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Start of NBA season in jeopardy as labor talks stall

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With no progress this week in the labor dispute between National Basketball Association (NBA) officials and locked out players, the prospect of a delayed start to the regular season looms large.

A five-hour meeting in New York on Tuesday ended in a stalemate and further discussions set for Wednesday were scrapped as the salary cap emerged as the biggest obstacle between the parties.

The NBA season is scheduled to begin on November 1 but players association executive director Billy Hunter felt that timeline was unlikely given the lack of progress made toward a new labor agreement.

"We've told our players that they should expect, in all probability, not to start the season on time," Hunter said. "We've prepared them (by) saying, they may have to sit out as much as half of the season before we get a deal done.

"We were prepared to compromise somewhat on the position that we'd staked out previously in the hopes that we could get a deal, save dollars and maybe start the season on time.

Hunter, speaking to reporters after Tuesday's meeting, said he was frustrated that the owners rejected an informal proposal aimed at reducing player salaries while maintaining a flexible salary cap.

"We're not so sure that there may not be further damages or delay trying to get the season started," he added. "The owners are not inclined at this stage to move off the position where they've anchored themselves."

SALARY CAP A STICKING POINT

However, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said the union's insistence on preserving the 'soft' salary cap had left labor discussions at a stalemate.

"We went into the (negotiations) with two goals," Silver told reporters. "One was an economic goal, but the second and equally as important is the ability for all 30 teams to compete for championships.

"Frankly we're having trouble understanding why the label of a 'hard cap' is what's breaking apart these negotiations right now."

NBA owners contend the league lost $300 million last season with 22 of its 30 teams in the red. They want the league's share of basketball-related income increased from 50 to 57 percent, along with a firm salary cap and shorter contracts.

The players offered to reduce their share to 54.3 percent.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the average salary for a league player would be $5 million a year under the owners' proposal, while the players' plan would increase that number to $7 million by the sixth year.

"We reiterated to the players that we need a system that is economically feasible, and one that allows all of our teams to not only make a profit if they are well operated, but also to compete," Stern said.

The current system permits teams to exceed the salary cap via various exceptions if they are prepared to pay a luxury tax, giving heavyweight franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers an added payroll advantage over smaller teams.

No further meetings between owners and players have been scheduled, although the owners will meet in Dallas on Thursday for a board of governors meeting while the players are expected to hold a membership meeting the same day in Las Vegas.

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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