NEW YORK – David Stern had three deals to consider, all promising significant changes to the NBA.
A new collective bargaining agreement, saving owners more than $1 billion in player salary costs?
An expanded revenue sharing plan that would perhaps quadruple the money shared by teams?
A trade that would send Chris Paul from the league-owned, small-market Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers?
Stern announced the ratification of the deal that ends the lockout, but shortly afterward the league had to deny reports that he was pressured by owners into rejecting a previously agreed upon trade that would have put Paul in the same backcourt as Kobe Bryant.
"It's not true that the owners killed the deal, the deal was never discussed at the Board of Governors meeting and the league office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons," league spokesman Mike Bass said.
But a letter from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to Stern clearly shows at least one owner objected to the deal.
"I just don't see how we can allow this trade to happen," Gilbert writes in the letter, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports and The New York Times.
He writes: "I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do" and asks for a vote of "the 29 owners of the Hornets."
The Hornets have been owned by the NBA since last December, when the league bought the club from founder George Shinn.
So Paul stays in New Orleans — for now — but that does little to calm fans in small markets such as New Orleans and Orlando who worry about losing their superstars. In time, Stern said, the "tortured journey" of this 161-day lockout will have been worth it.
"We think it's a very good deal, and it's going to withstand the test of time," he said.
Thus ends the lockout, with training camps and free agency to open Friday. But not before one more chaotic day in this wacky offseason that guarantees the status quo remains for now.
Besides an expanded revenue sharing program, Stern said teams and fans will see an improved league in coming years.
"It's a new beginning in a way," he said. "It's going to take a couple of years to work its way out, but we're very excited about its prospects."
The 10-year deal promises owners savings of perhaps a quarter billion dollars a year in player compensation, but largely leaves intact the soft salary cap system that the players fought hard to maintain.
Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver announced the deal during a news conference, putting an end to nearly two years of difficult negotiations that resulted in the second shortened season in NBA history. A 66-game schedule will begin on Christmas and run through April 26, forcing every team to play on three straight nights at least once.
Owners approved the deal, which allows either side to opt out after six years, by a 25-5 vote. The players' association said 86 percent of the more than 200 players who voted electronically approved the deal.
Union executive director Billy Hunter did not attend the news conference and no union officials were quoted in their statement, issued just as Stern began speaking.
Owners also agreed to an expanded revenue sharing plan, and Stern called both agreements "a watershed moment" for the league. The plan, which will begin in 2013-14, more than quadruples the revenue currently shared by teams, with Stern saying some could now receive more than $20 million and at least six teams could pay $50 million into the plan.
Stern said the current net transfer among teams of about $40 million annually would exceed $160 million. But that's of little help now to a team such as the NBA-owned Hornets, the latest small-market club to face a future without its franchise player.
The framework was in place Thursday on a three-team deal that also involved Houston and would have sent Paul to the Lakers to join Kobe Bryant in the backcourt of the league's biggest revenue team, people with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press. But the deal fell through amid reports owners pressured Stern to stop it.
Yet even if Paul bolts, or Dwight Howard leaves Orlando this summer, Stern said the new labor deal can't be judged by that, or anything else that may happen right away.
"I believe in free agency," he said. "We have a deal where a player who has completed his time at a team under a contract has a right to go someplace else. And then there are potential judgments to be made by teams about whether there's a time when they want to consider getting something more for that player in the event he will leave than if he stays. So nothing has changed about that. That dynamic is the same. But, yes, this is going to be a more competitive league over time."
Saying they lost hundreds of millions a year under the old collective bargaining agreement that owners believed favored large-market teams, the league sought significant changes in these negotiations. Owners refused an option to let the CBA run another year and opened negotiations in January 2010 with a proposal that called for a hard cap, the elimination of guaranteed contracts, rollbacks of current salaries and a massive reduction in the players' share of basketball-related income.
After locking out players on July 1, the two sides reached a tentative deal around 3 a.m. Nov. 26, heading off the potential disaster of a canceled season and avoiding a possibly costly and lengthy court battle had players proceeded with an antitrust lawsuit.
The remaining issues finally were agreed to late Thursday morning, after players already had begun voting electronically.
Though owners insisted they wanted competitive balance just as much as a chance for profit, there's no proof yet they achieved it. Stern knows the owners, particularly in the small markets, didn't get everything they wanted after watching the big-spending Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks claim the last four championships.
"While it's not perfect, the deal addresses significant issues on both sides in a very productive way, we believe," he said.
Player salaries were reduced by 12 percent, and Stern emphasized new provisions such as the amnesty clause will allow teams to more easily escape difficult contracts and become competitive more quickly.
But with the revenue split and system issues taking so much time, there was little opportunity to change the non-economic issues. The draft age limit will remain 19 years at least through the 2012 draft — the league would have liked to go to 20, the players would like to abolish it entirely — and blood testing for human growth hormone won't be implemented this season.
Stern and the owners have been criticized for taking so long to come to an agreement, with no noticeable proof that the small-market teams who so badly needed relief are getting it. And the lockout comes with damage to the legacy of the 69-year-old Stern in his last CBA negotiations.
But he dismissed fears of that, believing he did what's best for his owners and league.
"I think most importantly we're back to basketball," Silver said. "I think legacies aside, it would have been terrible for the players, for the teams, our fans, concessionaires, everyone involved if we had lost more games than we had, so I think that's what's most important."
Training camps will open at 2 p.m. Friday, with the salary cap staying at $58 million. Having free agency the same day will be a challenge, but Stern said everyone was ready to go.
"We considered it, but on balance, our teams, our players and our fans were just saying let's get it on," he said. "So even though you could make a logical argument that we could have gained a day one place or the other, it was the overwhelming sentiment that we should just get going and we decided to do that."