NEW YORK -- Negotiators for the NBA owners and players were meeting Black Friday for litigation settlement talks in the hopes of laying the groundwork for a collective bargaining agreement to save the 2011-12 season.
The starting point in the negotiations essentially is where the bargaining talks left off Nov. 10, when the players were left with an ultimatum from the league to accept the framework of a 50-50 revenue split or face a far worse offer. Instead of sending the proposal to the union membership for a vote, the National Basketball Players Association dissolved Nov. 14 and launched multiple antitrust lawsuits against the league's owners.
UPDATE: With those dynamics in mind, the talks take the form of a legal settlement as opposed to a collective bargaining resolution -- with many of the same participants still involved but some new faces, too. The players' lead attorney in the antitrust action, David Boies, has teamed with former NBPA lead outside counsel Jim Quinn in an effort to push the deal across the finish line. But neither Boies nor Quinn was present at Friday's negotiations. Kessler, stripped of his role as lead negotiator for the players, also was not present.
Representing the players Friday were former union officials Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher; executive committee member Maurice Evans; general counsel Ron Klempner; economist Kevin Murphy; and one of Quinn's law partners. For the league, it was commissioner David Stern; deputy commissioner Adam Silver; Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee; general counsel Rick Buchanan; and deputy general counsel Dan Rube.
So the so-called litigation settlement talks had very much the same dynamics as the bargaining talks that broke off Nov. 10, leading to the players' decision to dissolve the union and launch antitrust lawsuits against the owners on Nov. 14. This, with one exception: there were strong indications that Quinn, one of the key figures in ending he 1998-99 lockout, had laid important groundwork during secret discussions he brokered earlier in the week. Stern and other league officials were seen Tuesday at the same location where Friday's talks were taking place.
Multiple people connected to the talks have told CBSSports.com that the discussions could move quickly towards a deal after the momentum gained in the past week from back-channel talks spearheaded by Quinn. But one person in frequent contact with ownership cautioned that it may take the entire weekend to find common ground, adding that there "could be some anxiety" in the room Friday.
On the 148th day of the lockout, but the first since the labor impasse was transformed into a court battle, there seemed to be little effort to hide the appearance that the faces and issues hadn't changed. A key difference was the absence of Kessler, though the tempestuous attorney was still "very much involved" behind the scenes, according to a source.
The players are hopeful that the owners will be willing to offer substantial movement on a handful of system-related issues around which the talks crumbled two weeks ago, resulting in the unprecedented disclaimer of the NBPA and threatening that the season would be swallowed up by lengthy, costly and unpredictable antitrust litigation. To account for some of those concessions, which would result in a more flexible and opportunistic free-agent market than the owners last proposed, it is possible that the split of revenues could inch upward above 50 percent for the players -- with the remaining difference accounted for by an escrow system capped at 10 percent as teams and players adjust to a reset of player salaries and more restrictive system than the one that existed under the CBA that expired July 1.
The most difficult issues to resolve will be the availability of the mid-level exception for luxury tax-paying teams; sign-and-trade transactions for tax payers; and the definition of a tax payer. Coming out of the collapsed bargaining talks, these were the items that bothered the players the most in terms of restricting player movement -- especially the notion that a team would be considered a tax payer prior to use of an exception that pushed it over the tax line, as opposed to afterward.
But while league negotiators were not expected to fully move toward the players on all the outstanding system issues, there has been "positive movement" from the owners in recent days "to get a deal done," according to the person in contact with ownership. The biggest factor in the potential for a deal by the end of the weekend is not the players' lawsuits, but something much more predictable and relentless: the calendar.
Both sides understand that a season tipoff on Christmas, which would deliver a 66-game regular season with the NBA Finals pushed back only one week, would require an agreement by Monday at the latest. Even that would be pushing it; the league will need about 30 days to finalize the deal and hold an abbreviated free-agent period, training camps and preseason games.
As necessitated by the union's disclaimer, any legal settlement wouldn't be able to take the form of a CBA until the union reformed and was recognized by the owners.