NEW YORK – Saying it reflects a "desire to go as far as we can to avoid a lockout," NBA Commissioner David Stern revealed Tuesday that owners have moved off their insistence on a hard salary cap.
Players don't see it that way.
So it appears the cap system remains as the biggest obstacle to a new collective bargaining agreement before the rapidly approaching June 30 deadline.
Stern said the league has proposed a "flex cap," in which teams would target a uniform dollar amount to spend, but would still be permitted to exceed it up to an unspecified level. Players argue it's still a hard cap, because the ceiling would eventually kick in.
So even though both sides felt there was progress in what Stern had said was an important day in these negotiations, a sizable gap remains.
"At this point we're still just really far apart on the largest issue of hard salary cap, and still some economic issues as well," players' association president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said.
Calling it "virtually the best shot we think we have" to avoid a work stoppage, Stern said the owners' proposal would ensure that players' total compensation would never fall below $2 billion a year in a 10-year contract, slightly less than the league paid this season.
He said the average player salary would be about $5 million and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said the goal would be an eventual 50-50 split of basketball revenues. The players are currently guaranteed 57 percent.
Though Stern refused to call this his last offer, he said the "cupboard is getting barer and barer."
"It's all out there," he said. "The owners to a person feel that this is what we have to give."
The flex cap offer had previously been proposed to the players, but had not been disclosed publicly until Tuesday. According to Stern, teams would be targeted to spend approximately $62 million, with the option to spend above through certain exceptions before reaching a limit they could not exceed.
Under the current soft salary cap, teams can use various exceptions to exceed the cap, with the penalty of a dollar for dollar luxury tax once they reach the threshold. The cap this year was $58 million, and the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, under big-spending owner Mark Cuban, blew well past the tax level of $70 million.
The union made a proposal that offered more than $500 million in player salary reductions over the life of a five-year contract, a person with knowledge of the proposal told The Associated Press. The person, who requested anonymity because the details were not released, said the reductions would be made by slicing the players' guarantee from its current 57 percent to 54.3 percent.
Stern called that proposal "modest" but "directionally better" than the union's previous ones and said the players asked for another meeting Friday.
"Today was productive and there was movement, but we're still very far apart and ... the hard salary cap system is still something that we're really having difficulty trying to get past," Fisher said. "Our players just don't see that as the best way to tackle some of the things at least we've been given by owners as to reasons why we need a hard salary cap."
Last week, the league withdrew its insistence for all contracts to be non-guaranteed in a new deal, offering to leave the system as is, where teams and players can negotiate individually.
The players have argued that was not truly a concession, because they were given something they already have.
"We've had guaranteed contracts for 40 years, so it's almost like somebody walks into your house and they take something that belongs to you, and then they want to sell it back," union executive director Billy Hunter said. "And you say, 'It was mine from the get-go, so why should I pay for it? And I didn't authorize you to take it, and I never said it was available for you to take or use or abuse.'"
Hunter had long said he was nearly certain of the league's first work stoppage since 1998, but now says he sees signs owners are interested in making a deal.
But both sides caution they aren't close to one yet. Asked if they were 100 miles apart going into Tuesday how far they were now, Hunter said, "What, 99?"
Though the league's newest proposal would mean an 8 percent pay cut in the first year, owners have moved from their initial proposal that players rejected in February 2010. Stern said there have now been 10 proposals exchanged between the sides and the players could offer another Friday.
They still must sort through the differences in the cap, with Stern saying the sides have a "different characterization" of what the league proposed.
The players' executive committee was joined by stars such as Tony Parker of the Spurs and Atlanta's Al Horford. Fisher said all the players have expressed their willingness to be flexible but "there are certain parts of it we have no interest in moving on and right now that's where we stand."
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