What to expect in Tuesday's NBA labor talks


NEW YORK -- Just a prediction here, but one based upon experience from having covered numerous NBA labor battles in the past.

On Tuesday, the players are expected to make a new offer to the owners when the sides meet for what commissioner David Stern has said will be the most important collective bargaining session yet.

And whether the players give a little or give a lot, past performance metrics show that Stern will likely put that give in his pocket and walk away from the meeting saying some variation of the phrase: "It isn't enough," thereby pushing the pessimism pedal to something approaching full throttle.

After the owners last Friday backed off their demand that all contracts be at least partially non-guaranteed, Stern said the onus was now on the players to reciprocate in a strong enough way to move the sides closer to an agreement that would prevent the league's first summer work stoppage since 1998.

But don't expect that to happen. Not yet, anyway.

If labor negotiations were neat and tidy, each side would be making incremental moves toward the middle, and the differences would then be bridged at the end -- which in this case is 11:59 p.m. ET the night of June 30, when the current labor agreement expires.

But labor negotiations are not neat and tidy, and both sides in this protracted negotiation know each other well enough to realize that the actual horse trading will take place in the 11th hour, even if the sides remain more than a half-billion dollars apart, as they do now, right up until that final hour (which, by the way, does not have to be the final hour if the sides mutually agree to stop the clock and continue talking into July 1, July 2 or beyond).

What continues to be the biggest divide between the sides is how to split up the money, with the owners still seeking a reduction of approximately $750 million, phased in over four years, from the $2.1 billion in player salaries they doled out last season.

The players are willing to sacrifice some money, but not that much money. (The union has already offered to relinquish its guarantee of 57 percent of basketball-related income).

And so, no matter how much money the players offer to sacrifice when the sides reconvene Tuesday, there is no way it'll be anywhere close to the number the owners are seeking, which is why we are pegging the next appearance of Doomsday Dave for approximately 5:42 p.m. ET in the afternoon Tuesday. (TUESDAY UPDATE: The start of the talks has been moved back an hour, so my prediction changes to 6:42 p.m.).

"The owners are asking for a give that puts them in a place where they've never been, which is guaranteed profitability," said a source familiar with the dynamics of this particular negotiation and past labor talks. "The biggest problem is that it is unreasonable for owners to even ask for $400 million when they say they are losing $300 million, and thus far they are nowhere near lowering their demands down to the $400 million range. So it's a question of when will they get to a number that is reasonable?

"If the owners were asking for $400 million and the union was offering $100 million, then there would be a deal to be done," the source said. "But that is not even close to being the case at the present time."

And Tuesday is not the time for the union to show its entire hand. It's a time for the players to give the owners a peek at the direction where they'd like this negotiation to move, but not much more.

There are still a heck of a lot more days before the 11th hour actually arrives, and the key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle do not need to be agreed to with nine full days still left until the current agreement expires.

So if you are looking to measure progress Tuesday, look for it in the measure of disdain Stern exudes when he makes his public comments afterward. If he is off the charts in terms of contempt, that will be a bad thing. But if he comes out and concedes that this negotiation is still salvageable, that'll be the most important thing he says -- no matter how hard he tries to posture that Tuesday has been framed as a make-or-break day.

The actual make-or-break day is still more than a week away, so expect a fair measure of doom and gloom. It'll be the nuances of that gloom-and-doom message that'll need to be deciphered.