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Tentative deal moves the NBA lockout closer to end

San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, left, and NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver converse in front of a midtown office building where NBA labor negotiations are taking place in New York, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, left, and NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver converse in front of a midtown office building where NBA labor negotiations are taking place in New York, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
By Brian Mahoney
AP Basketball Writer / November 26, 2011
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NEW YORK—With a Christmas Day tripleheader on everyone's wish list and a tentative labor agreement in place, NBA owners and union officials went back to work Saturday, relaying details of the deal with hopes of cementing it quickly.

After a 149-day lockout that ultimately will cost the league approximately a half-billion dollars in losses, a marathon bargaining session produced a handshake agreement earlier in the day -- actually, just a few hours before daybreak.

Commissioner David Stern still must sell his owners on an agreement that could change the way they do business. And the players, looking beat and beaten, face a tougher healing process in approving a pact that significantly limits their earnings.

But considering everything owners sought when these negotiations opened with a contentious meeting at the All-Star break in February 2010, perhaps they will feel relieved they got as much as they did.

Players' association executives Derek Fisher and Maurice Evans hardly looked enthused about the agreement as they sat next to executive director Billy Hunter on the same side of a conference table with Stern, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver and Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the league's labor relations committee.

But at least they weren't sitting in a courtroom, where they appeared headed less than two weeks earlier.

Just 12 days after talks broke down, Stern and Hunter appeared together after 3 a.m. Saturday to announce the 10-year deal, with either side able to opt out after the sixth year. It leaves the NBA with its second shortened season (the first was the 50-game 1998-99 season), with the hope of getting in 66 games instead of a full 82-game schedule.

Stern said he expects the labor committee to endorse the deal and recommend it to the full board for approval.

The players' side has revealed little of its feelings about the deal, noting the pending antitrust litigation in its desire to keep details quiet. But players always preferred to be on the court, rather than in it, and now they finally have the chance -- starting Christmas Day.

For the season openers, it would be Boston at New York, Miami at Dallas and Chicago at the Lakers -- sorry, little guys, the big markets still rule Christmas.

Now, the regular season would end one week later and push back NBA finals a week, potentially setting up a Game 7 on June 28, 2012.

The deal also calls for no hard salary cap, no rollbacks of existing salaries and contracts can still be fully guaranteed. Owners had called for all of that, seeking a route to profitability after saying they lost $300 million last season, and believing they would create a level of parity that had been missing.

But players' annual raises were trimmed from 10.5 percent for those re-signing with their own teams and 8 percent for those leaving to 7.5 percent and 4.5 percent respectively. Rules implemented to curb spending by teams over the luxury tax will limit some of their options in free agency.

Owners relented slightly on their previous insistence that players receive no more than 50 percent of basketball-related income after they were guaranteed 57 percent in the old CBA. The target is still a 50-50 split, but with a band from 49 percent to 51 percent that gives the players a better chance of reaching the highest limit than previously proposed.

"I appreciate what Billy and Derek and the players have compromised on because it will allow us, as a small market, to be competitive and create more parity across all 30 teams," Holt said. "We are really excited. We are excited for the fans. We're excited to start playing basketball for the players and for everybody involved."

Details were provided to owners Saturday afternoon in what would be described as a largely congratulatory teleconference. A person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press that some owners said they wished certain issues -- usually ones specific to smaller markets -- were addressed, but many were simply relieved the process was nearing an end.

"The way the deal shakes out, particularly the system issues, there's something in there for every owner to hate," the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the pact still needs to be ratified. "A number of the small market owners may feel bad that they were not protected the way they thought they were going to be protected. Having said that, virtually all of them say it's better to play than not to play or lose the season."

Players filed an amended antitrust lawsuit in Minnesota on Monday that could have earned the players billions but surely would have come at the cost of at least the entire 2011-12 season.

The sides said all along the only way to a deal was through negotiating. They got back together Tuesday, setting the way for the pivotal meeting that began Friday.

"I think we saw a willingness of both sides to compromise yet a little more and to reach this agreement," Silver said. "We look forward to opening on Christmas Day and we are excited to bring NBA basketball back and that's most important."

Now, players must drop a lawsuit against the league and reform their disbanded union before they can vote on the deal. Hunter said it could take anywhere from three days to a week to get that completed.

Once the pact is approved, it would pave the way for training camps and free agency to open simultaneously Dec. 9, setting off a chaotic flurry of activity that could leave coaches running practices with different players arriving each day. There could be an even larger pool of free agents if teams use the amnesty clause, which allows them to waive one player during the deal and have 100 percent of his salary taken off the cap and the tax.

President Barack Obama gave a thumbs-up when told about the tentative settlement after he finished playing basketball at Fort McNair in Washington on Saturday morning.

Because the union disbanded, a new collective bargaining agreement can only be completed once the union has reformed. Drug testing and other issues still must be negotiated between the players and the league, which also must dismiss its lawsuit regarding the legality of the lockout.

"We're very pleased we've come this far," Stern said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

A number of minor issues remain unsettled, such as sponsorship patches being added to jerseys and how the preseason should work.

Some major matters -- like revenue sharing, which the NBA has said it will not really dive into until a new CBA is complete -- remain on the table as well. Meetings on that issue take place every few days, and the person briefed on the status of the NBA's discussions said many teams are not thrilled by the notion of paying both a luxury tax and into a revenue-sharing pool.

When the NBA returns, owners hope to find the type of parity that exists in the NFL, where the small-market Green Bay Packers are the current champions. The NBA has been dominated in recent years by the biggest spenders, with Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas winning the last four titles.

"I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agent market the way they've been able to in the past. It's not the system we sought out to get in terms of a harder cap, but the luxury tax is harsher than it was. We hope it's effective," Silver said.

"We feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships."

Owners locked out the players July 1, and the sides spent most of the summer and fall battling over the division of revenues and other changes owners wanted in a new collective bargaining agreement. They said they lost hundreds of millions of dollars in each year of the former deal, ratified in 2005, and they wanted a system where the big-market teams wouldn't have the ability to outspend their smaller counterparts.

Players fought against those changes, and scored some concessions at the end. The full midlevel exception of $5 million a year for four years will be available to all teams as long as the signing doesn't take them more than $4 million over the tax, and the "mini midlevel" for taxpayers was increased to $3 million a year for three years.

"This was not an easy agreement for anyone. The owners came in having suffered substantial losses and feeling the system wasn't working fairly across all teams," Silver said. "I certainly know the players had strong views about expectations in terms of what they should be getting from the system. It required a lot of compromise from both parties' part."

Stern denied the antitrust litigation was a factor in accelerating a deal, but things happened relatively quickly after the players filed.

"For us the litigation is something that just has to be dealt with," Stern said. "It was not the reason for the settlement. The reason for the settlement was we've got fans, we've got players who would like to play and we've got others who are dependent on us. And it's always been our goal to reach a deal that was fair to both sides and get us playing as soon as possible, but that took a little time."

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: twitter.com/Briancmahoney

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