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 Cautious Optimism, but No Deal, as N.B.A. Talks Break for Night

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PostSubject: Cautious Optimism, but No Deal, as N.B.A. Talks Break for Night   Mon Oct 31, 2011 8:12 am

The N.B.A. lockout did not end Thursday night, but it edged ever closer to a finale, amid tense smiles, light-hearted quips and provocative word choices by the men who are negotiating a new labor deal.

After a seven-and-a-half-hour bargaining session that followed on the heels of a 15-hour meeting, officials for the league and the players union telegraphed a cautious optimism. And for the first time, an agreement appears close on a major component: the structure of the luxury tax and related payroll constraints.

“I think we’re within reach and within striking distance of getting a deal,” said Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players union, referring to these so-called “system” issues. “It’s just a question of how receptive the N.B.A. is and whether or not they want to do a deal.”

Once the system issues are resolved, the parties still must reach agreement on the division of league revenue. Either topic could still derail an agreement, but the tone from both sides on Thursday was unmistakably positive, and at times almost giddy.

Hunter, speaking at a news conference just before 10 p.m., acknowledged that the most difficult moves to close the deal had not yet occurred. When asked when that would happen, he gestured toward Commissioner David Stern, who was sitting in the back of the room and said, “I think he can probably tell you.” To which Stern playfully yelled out, “Tomorrow!”

The talks are scheduled to resume Friday at 10:30 a.m., with a goal of completing a deal sometime this weekend. If the parties can make that deadline, there is a chance at restoring a full 82-game schedule, despite starting the season a month late.

That possibility emerged after a marathon bargaining session that stretched from midday Wednesday until 3 a.m. Thursday, with modest progress made on a number of system issues. Changes to the luxury tax, which serves as a drag on team payrolls, remains the thorniest subject, but agreement appears close.

“As you try and make a move towards getting a deal done, it gets tougher at the end,” said Derek Fisher, the union president. “We have to continue to grind at it and be responsible.”

The union’s concern with any new restrictions on payroll or contracts is the ability for players to create a market for themselves and move freely between teams.

“The same way we’re trying to meet the league and our teams on all 30 teams being competitive, we want our players to have opportunity to play for all 30 teams when they have a chance,” Fisher said.

There were several subtle hints that an agreement was coming into view. Stern said he had an idea what the final deal would look like and that it would be a failure if the parties did not get it done in the next few days.

“There’s no guarantees we’ll get it done,” he said, “but we’re going to give it one heck of a shot tomorrow. And I think Billy and the union’s negotiators feel the same way.”

Once the system issues are resolved, the parties need to close the gap on how to split revenue. They are two-and-a-half percentage points apart, the equivalent of about $100 million a year. The union might be more inclined to accept the league’s proposed 50-50 split, or close to it, if the system is palatable.

“The two are interrelated,” Hunter said.

Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner, said the two issues are “not necessarily related,” but noted that “for deal-making purposes, everything’s on the table, and there’s no question that trades are often made when you have the final pieces of a deal that you need to put together.”

The season was scheduled to begin Nov. 1, but the first two weeks have already been canceled, and the rest of November is at risk. The league needs three to four weeks to start the season once a deal is done, meaning opening night might not occur until Dec. 1.

League officials, anticipating a resolution, are quietly preparing for an 82-game season. The N.B.A. has begun calling arenas across the league, asking them to keep dates open in late April, according to arena officials.

Each team would lose about 12 to 15 games with a Dec. 1 start. But they could reclaim a half-dozen or so games by extending the season through the end of April, two weeks past its usual conclusion. The rest of the games could be made up by adding an extra two to three games per month.

Although the preseason is gone, there is still a chance to generate most of the projected $4 billion the N.B.A. expected for the 2011-12 season. But the window for achieving that goal is narrowing, and that pressure could spur a deal.

Talks could have continued Thursday, but the parties decided to take a break after spending nearly 23 hours together over a 34-hour period.

“I think everybody is pretty wiped out after last night,” Hunter said.

The union also wants its economist, Kevin M. Murphy, to return to the table before proceeding further. Murphy was absent Thursday because of other commitments.

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