- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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In what was widely presumed to be the league's last and best proposal in a labor standoff now into its fifth month, NBA commissioner David Stern on Thursday offered his locked-out players a 72-game season that would start Dec. 15.
Yet the league's latest pitch, according to sources briefed on its contents after adjustments were made Thursday night, contained what the union regards as minuscule financial inducements for the players after nearly 24 hours of negotiations this week.
And that clearly disappointed union leaders, who were expecting more after they made a commitment earlier in the week, for the first time since the lockout began, to accept a 50/50 split of annual Basketball Related Income.
NBPA executive director Billy Hunter struggled to mask how underwhelmed he was by the new proposal, even as he was telling reporters that he would present it to the player representatives from all 30 teams as early as Monday as a possible prelude to a full vote from the union's estimated 450 members.
"It's not the greatest proposal in the world," Hunter said. "But I have an obligation to at least present it to our membership. So that's what we're going to do."
If the players take the deal, Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the league would open the season with a compressed free-agency period and training camp after an estimated 10 days to resolve a slew of what Hunter called ancillary items, then put the new labor accord in writing.
The playoffs and NBA Finals, under that plan, would have to start one week later than usual to accommodate the 72-game regular season.
"We don't expect them to love every aspect of our revised proposal," Stern conceded. "I would say that there are many teams that don't like every aspect of our revised proposal.
"(But) we moved as far as we could and now we're at where we're at."
The ominous response from one source connected to the NBPA, who expects the union to reject the proposal next week after learning of the tweaks offered by the league on the five or so "system" issues that have kept the parties at an impasse: "Nothing was addressed. It's basically the same offer as it was before.
"No way this deal gets taken (by the players). They didn't move on any system issues that concerned us. It's still basically (like) a hard cap with very restrictive rules for player movement."
The most notable elements of the new proposal, confirmed by sources on both sides to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, are the rise of the "mini mid-level exception" from $2.5 million every other season to $3 million every season and the creation of the additional $2.5 million exception for teams that qualify.
The league, sources said, also relented to some degree on its insistence that taxed teams can't participate in sign-and-trade deals.
Owners are now proposing a phase-in of that restriction that would start in Year 3 of a new labor pact, meaning that prominent summer 2012 free agents such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash still would be eligible to switch teams via sign-and-trade.
The owners, sources say, also have offered to raise minimum team payrolls (which historically had been 75 percent of the salary cap) and raise some season-to-season salary increases. But one source close to the process told Broussard that while these changes may look significant, "the problem with all of that is that the owners changed the definition of a taxpayer in a way that would destroy (Larry) Bird rights and make it almost impossible to be a taxpayer, so the exceptions would be lost anyway."
The league wants a rule that a team under the luxury tax can't use an exception if it will put them over the limit. So if the luxury tax is $70 million, a team at $69 million would only be able to use $1 million of the mid-level exception, not the entire $5 million. A team at $67 million would only be able to use $3 million.
The league is clearly banking on the premise that a majority of players, angry as some might be, are no longer willing to stomach this labor battle and will ultimately relent if this offer is indeed put up for a vote.
The lockout has lasted for 134 days, but voting for the deal now and playing out a 72-game season likely enables players to return to work with only one missed paycheck, while voting this deal down greatly increases the likelihood the entire 2011-12 season will be canceled.
It is likewise conceivable that a rising decertification movement will be under way at the same time that the union is deciding whether it should ignore the widespread reservations and vote on the league's offer.
Sources close to the decertification movement told ESPN.com that there was a growing desire, as of Thursday night, to start the decertification clock as quickly as possible by filing the requisite petition to the National Labor Relations Board calling for a decertification vote with the signatures of some 200 players.
A firm decertification timetable won't be established before Friday at the earliest, but sources said that Monday is the target date to file the petition, factoring in that Friday is the Veterans Day holiday.
Hunter himself acknowledged in a Tuesday night interview with NBA TV that the fast-moving decertification push -- fronted most notably by Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce -- has "close to" 200 players in the process of signing a petition that would trigger a decertification vote.
The movement, sources said, has grown to include more than the original seven agents (Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose, Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem and Henry Thomas) who have been advocating decertification for months.
The two-step decertification process requires 30 percent of the league's workforce -- an estimated 130 players -- to sign the petition calling for a vote. That petition is then forwarded to the NLRB, which would take up to 45 days to ratify the petition and arrange the vote, during which the union and league could continue to negotiate.
Decertification backers believe that the fear of the unknown, with the labor fight potentially moving into courtrooms, would finally move NBA owners off the extreme hard-line negotiating stance they've maintained and lead to a more palatable offer during that 45-day window.
Stern, though, insists that the league has no interest in further talks if Thursday's proposal is rejected.
He repeated last week's vow that if rebuffed by the NBPA the owners will "reset" to their far more rigid proposal from earlier in the summer, when they called for a 53/47 revenue split in their favor, along with a restrictive flex salary cap and rollbacks on existing salaries.
"There comes a time when you have to be through negotiating," Stern said, "and we are.
"I am optimistic owners will approve (the deal) if the players approve it and I await their response. We've done our best."
Only a simple majority of teams is needed to approve any labor contract on the league side, but one league source told ESPN.com late Thursday that he expects "more than 20 teams" to sign off on the deal.
That's despite the ongoing battles within the ownership ranks between small-market franchises seeking harsh tax penalties and other restrictions on big spenders to limit player movement, all part of the league's claim that it has to improve its competitive balance after seeing just nine franchises win championships in the past 31 seasons.
"It's been a long haul, man," Hunter said, explaining his weary look at a news conference Thursday night following the second marathon bargaining session in two days, this one spanning some 11 hours. "We're coming near the end of it. We're trying to get this thing done."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
9hMatt Walks, ESPN.com