After a year full of labor peace and love rhetoric between NBA commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter, it looks like the two sides might be headed for a protracted battle.
The NBA owners canceled a critical meeting with the National Basketball Players Association scheduled for Tuesday. As of late Monday night, it had not been rescheduled. The chatter about reaching an agreement has become more pessimistic.
Stern and Hunter sat hand in hand in Denver at the All-Star Game in February and professed optimism that a deal would be reached before the collective bargaining agreement expired June 30.
Players Association president Michael Curry went further, claiming he was "very optimistic" a deal would be done before the end of the regular season.
Both sides claimed they didn't want to follow the NHL down the road to a protracted lockout.
"We don't want to repeat what happened in hockey," Hunter said in February. "We went through a lockout seven years ago and we don't want to go there again."
"I learned from hockey if you think that a move at the last second can do the deal, you may be raising the stakes too much and eliminating the flexibility that might come from making your move earlier," Stern said.
Three months later, both camps have cooled in their hopes that a deal will be done in time to avoid a lockout. Talking to the media in Seattle, Stern said Friday, "I was optimistic that we would have a deal in place by the end of the regular season. I don't have any news to give you. But if there's nothing next week, I will downgrade my position from optimistic to hopeful."
One group in particular sounds like it's ready for a fight.
Seven years ago, the owners took a strong hand against the NBA's most powerful agents during the last round of collective bargaining.
The changes Stern fought for a rookie wage scale, maximum contract amounts, pre-defined raises, and a luxury tax were meant to give NBA owners some cost certainty. But they also had the premeditated effect of taking away much of the negotiating power that agents had once wielded.
Now they're fighting back.
Hunter met with 12 of the most powerful agents in the business April 18 in New York and laid out the current proposal by the league.
Here's what happened, according to several agents who were in the room: After Hunter laid out the proposal, the rhetoric from the agents started getting tough. At one point, shouting and obscenities filled the room. Before the end of the meeting, Hunter had each agent stand, say his name and pledge that they'd urge their clients to support the players association if the league didn't soften its stance on several key bargaining issues and forces a lockout.
"Billy put us on the spot," SFX agent David Bauman, whose firm represents more NBA players than any other agency in the NBA, told ESPN.com. "He wanted to know if we had his back. Whether we'd tell our players the same thing that we were telling him. We all stood up, every one of us, said our names and said we'd reject the offer. The deal the NBA is offering the players right now makes absolutely no sense. I've told my clients that. Every one of them agrees that the deal that's on the table is a bad one."
While the NBPA declined to comment for the story, it did not deny, when asked, that the meeting took place as Bauman and several other agents described to Insider.
Since then, the tone of negotiations between the union and owners has gotten tougher and progress toward a deal has slowed considerably.
Agent Bill Duffy, who represents MVP Steve Nash, Yao Ming and Carmelo Anthony, was also at the meeting. He says the current system is working and has recommended that the league and players extend the current deal.
"Attendance is up. Revenues are up. There are stars in the league. The system we have is working," Duffy said. "If a team is well managed, they can be profitable in the NBA. The changes the owners are asking for might help their bottom line, but they come at a huge cost to the players. The players are willing to negotiate almost every point, but negotiation involves give and take. Right now, that's not happening."
Duffy said he too has recommended to his clients that they reject the league's current offer, even if it results in the owners locking the players out on July 1.
The agents are especially concerned about several major issues.
The biggest is the owner's insistence that guaranteed contracts be shortened considerably. Currently, players can sign a contract for a maximum of six or seven years, depending upon whether the player is signing with a new team (six years) or his current team (seven years). The owners have been trying to get that rolled back to three and four years.
"Of all the issues that the owners are trying to push, that one is the most absurd of all," Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein, another of the meeting's attendees, said. "No one is putting a gun to owners' heads and forcing them to sign players to these long-term deals. Almost every proposal that the owners are pushing are rules that really save the owners from themselves. It's ridiculous. If an owner is willing to give a player a six- or seven-year deal, the player should have the right to sign it."
Three other issues have become sticking points: 1) the owners' proposal to reduce the amount of annual raises in a contract from 10 percent to 5 percent; 2) a "super luxury tax" that would more harshly penalize teams that spend more than a certain predetermined threshold; and 3) the proposed 20-year-old age limit.
In almost every case, the owners are asking the players to compromise without offering much in return. The only concrete concession the league seems willing to make, according to the agents ESPN.com interviewed, is raising the salary cap from $43.8 million to $50 million next season.
The league, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the story.
"They say they want to bargain and they say the proposals they're making are tweaks," Bauman said. "They're not tweaks. Cutting the length of guaranteed contracts in half is not a tweak. Forcing talented high school players and young international players to wait two more years before entering the NBA is not a tweak. They are fundamental changes to a system that already favors the owners. If they are willing to negotiate to get what they want, fine. But right now, what they're offering in return is insignificant compared to what they're taking."
Of course, agents have their own interests at stake. The current CBA, with its firmer salary structure, has encouraged some players to forego agents and negotiate on their own or with the help of an attorney.
Bartelstein doesn't deny the current collective bargaining agreement hurts the agents, and the next collective bargaining agreement has the potential to do further damage. But he doesn't think it's agent greed fueling the fight against Stern and the owners.
"Our job is to negotiate the best price for our client," Bartelstein said. "I have no doubt the owners would like to create a system which eliminates the ability to negotiate and thus prohibits us from doing our jobs.
"But the bottom line is that the system works. How can the league justify a lockout when they have a hard cap, the players paying 10 percent of their salaries into escrow accounts, and a luxury tax that penalizes owners that go over the predetermined salary cap?"
That's why Bartelstein, Duffy and Bauman, along with several agents who refused to go on the record, believe the players, not the league, hold the leverage right now. Historically, the public usually sides with management in labor disputes. But given the success of the league right now, they think fans will be upset with the owners if they lock the players out.
"I can understand why NHL owners locked out their players," Bartelstein said. "I can even understand the last NBA lockout. Those systems didn't work. This one does. And I think the league is going to have a hard time justifying a work stoppage to the fans. This isn't a strike. Players are willing to abide by the current deal. This is owners telling players that they can't come to work."
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.