Optimism was erased and a darker reality returned to a 10-week NBA lockout that threatens to soon postpone the start of the 2011-12 season.
A large contingent of league owners and players met Tuesday in New York, marking the fourth time this month that the sides have converged in an attempt to reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The first three conferences, which were composed of a small group of key NBA personnel, created the impression to some that the components for a deal were in place. Any hope was immediately dispelled Tuesday, though, as post-meeting comments made by NBA Players Association (NBPA) executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher centered around the idea that athletes might be locked out for at least half of the upcoming season as the sides try to hammer out a deal.
"The way it looks right now, we may not start on time," Fisher said.
NBA training camps are scheduled to open Oct. 3, the first preseason game is set for Oct. 9 and the regular season tips off Nov. 1. The Jazz are supposed to host Houston that night at EnergySolutions Arena.
However, key CBA issues, such as owners' insistence upon a hard salary cap and the shortened length of guaranteed contracts, continue to be major sticking points. Owners locked out players July 1 after a new CBA could not be reached. Now both sides are staring at the possibility of a shortened season one that could mirror a much-maligned 50-game campaign in the 1998-99 season that was shadowed by a lockout.
"While the positions haven't changed, the underlying economic realities haven't changed," said Tom Penn, ESPN NBA analyst and former Portland Trail Blazers vice president of basketball operations. "The fundamental system that's evolved and been tweaked remains completely out of whack. So one side is going to have to make a significant change toward getting to a deal."
That likely won't happen anytime soon. Reported plans for an additional meeting Wednesday were scrapped, and the sides have not officially scheduled another convergence. The NBA Board of Governors will meet Thursday in Dallas, while the NBPA will convene the same day in Las Vegas.
NBA commissioner David Stern told CBS Sports on Tuesday that the Board of Governors will not hold a vote Thursday to determine whether the league should cancel training camp or preseason games. But a shrinking window of time is about to make the vote a mere formality. Free agency has yet to occur, players must be given advance notice to report to their teams and the complex details of a new CBA must be written out after they are agreed upon. Those factors alone leave the NBA little breathing room, and place the league in an entirely different scenario than the one the NFL recently faced. Pro football emerged July 25 from a four-month lockout. The NFL canceled only one preseason game as a result of the work stoppage, and successfully kicked off its 2011-12 campaign last week.
"The apparent lack of progress is disappointing, but not surprising," said Gabe Feldman, Tulane associate professor of law and director of the school's sports law program. "The expectation is still that neither side will make a significant move without significant reason to do so. That reason could come from the federal court, the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] or the calendar, but it has not come yet."
The NBA and NBPA have pending cases with the NLRB, while the NBA has filed a federal lawsuit against the NBPA to which the union is expected to soon respond.
Even the clarity that emerged from Tuesday's meeting was contentious. A flexible/hard cap first proposed by owners June 21 continues to form the core of the NBPA's frustration. Hunter referred to the push for a revamped cap one that owners assert will level the playing field and increase parity throughout the league as a highly untenable "blood issue."
Stern placed blame with players' reluctance to negotiate until they were assured that key aspects of the previous CBA namely a soft cap that allows for big-spending teams to exceed the threshold via a luxury tax remain in place.
"All of the owners were completely unified in the view that we needed a system that at the end of the day allowed 30 teams to compete," Stern said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.