League suspends talks, says union backtracked

In February, NBA commissioner David Stern was "optimistic" owners and players would reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement and avoid a nasty lockout. Recently, Stern downgraded his mood from optimistic to "hopeful."

Wednesday, his deputy commissioner, Russ Granik, told ESPN.com that if the National Basketball Players Association doesn't change its negotiating strategy soon, a lockout is coming.

The NBA announced in a statement Wednesday that it suspended negotiations with the union and no further meetings were scheduled.

Granik claims the union recently reversed positions on several key issues.

"The issues that the union has backed away from in the past few weeks will prevent us from reaching an agreement," Granik said. "A deal can't be reached with the union's new positions on all of these points. How can we have further negotiations?"

The current collective bargaining agreement expires June 30. With no negotiations scheduled, does that mean a lockout is inevitable?

"We're six weeks away from having to look at that prospect," Granik said. "I don't want to make predictions. But the situation is alarming."

Why the sudden change from optimism to alarm?

According to the league's statement, "At the conclusion of a bargaining session on Sunday, April 17, we thought we were very close to a deal, with only a few items remaining to be compromised. On April 19, a day after the Players' Association met with a group of player agents, we were informed that the Players' Association could no longer agree to a previously committed five-year rule on length of contracts.

"Then, last week, after promising a written proposal to form the basis of a new agreement, the union instead advised us orally that it needed to backtrack on several other essential terms that had already been resolved."

NBA union chief Billy Hunter questioned the league's tactics, calling the approach "repugnant and offensive."

"This was the same approach used by the league seven years ago," Hunter told ESPN. "At that time, the word was that [agents] David Falk and Arn Tellum and others were actually orchestrating and managing the negotiations. I thought it was repugnant and offensive at that time, and I think it's even more so now – the fact the inference is that me, as a black man, cannot operate an institution such as the union without having some white man oversee and legitimate whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing."

Tuesday, ESPN.com reported the details of that meeting between the agents and Hunter, with SFX agent David Bauman saying, "Billy put us on the spot."

"He wanted to know if we had his back, whether we'd tell our players the same thing that we were telling him," said Bauman, whose firm represents more players than any other agency in the NBA. "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."

The agents are especially concerned about several major issues.

The biggest is the owners' insistence that guaranteed contracts be considerably shortened. 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.

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 minimum age requirement of 20 years old.

The league's release implied the agents might have taken control of the process. Granik said he didn't know why the union reversed itself on the issues after the meeting.

"I don't know why," Granik said. "After I read your column and from other things that I heard, it appears to be a possibility that the agents are responsible for what happened here. I don't have personal knowledge of this.

"Regardless of why, they've been backing up on half a dozen things. When you're backing off points that have already been agreed to, it's impossible to make a deal."

While the Players' Association had no comment on the league's latest release, a players' source said he was shocked by the league's public announcement.

"Stern has been saying for months that nothing is agreed to until the entire agreement is agreed to," the source told ESPN.com. "That's the nature of collective bargaining. How can they say we agreed to anything unless the whole deal was agreed to?"

In the NBA's press release, the league contended the players reneged on an agreement to reduce the maximum length of contracts to five years.

When pressed on the point, Granik conceded that "agreed" might not be the right world.

"As a matter of law, nothing's agreed to until it's all agreed to," Granik said. "As a practical matter, the way you reach agreement is that you eliminate issues and put them to the side."

Still, don't be surprised if talks begin soon. Both sides say they aren't that far apart on key issues and that a deal can be worked out in time.

"I'm still hopeful," an NBA league source said. "At the end of the day, both sides really want to get a deal done. A lockout is the worst-case scenario. No one really wants it to happen. Hopefully, after the dust settles, people will start making up."

If a lockout is imposed and stretches into the fall, many arenas around the country that are home to basketball and hockey teams could go completely dark. The NHL still hasn't settled its own lockout that started last September and wiped out the season – the first time a North American sports league lost a full playing year to labor strife.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.