The NBA Players Association has rejected the league's latest labor proposal and asked for one more bargaining session before a 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday that, according to commissioner David Stern, will cause the offer to vanish if there's no agreement.
Flanked by the player representatives from 29 teams and roughly 15 more players who showed up for Tuesday's union meeting in New York, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher announced that the player reps backed their recommendation to snub the NBA's offer from the weekend, which Stern says will be replaced by a far less appetizing offer if the sides can't reach an accord by the stated deadline.
"Our orders are clear," Fisher said. "The current offer that is on the table from the NBA is not one that we can accept."
Yet Hunter -- after sources confirmed to ESPN.com that the union, for the first time since the lockout began, is prepared to accept a 50/50 split of annual revenue -- expressed great confidence that the league and NBPA would resume negotiations one last time before Wednesday's buzzer.
Stern said in a subsequent interview on NBA TV on Tuesday night that he will take Hunter's call and consider the prospect of further bargaining before the deadline, but otherwise said little to suggest that his owners are prepared to budge on the five or so remaining "system" issues that still separate the sides even if the union is now amenable to a 50/50 split.
"I always take Billy's calls as a sign of respect and courtesy," Stern said. "What my response will be will be guided to some degree by the labor relations committee."
A meeting Wednesday between the sides is tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. Logistics for the meeting currently are being worked out, including which hotel will host the talks.
Sources said that the union did not conduct a formal vote of the players assembled in the room Tuesday, opting instead for an informal "everyone agrees" consensus that authorizes Hunter and Fisher to accept a 50-50 split of basketball related income in future negotiations as long as the league makes some concessions on some of the remaining system issues. But sources briefed on the owners' thinking insisted to ESPN.com that there will be no further budging from the owners, no matter how close a deal seems on paper. Wednesday will be the 132nd day of the second lockout in NBA history to bleed into the regular season.
"It's sad," one ownership source said. "I think they've seen their best offer."
Hunter, though, is so convinced that the owners will indeed bend that he didn't hesitate to trumpet at Tuesday's news conference that he thinks the league's current proposal actually won't be yanked off the table after Stern's deadline.
"The players are clearly of the mind that it's an unacceptable proposal," Hunter said. "But because of their commitment to the game and their desire to play, they're saying to us that we want you to go back, see if you can go back, get a better deal."
Sources said that the union did not conduct a formal vote of the players assembled in the room Tuesday, opting instead for an informal "everyone agrees" consensus that authorizes Hunter and Fisher to accept a 50-50 split of basketball related income in future negotiations as long as the league makes some concessions on some of the remaining system issues.
Fisher insisted that without the system concessions "we don't see a way of getting a deal done between now and end of business" Wednesday.
"We're open-minded about potential compromises on our [BRI] number," Fisher said. "But there are things in the system that are not up for discussion, that we have to have, in order to be able to get the season going again."
The league's weekend offer calls for players to receive between 49 percent and 51 percent of annual basketball-related income. Union officials argue that it would be nearly impossible for the league to generate sufficient revenue in any given season to earn the players more than 50.2 percent, but Hunter and Fisher now have the go-ahead for the first time all summer to go that low on BRI if the owners will agree to relax some of the various limits they want to impose on teams that stray into luxury-tax territory.
The tax penalties and other rules for tax-paying teams, one source told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, are where the two sides remain at complete odds.
A group of hard-line owners -- several of whom, according to a Tuesday report from Broussard, hope the players reject the current offer so they can push for a more restrictive financial system -- maintain that restrictions on tax-paying teams are the only way to stop big-market teams from hoarding the game's biggest stars and increase competitive balance in a league that has seen only nine franchises win championships over the past 31 seasons.
Sources told ESPN.com that player representatives attending Tuesday's meeting were apprised by union officials that the NBA would currently expect 16 teams -- 17 if you include the league-owned New Orleans Hornets -- to ratify the deal in its current form and 13 to oppose it.
Broussard's report quoted an ownership source saying: "There are a large number of owners against (the 50-50 deal), but I think we have enough to get it passed."
Hunter, though, has rival factions within his own house to contend with. He acknowledged in a Tuesday night interview with NBA TV that a fast-moving decertification push driven by agents and frustrated players -- most notably Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce -- has "close to" 200 players in the process of signing a petition that would call for 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.
"I think you'd be surprised how big it's gotten," said one source, who added that "the wheels are in motion" and that signatures are already "coming in pretty quickly."
Pierce is Boston's union representative and the Celtics were the only team not represented at Tuesday's mandatory meeting, which was called after Stern issued his ultimatum early Sunday morning following an eight-hour bargaining session with federal mediator George Cohen. But sources close to the situation said Pierce did not outright boycott the meeting and has been very open with Hunter about his pro-decertification leanings.
Hunter told reporters in New York after his Tuesday news conference: "I think Paul is kind of frustrated with the process. Paul has been at the bargaining table and he doesn't feel that we've been making any kind of progress. And so he thought that maybe that's necessary. We don't have a lot of options and that's the option Paul was pushing -- still is pushing."
Asked if he's fine with that stance, Hunter added: "Of course. Listen, I'm cool with Paul and all these guys. I think it's very important. I'm happy that Paul and the others are involved in the process. That's always been the problem with athletes, that a lot of stuff is foisted on them and they have no input. Paul has been actively engaged, he understands, he's been in five or six of our negotiating sessions, he talks to me, and when they had the (decertification) calls, he called and let me know that they were having the calls. And I said, 'Hey, I'm not at all opposed to you doing that.' ... I endorse what Paul did."
Decertification is a two-step process that 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 National Labor Relations Board, 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 once the process gets that far, with the labor fight potentially moving into courtrooms, would finally move NBA owners off the extreme hard-line negotiating stance they've maintained throughout the four-month lockout and lead to a more palatable offer during that 45-day window.
Sources on the ownership side, however, have scoffed at the threat of decertification and likewise believe that the pre-emptive federal lawsuit filed by the NBA during the summer could potentially take the sting out of any potential decertification, although that remains a matter of some debate among legal analysts.
There is even stronger conviction on the ownership side in questioning whether a majority of players would indeed have the stomach to go through with full-on decertification after the 45-day window, since that step would almost certainly seal the cancellation of the entire 2011-12 season and throw up as many unsettling unknowns about the status of existing contracts for the players as it would for the owners. But the success of an actual decertification vote likely depends on its timing, since most experts agree that a vote would surely pass if the NBA cancels the season first.
Stern, meanwhile, disputed Hunter's claim that the league is planning to cancel all games through Christmas if there's no deal by Wednesday afternoon. But he did insist that owners will not back off their threat to deliver a new proposal after the deadline that calls for a 53-47 revenue split in the owners' favor along with a system that essentially functions as a hard salary cap. The harsher proposal also calls for existing contracts to be rolled back, with the league continuing to claim losses of $300 million last season when players were guaranteed 57 percent of BRI.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and Ric Bucher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.