After two years of mostly fruitless labor talks, league officials and union leaders will reconvene Friday in New York on the 92nd day of the NBA lockout for what is being widely regarded as a now-or-never weekend of negotiations.
The cancellation of regular-season games is a certainty if significant progress toward a deal isn't made over the next 72 hours, according to sources close to the talks, but NBA commissioner David Stern left the impression this week that far more is at stake with his comments after Wednesday's bargaining sessions.
"I'm focused on let's get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season," Stern said, "and that's what's at risk this weekend."
ESPN.com reported Thursday that Stern is prepared to threaten the cancellation of the entire season if the sides don't emerge from the weekend with a deal. The league has denied that Stern has any such intentions, with NBA spokesman Tim Frank saying: "It's simply not true."
Friday's session is expected to attract as many as 15 owners. Sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that Miami's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, New York's Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Boston's Paul Pierce are among the star players scheduled to attend in support of the union's executive committee, which includes New Orleans' Chris Paul. The respective parties have pledged to keep meeting through Sunday as long as the direction of talks is positive.
Stern said Wednesday the owners and players "are not near a deal," but there is a level of optimism around the league -- albeit modest -- that the framework of a deal can indeed be agreed to by the middle of next week and thus preserve the entire 82-game regular season.
That optimism, sources say, stems from the fact that the construction of a deal made in the next 72 to 96 hours would not include a hard salary cap and would preserve guaranteed contracts for the players, which rank as two of the union's biggest priorities.
Yet sources say the owners, in exchange for those two concessions, continue to make stringent demands in a number of other areas in their quest to dramatically slice the amount of annual revenue earned by players, shorten contract lengths and institute a far more restrictive system to divide revenues.
Over the course of the week, various sources with knowledge of the talks have shared some of the concepts being discussed with ESPN.com. Possibilities presented by the league as alternatives to a hard cap include:
• The institution of a sliding "Supertax" that would charge teams $2 in luxury tax for every dollar over $70 million in payroll, $3 for every dollar over $75 million in payroll and $4 for every dollar for teams with payrolls above $80 million
• A provision to allow each team to release one player via the so-called "amnesty" clause and gain both salary-cap and luxury-tax relief when that player's cap number is removed from the books
• Shortening guaranteed contracts to a maximum of three or four seasons
• Limiting Larry Bird rights -- which enable teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents -- to one player per team per season
• Reducing the annual mid-level exception, which was valued at $5.8 million last season, to roughly $3 million annually and limiting mid-level contracts to a maximum of two or three seasons in length as opposed to the current maximum of five seasons
• A new "Carmelo Rule" that would prevent teams -- as the New York Knicks did in February with Anthony -- from using a Bird exception to sign or extend a player acquired by trade unless they are acquired before July 1 of the final season of the player's contract
• The abolition of sign-and-trades and the bi-annual exception worth $2 million
• Significant reductions in maximum salaries and annual raises and a 5 percent rollbacks on current contracts
There are also still some teams, sources say, who are pushing for some sort of franchise-tag system similar to what the NFL employs as well as a restriction that allows big spending teams to exceed the annual luxury-tax threshold only twice every five seasons.
Yet it remains to be seen how many of these concepts, many of which have been met with union resistance, actually become elements of a deal. Agreeing on those finer points is secondary to striking an agreement on the percentage of the revenue split, which literally shapes what the rest of the next labor pact will look like. The players are still seeking 52 to 54 percent of basketball-related income and the owners remain intent on getting the figure in the high 40s. Players earned 57 percent of basketball-related income last season.
"We just haven't been able to get to a space, at least the formal proposals that have been on the table, get us to place where we can agree on a deal at this point," Players Association president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers said Wednesday.
"And so economically, we've tried to kind of leave that one floating and deal with some system issues and see what we can carve out there. But we're working at it."
Players Association chief Billy Hunter has said his players have instructed union leadership that they would rather continue to sit out than accept a bad deal. But Stern's warnings Wednesday were especially ominous, when he seemed to be suggesting that the notion of a shortened season -- as seen in 1998-99 when the NBA settled for a 50-game schedule after finally striking a deal Jan. 6, 1999 -- is not an option.
"Either we'll make very good progress -- and we know what that would mean, we know how good that would be, without putting dates to it -- or we won't make any progress and then it won't be a question of just starting the season on time, there will be a lot at risk because of the absence of progress," Stern said Wednesday, insisting that "enormous consequences" are looming if this round of talks can't generate the framework of a deal.
Training camps have already been postponed indefinitely and 43 preseason games scheduled for Oct. 9-15 were canceled last week. With the scheduled Nov. 1 season openers just over a month away, Stern said there would be "a lot of risk" attached to a failure to reach an agreement in principle by the middle of the next week. Sources say that's essentially as long as the league can hold out in order to ensure that the entire 82-game regular season can be saved.
The weekend's most interesting sidebar, meanwhile, would arise if Miami's James and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert end up in the same negotiating session. That would result in their first face-to-face meeting since James left Cleveland for Miami last summer.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and Ric Bucher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.