Marty Burns
Thursday January 20th, 2005

When the NBA players association held a two-day union meeting last month in Las Vegas, it was remarkable for more reasons than Shaquille O'Neal making his debut as one of six vice presidents on the union's executive council. While Shaq provided some levity to the proceedings -- he twice raised his hand during team-by-team roll calls, jokingly claiming to represent the Kings and the Mavs (but not the Lakers) -- the event had a serious main theme. Namely, the NBA and its players could be headed for another lockout. "If the owners are not inclined to retreat from their current proposal," union president Billy Hunter said after the meetings, "there's a high probability there could be another lockout."

Hunter might be just engaging in rhetoric, but talk around the league is there are serious obstacles to be mounted before a new deal is reached to replace the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that expires after the 2004-05 season. The two sides have met a few times already this year, and the union says the league's initial proposals have been harsh. The league reportedly is seeking to limit new player contracts to a maximum of four years, wants to raise luxury-tax rates for the highest-spending teams and lower the tax threshold. The players want a less restrictive system, with lower taxes and escrow thresholds and loosened trade rules.

Though still early in the negotiating process, some agents are already gearing up for what they say will be a long fight. "David Stern's taken a [system] that everybody detests, and he's prepared to roll it back and make it worse," longtime agent Steve Kauffman said. "Maybe he thinks that's the way to negotiate, but it might have the reverse effect. I think he's affected the players' pride. These are competitive, proud people. They're going to say, 'We're just not going to take it any more.' That's what I sense."

Other agents are more optimistic, noting that both sides have strong incentives to get a deal done. They say neither party wants to risk a work stoppage right now, especially in these times with an uncertain economy and a war in Iraq. They point to the looming NHL labor bloodbath as a clear warning sign. "I think we have to watch hockey closely," agent Bill Duffy said. "We don't want to fall into that. The PR is so bad. If hockey gets real ugly from the PR aspect, I think basketball will get lumped in with it. Both sides have to be real careful."

Neither Stern nor Hunter seems particularly anxious to fan the flames of labor unrest right now. Both say it's still early, and talks will continue, although no new meetings are scheduled. Still, it is expected the two sides will be back at the bargaining table later this summer.

Whether Shaq will show up again to help represent the players remains to be seen. However, he appears to be serious about his responsibilities. In Las Vegas, he attended a two-and-a-half hour meeting one day and an eight-hour session the next day, according to a source who was in attendance. Shaq's massive presence at the bargaining table surely couldn't hurt the players' cause.

While the NBA and its players have much to discuss, there is one issue upon which both sides will likely agree. Thanks to the Carlos Boozer fiasco, the 14-day moratorium on signings might soon become part of history. "It opened up a can of worms," Duffy says. "I think the league wants to prevent something like this from happening again."

The NBA began the moratorium as part of the last CBA in '99. The idea was to give the league's accountants time after the July 1 fiscal year to determine the salary-cap number for the following season. During the time frame, teams are permitted to talk to free agents but not sign them.

As the Cavs learned the hard way, however, a lot can change in two weeks. After reaching what they believed to be a verbal agreement with Boozer to re-sign, they were stunned when he accepted a more lucrative deal with the Jazz. In the end, Boozer and the Cavs both wound up looking bad.

Some GMs and agents say the league should either push back the negotiating start date until July 15, thereby eliminating the two-week limbo period, or figure out a way to come up with a salary-cap number by July 1. Either way, few expect the moratorium to be part of the next CBA.

"I don't know what purpose it serves," Nuggets assistant GM David Fredman said. "I think both sides want to see it go."

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