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Curry confident of deal before season ends

DENVER -- Leaders from the NBA and players' association met Friday in their latest attempt to avert a lockout this summer.

Players' association president Michael Curry sounded convinced after the meeting that the two sides would reach a deal before the season ends.

"I'm very optimistic that we'll get a deal done before the end of the regular season," Curry said. "It's almost impossible to get one done in the playoffs."

"We just know the logistics. Once the playoffs start, it becomes difficult to get a deal. Better now than later."

NBA commissioner David Stern and union head Billy Hunter were more reserved in their assessment of Friday's talks, however.

"In the language of diplomacy, it was frank, open, cordial and constructive but there still are substantial differences," Stern said.

"We're working on it," Hunter said in reaction to Stern's statement. "As David commented, I think we made a lot of progress. We've still got a lot of differences."

Stern said that there would be no more talks during the All-Star break and there would be no announcement of a basic agreed upon framework when he holds his annual All-Star Game press conference tomorrow.

Stern said the two sides would begin negotiating again the first week in March.

Sources on both sides of the table told ESPN.com earlier Friday that felt that a deal was close and were cautiously optimistic that agreement would be reached soon.

However, the language on both sides was a bit more subdued later Friday.

"We have a pretty good idea where the deal might be and where it might not be," Stern said. "Whether we have the will to close the gap is the issue. We're not there. We're not going to tell anyone that we're going to get there, but we're not going to get there for wont of trying. And that's what we committed today."

"We're going to closet ourselves for a period of time and see if we can't close the gap and get a deal. That may require some changes of position on both sides along the way and there was some conversation on how committed we have to be to the deal."

Hunter said that the biggest hurdle now is for both sides to drop the vague proposals and start hammering out the specific details.

"Nobody has made concessions. We've talked in generalities. What could happen? That kind of thing. Not necessarily someone putting forward a proposal that say here's what I'm willing to do. We decided to back away from that and lay it out. For example, here's what kind of deal I can make and what kind I can't make. If we can bridge the gap, it's all well and good."

How big is the gap?

Stern and Curry both used the word "tweaks" to describe the changes they were looking for.

However, Stern was quick to point out that the word "tweak" was a subjective one.

"One man's tweak is another man's large grab," Stern said. "We are both seeking to tweak the deal."

According to sources on both sides, the league is looking to shorten the length of guaranteed contracts, reduce player raises and create a real minor league out of the NBDL.

The players want to end the luxury tax on teams and the escrow taxes on players.

When Curry was asked whether shortening guaranteed contracts from six years to four years was a tweak, he was quick to respond, "that's not a tweak."

What the issues ultimately boil down to is whether a well-managed team can be competitive and still make money.

Hunter says the league is already there. Stern says they're not there yet.

The only issue both sides seem to totally agree on is that they don't want to end up like the NHL, which just canceled its season because of an ongoing labor war.

"We don't want to repeat what happened in hockey," Hunter said. "We went through a lockout seven years ago and we don't want to go there again."

That's why Stern believes something needs to give soon if both sides are going to avoid an ugly work stoppage.

"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."

In Friday's meeting, Curry was joined by players Theo Ratliff of Portland, Eric Snow
of Cleveland, Pat Garrity of Orlando, Ervin Johnson of Minnesota,
Damon Jones of Miami, P.J. Brown of New Orleans and Malik Rose of
San Antonio.

The owners were represented by Jerry Colangelo of Phoenix, Steve
Mills of New York, Wyc Grousbeck of Boston, Micky Arison of Miami,
Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto and Stan Kroenke of Denver.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.