NBA owners and players made progress toward a new labor deal during more than 15 hours of talks and will return Thursday, still hoping an 82-game season is possible.
The talks Wednesday into Thursday morning were about the salary cap system, and Commissioner David Stern said they likely will stick with that issue when they resume.
"We were able to work through a number of different issues today regarding our system," union president Derek Fisher said. "We can't say that major progress was made in any way, but some progress was made on system issues. Obviously enough for us to come back."
And enough that the focus was more on games to be played, not canceled.
Though the remainder of the November schedule is already in jeopardy, Stern said he had no plans to cancel any more games at this moment. Instead, union officials said they believed a full schedule — and the crucial first paycheck they seemed to have already lost — was possible if an agreement is reached by the end of this weekend.
Stern said it would be difficult, but that the league intends to play as many games as possible.
"Whether that gets to be 82 games or not is dependent upon so many things that have to be checked," he said. "We just think we've got to do it soon."
Less than a week after perhaps the low moment of the lockout, when talks broke down last Thursday with some nasty talk afterward, the process seems back on track.
"There's no question that today was a better day than last Thursday," Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said. "I think it's too early — not just in the morning — but still in the negotiations to express confidence that we're at a deal. But there's no question though that we did make progress on some significant issues, but there are still some very significant issues left."
Neither side would offer specifics or quantify the progress, but Fisher and union executive director Billy Hunter said they might be in a better position to do so after talks later Thursday. Stern would only say that "the energy in the room has been good; the back and forth has been good."
The sides did not deal with the division of basketball revenues, the other big obstacle to a deal and the one that ended last week's talks.
It emerged as such a roadblock that union executive director Billy Hunter said they should "park" the issue and turn the discussions back to the system, saying that players might be willing to take a lower percentage if they found the system rules more favorable.
"I think we'll turn to the split when we finish with the system," Stern said. "Right now, it has been profitable to turn to the system."
Seeking greater parity among their 30 teams, owners are looking to reduce the ways that teams can exceed the salary cap so that big markets won't have a significant payroll advantage. Players have feared some of those changes would result in what would essentially be a hard salary cap, restricting player movement and perhaps even eliminating most guaranteed contracts.
But the league has insisted for months it can no longer move forward with a system where a team like Fisher's Lakers can greatly outspend most of its rivals.
"We are united on the NBA side in wanting a system that makes all teams competitive," Stern said. "We have some strong views on what the best way to do that is."
So do the players, who would like a system that looks much like the current soft cap structure. So even with Wednesday's progress, there are still system items to sort through. The sides have been struggling over things such as the length of the deal, players' contract lengths and the size of their raises.
"We're not going to get ahead of ourselves at this point," Fisher said. "We'll continue to remain focused on some key principal items in our system that have to remain there in order for our players to agree to what is already a reduced percentage of BRI."
The sides returned to bargaining with a small group meeting less than a week after three intense days of mediation didn't produce a new labor deal. Wednesday's negotiations marked the second-longest bargaining session since the lockout began July 1. The talks stretched into early Thursday morning, the first time bargaining has gone past 3 a.m.
And they ended with a feeling of optimism. In these negotiations, an agreement to keep talking the next day has sometimes qualified as progress. With time already lost, they can't afford another setback without the season likely starting in December at the earliest.
"It's sad that we've missed two weeks, and we're trying to apply a tourniquet and go forward," Stern said. "That's always been our goal."
Talks broke down last Thursday when players said owners insisted they agree to a 50-50 split of revenues as a condition to further discuss the salary cap system. Stern missed that meeting with the flu.
"I leave these guys alone for a little bit of time, and all hell breaks loose," he joked, motioning toward Silver.
The players have lowered their proposal to 52.5 percent of basketball-related income, leaving the sides about $100 million apart annually, based on last season's revenues. Players were guaranteed 57 percent of BRI under the previous collective bargaining agreement.
Stern rejoined the talks Wednesday after missing last Thursday's session with the flu. He was joined by Silver, owners Peter Holt of San Antonio, Glen Taylor of Minnesota and James Dolan of New York, and a pair of league office attorneys.
They will brief the owners' labor relations committee via conference call Thursday before meeting with the players.
The union was represented by Hunter, Fisher and vice president Maurice Evans of the Wizards, attorney Ron Klempner and economist Kevin Murphy, who will be unavailable Thursday because of another commitment.