DALLAS – Repeating the words several times, David Stern made it clear: NBA owners and players are "very far apart" on a new labor deal.
And with the union saying the league hasn't moved off its harshest demands, it may be hard to get closer in time to prevent a lockout.
"I think one of the owners indicated at the conclusion of today's meeting that he was very pessimistic as to whether or not they'd be able to reach an accord between now and the end of the month, and I'm forced to share that sentiment," union executive director Billy Hunter said Wednesday. "I think maybe it's going to be a difficult struggle."
Representatives of the owners and players completed a second day of meetings, scheduled two more for next week, and expressed hope that continued dialogue before the June 30 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement could head off a work stoppage.
Yet the players reiterated their opposition to a hard salary cap, reduction in contract lengths and the amount for which they could be guaranteed, and said owners haven't budged on their desire for all three.
"No change at all. What has changed is maybe the mechanism, the system somewhat in maybe how we get there. We tossed around some ideas in that regard, but there is no hiding the fact that the main components of what we originally received in their proposal have not changed at all," union president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said. "So from that standpoint, there hasn't been much of a negotiation because that really hasn't changed."
Owners are seeking an overhaul of the system after losses of hundreds of millions of dollars annually during the current CBA, which was ratified in 2005. They believe they could get the relief they seek through a hard cap that would replace the current soft cap system that allows teams to exceed the limit under certain exceptions.
"We do not believe that a hard salary cap system is something that is good for basketball," Fisher said.
The sides met for four hours Wednesday after a meeting that lasted about 5½ hours Tuesday. They will meet again next Tuesday in Miami if there is a Game 7 of the NBA finals, or otherwise in New York, then sit down again Friday in New York.
Stern said each side exchanged new proposals during the sessions, but used the term "far apart" five times in about 8½ minutes to describe where things stand. Hunter said they are "miles apart."
"Both sides have moved, but we're not anyplace close to a deal," Stern said.
Despite the players' opposition to the hard cap, Hunter said he believed the biggest issue is the division of revenues. Players are guaranteed 57 percent, and he believes owners want a system that guarantees each profits by millions.
"We don't necessarily feel it's the employees' responsibility to guarantee that," Fisher said.
The league is projecting leaguewide losses of about $300 million and wants a reduction in player salary costs of about $750 million annually. Players have argued the system largely works and owners can help themselves with expanded revenue sharing.
Neither side would offer specifics of the proposals, beyond Hunter saying the owners wanted a 10-year deal. He thought the league may eventually move on the hard cap issue, recalling that it eventually did in 1998 — but only after losing games for the only time.
"We were here in '98 and they wanted a hard cap and it was only on the eve of losing the season that we were then able to strike a compromise," Hunter said. "We're hoping it doesn't go that far this time, but we're still waiting."
Hunter said he has guaranteed in writing that players won't strike, but Fisher said owners have told them they will be locked out if they don't agree on the three central issues.
Both sides said they are willing to keep meeting right up to the deadline, and it will take at least that long with the differences in their positions.
"As of right now they don't add up," Stern said. "I'm not proceeding on the projection that they won't, but that's certainly possible and I think that both sides recognize that the outcome of no deal would not be a good outcome and so we continue to plot away."
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