Sources: Sides hope to resolve lawsuits
Representatives for the league and the locked-out players in the NBA's ongoing labor dispute, which reached its 147th day Thursday, have re-opened negotiations to make one last run at trying to start the season Christmas Day.
The two sides agreed to resume talks for the first time in nearly two weeks, according to sources close to the situation, with discussions commencing Tuesday aimed at resolving lawsuits recently filed by the players. Talks are expected to resume Friday after a break for Thanksgiving, with almost no wiggle room left to get a deal done in time for Christmas.
The NBA lockout began on July 1, but a tentative agreement has been reached to save the season. ESPN.com Topics keeps you up to date with all of the latest on the NBA's labor situation. Topics Page »
When settlement talks resume Friday, lawyers representing the players will be looking for the league to make most of the movement, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. The players believe they've made most of the concessions in these labor negotiations
Items of concern include escrow, maximum salaries, the mid-level exception, sign-and-trades, restricted free agency and a couple of luxury tax issues, such as penalties for repeat offenders.
The players want the money in escrow to be capped at 10 percent. They want the maximum salary for superstars to be 30 percent of the salary cap, as opposed to the owners' proposal of 25 percent. They want four-year contracts for the mid-level exception to be available every year, not in alternating years as the owners have proposed. They also want an increase in the $3 million mini mid-level for teams in the luxury tax.
Additionally, the players want sign-and-trades to be available every year for tax teams, rather than only for the first two years of the deal. They also want qualifying offers for restricted free agents increased.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Stern has privately surveyed a handful of owners about their willingness to ease the restrictions on the proposed mid-level exception in a new labor agreement.
It is believed the league's next proposal to the players will contain tweaks to some of the "system" issues that the players have strongly objected to in recent negotiations. The players have long insisted -- in exchange for accepting a 50/50 split of annual basketball-related income, after earning a 57 percent share of BRI in the final year of the previous labor deal -- that the league's proposed restrictions against luxury-tax teams must be relaxed.
And although the parties agreed to a 50/50 revenue split before talks broke off last week and the union disclaimed itself, there are questions as to whether that agreement is still in place. The sides have not addressed the BRI split since talks re-opened Tuesday, but sources from both sides have indicated that each party has some desire to seek a better split.
David Boies, one of the attorneys representing the players, has repeatedly said he hopes that the NBA will be moved to settle out of court rather than risk a potentially lengthy trial that could end with players being awarded roughly $6 billion in damages.
The primary push for the talks, according to The New York Times, is a desire to try to finally end to the five-month impasse in time to start the season on Dec. 25, which historically has marked the start of the NBA's annual introduction to the national network TV schedule. But the latest talks are considered part of settlement talks relating to litigation as opposed to outright negotiations, according to the Times.
The Times also reported Wednesday the league has a 66-game season lined up if the sides can agree to the outline of a new labor deal in time for Christmas Day games. NBA commissioner David Stern has said on numerous occasions that the league needs a month after the sides shake hands to put a new labor deal in writing and allow for a compressed training camp and free-agency period before the regular season begins.
National Basketball Players Association attorney Jonathan Schiller, in a statement issued Wednesday night, confirmed the scheduling of "preliminary settlement discussions with the NBA immediately after Thanksgiving."
Yet sources on both sides late Wednesday preached caution, noting that the talks have collapsed several times when a deal appeared to be within reach.
Sources identified Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers as the teams pushing hardest behind the scenes for a deal in principle by the end of the weekend to ensure that a "representative" season can be staged.
And at least three teams that requested anonymity, according to interviews conducted Wednesday by ESPN.com, are highly optimistic that the framework of a deal can be struck by Monday.
But one source close to the talks, referring to the aforementioned collapses, said Wednesday night: "Are the parties talking again? Yes. Have they done anything [significant]? No."
Sources told ESPN that in addition to the lawyers on both sides who have joined the proceedings, many of the negotiators involved in this week's talks are the same ones who were negotiating before the union filed a "disclaimer of interest" last week: Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver on the league side, and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter and Ron Klempner on the players' side.
Hunter and his team are prevented from negotiating a new labor agreement now that the union has disbanded, but settlement talks could lead to the re-forming of the union, which then could ratify a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Times, meanwhile, reported that Hunter has hired Jim Quinn, formerly the union's chief outside counsel, to replace union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler and help complete the deal. Kessler has had a combustible relationship with Stern and other owners during the past few months of negotiations. Quinn played a similar closer's role in the 1998-99 lockout and is said to have good relationships with both Hunter and Stern after years of participating in such talks.
One source told Broussard that it was Quinn -- a litigation lawyer with a long history of representing player organizations in the NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the NHL -- who brought the parties back together Monday.
Yahoo! Sports, which first reported the resumption of talks Wednesday, reported that union president Derek Fisher has not been part of this week's negotiations. The union filed the disclaimer last week to dissolve itself and file a series of antitrust suits against the NBA in Minnesota following the latest breakdown in talks. But those legal machinations could prevent Fisher from rejoining the talks so as to ensure the league can't accuse the union of dissolving itself as a mere negotiating ploy and continuing to operate with same basic structure as before.
The NBA said Wednesday that "it remains in favor of a negotiated resolution (to the lockout)" but declined to comment further.
A 66-game game season, with the playoffs pushed back at least a week later than normal, would be 16 games shorter than the usual 82-game regular season, and six shorter than the 72-game season, with a Dec. 15 start date, that Stern offered to the union before it disbanded.
There were three games on the league's original Christmas schedule -- Boston at New York on ESPN, followed by an ABC doubleheader featuring an NBA Finals rematch pitting Miami at Dallas and Chicago visiting the Los Angeles Lakers -- but league officials are expected to draft an entirely new schedule if a deal can be struck to save the season.
Senior writer Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.