks late Wednesday told Yahoo! Sports.

Once an agreement is reached in principle, the league's board of governors and the players will both have to ratify it. About three weeks will be needed to get the deal finalized in writing, allow teams to sign free agents and hold abbreviated training camps, possibly pushing the start of the regular season into the last week of November or the first week of December. "There are no guarantees we're going to get it done," Stern said after Thursday's negotiations, "but we're going to give it one heck of a shot."

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