We Think NBA Deal Closer Than It Seems

NBA negotiations seem a mess. The union demands 53 percent without a hard cap or no deal. The owners are offering 47 percent with a few hardliners insisting on a hard cap. Agents are trying to scare players away from signing anything. No future meetings are planned. So how long before there's a deal? Our answers might surprise you – in a positive way! - as we read the tea leaves on the NBA ahead.

With time running out before regular-season games get canceled, the NBA union and owners held a long last-ditch meeting on Tuesday in which neither side agreed with the other on anything. The big issue separating the two sides, the division of revenues, was at 7 percent (the players wanting 53 percent, the owners offering 46 percent) when the day began. By the end of the day, the owners had raised their official offer to 47 percent and made an informal offer of some sort to meet in the middle, which the players rejected.

Swirling in the background, a cabal of seven key agents sent out letters to players filled with dire warnings about signing any deal, and about making sure to demand more. Their push to convince the players to decertify the union and send everyone to court was left unmentioned, but remained hanging over the negotiating table.

No meetings between union and owners are on the schedule. Comissioner David Stern has said that if a deal isn't reached by Monday, regular season games will be scheduled.


So when will we finally see a deal? I'm calling it - it will happen in the next meeting!

Looking more closely at the landscape since the last meeting, I've become convinced that things are not nearly as dire as they appear on the surface. In fact, I expect that there will be a full 82-game schedule, one that most likely starts on time. Here's the list of things that have pointed me in that direction:

*While the two sides haven't formally agreed on anything yet, the key negotiation meetings have allowed them to explore in detail what it takes to make a deal, and informally lots of problem areas have been resolved

*The hard cap issue is mostly out of the way. Informally, owners have decided they can live without an actual hard cap.This issue is not stopping a deal

*Changing the system to implement non-guaranteed contracts for all? Informally, the owners have let go of that demand. Salary rollbacks? Abandoned too. Neither of these issues are stopping a deal

*There will be a tweak to some rules, and perhaps an enhancement of luxury tax penalties, to help level salaries from team to team. But nothing big remains here, just haggling over details that can be split down the middle, and this is not stopping a deal

*Revenue sharing? Both sides want it for the health of the league, and team-to-team player payrolls can't be leveled without it. It's no longer in the way. This issue is not stopping a deal

*Agents getting in the way and derailing a deal? The union has publicly slapped them upside the head with a letter to the players pushing back against their actions, but more importantly we've seen top players threaten to fire their agent if they keep trying to mess things up. This is not stopping a deal.

In fact, all that's really in the way of a deal is the biggest issue of all, the split of revenues. But that's the only thing in the way.

So if they're still 6 percent apart, from 47 percent to 53 percent, how can they bridge that gap in time to save the season? The reality, as I read it, is that they actually are so close they could have done a deal last time! Except for one intangible, one last base that has to be covered before they can shake hands and end the lockout, this would already be done.

The reason is in the details of the so-called "50-50 offer.''

Keep in mind that the union, for the support of its members to ratify a deal, has staked its ground at 53 percent. Its leaders have called that a "fair" number and taken a public stance to dig in their heels at that number. Meanwhile, the owners have been offering less than 50 percent, and it's long been thought that their goal is a 50-50 split.

On Tuesday, that compromise offer made by the owners was not actually a 50-50 offer (splitting the difference between 47 and 53). Instead, reports say was more nuanced. They offered 49 percent guaranteed (a number the owners like) with an upper limit of 51 percent. Why two numbers? The tea leaves tell me that it's giving each side a number they can sell to their constituents, rather than try to inch their way to bridge that 6 percent gap a hair at a time.

In response, the union proposed 51 percent guaranteed with an upper limit of 53 percent (a number the players like).

Let me say that again, because I missed it myself several times: the union, amid all the rhetoric about 53 percent, made an offer to accept 51 percent guaranteed. But they tied it to a 53 percent upper-limit number, which made it palatable to the players.

About that upper-limit number: my educated guess is that they are proposing that if and when league revenues increase to a certain point, the players share will also increase a bit. This incentivizes the players, giving them a bonus for helping to grow the league further. And it's not inconsistent with deals of the past. But, the upper-limit number is not money that can be made unless the league grows.

Remember the union's complaint that they needed to be included in the growth of the league? There was the answer.

Formally, the two sides still were 6 percent apart late Tuesday. But in reality, they had moved their guaranteed numbers to 49-vs-51, and the next step would have been for them to split the 49 and 51, and make a deal. But instead, they backed away, spit out a lot of negative noise, and didn't even plan the next meeting.


I think it's about posture. Before either side can make a deal, they have to be confident their constituency will accept it. For that reason, neither side can move too far at once, and leave its members thinking they're giving away the farm.

That's why there's no meeting set yet. Right now, they are consolidating their positions, and privately proposing "one last try."

Stern is telling the owners: Look, we're close. We offered 49, if we offer just a bit more, and compromise on a few system items, we can start the season on time. Otherwise, you're going to start sending out refund checks to season ticket holders and sponsors.

The owners will hear they're getting their 50-ish they wanted, with some tweaks to the system, and they'll be happy to have it.

Elsewhere, Hunter and Fisher are telling the player reps and key players: Look, we're close. I know we've said 53, but it we'll give just a bit on that number, we can have an upside of 52 or so. That's better than we hoped for when we started. We may have to give a bit on some system things, but there will be no hard cap, and the season will start on time so no one misses a paycheck.

The players will hear that there's no hard cap, with an upside in the 52-53 range, and no missed paychecks, and they'll be thrilled.

Once they have their sides in order, they'll meet. But not until then. When they do, neither side will feel like they left anything on the table. And the deal -- the one all the key negotiators already know they'll do -- will happen.

When? Probably on Monday. Yom Kippur starts Friday night and goes through Saturday night. Sunday is wide open for them to meet. The deadline to keep the schedule intact Monday, so they'll make it happen for then, I bet. No one wants to cancel games, because both sides lose big money as that occurs. And while they could always reschedule games in April to restore anything lost in November, there's no advantage to anyone in creating a rescheduling nightmare that resets regular season, playoffs, and perhaps draft.


For the Dallas Mavericks, attempting to repeat, these developments are positive.

The rules changes that seem to be emerging appear to give them the leeway to retain their core. The new CBA will almost certainly retain the bulk of the system, except with a few tweaks to things like contract length. But there should be no actual hard cap, and a "hard cap in everything except the name" appears to be dead also. Instead, there will probably be some increased tax penalties to incentivize voluntary compliance, without it being extremely punitive, and a few rules changes that lessen the opportunity to attain and retain extravagant spending levels.


All in all, they will probably have enough freedom to build their roster in whatever way they think makes sense. Will they simply sign their five free agents (Chandler, Butler, Stevenson, Barea, and Cardinal) and move forward? Maybe so.

In addition, they should have a full 82 games to show their stuff as Defending NBA Champions, both in Dallas and away.

WHAT IF ....

If none of this happens?

As close as they are, I see no way either side is going to push things farther. They both know they start losing money when they lose games. And they're already close. Sure, either side could try to create some sort of Armageddon scenario that blows up the league, but why would they?

I say getcha popcorn ready, the NBA is about to go back to work.


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