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NBA sides reach tentative deal

NEW YORK -- After an exhausting, 149-day work stoppage that threatened to wipe out the first full season in NBA history, the league's owners and players agreed to a tentative new collective bargaining agreement, commissioner David Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter announced early Saturday.

The joint announcement, delivered by Stern, Hunter, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt and union executives Derek Fisher and Maurice Evans just after 3 a.m. in a conference room at the New York offices of Weil, Gottschalk & Manages LLP, came after a tumultuous, 15-hour negotiating session that, according to those in the room, nearly derailed several times during the evening.

"Despite some bumps this evening," said a bleary-eyed Stern, "the greater good required us to knock ourselves out and come to this tentative understanding."

While both sides were mum on the details, citing a need to resolve the lawsuit the players filed against the league this month and get the approval of both the players and the NBA's Board of Governors, here is what we know:

Tentatively, the season will start on Christmas Day. While Stern and Hunter both cautioned that there was still plenty of work to be done -- specifically with regard to the so-called "B issues" like drug testing, age restrictions and the rookie salary scale -- the NBA has a clear plan for a 66-game season. Training camp and free agency will begin on Dec. 9 and the regular season will open on Christmas Day, most likely with the originally scheduled triple-header (Boston-New York, Miami-Dallas, Chicago-L.A. Lakers).

Jeffrey Kessler nearly killed the deal. Again. Sort of. Kessler, the union's outside counsel, has been a lightning rod for criticism during this process and a frequent target of Stern for what the NBA believes has been a disruptive influence in the negotiations. On Friday, Kessler nearly torpedoed the negotiations again when he, via speakerphone, asked the NBA for a 51 percent of the basketball-related income. Stern and Holt, who have been vehemently opposed to giving the players any more than 50 percent, rejected the proposal. While Kessler was merely the vessel delivering the union's message, his offer infuriated representatives from the league and, according to a source close to the NBA's Labor Relations Committee, nearly ended the negotiations. The two sides stayed at the table, however, and, according to the source, eventually agreed on a band that will give the players between 49 and 51 percent of the BRI.

The NBA is happy with this deal. The players are OK with it. Complete details of the new CBA won't be disclosed for a few days, at least, but it's clear the NBA got much of what it wanted. It reduced the players' share of BRI by at least six percent (or $240 million per season) and will ultimately put significant restrictions on player movement, through the luxury tax, that will prevent big or more attractive markets from luring top players away from their incumbent teams.

"I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agency market in the way they [have] in the past," Silver said. "It's a compromise. It's not the system we sought out to get in terms of the harder cap, but the luxury tax is harsher than it was in the past deal and we hope it's effective. You never can be sure, but we feel, ultimately, it will give fans in every community hope that their team will be able to compete for championships and that their basis for believing in their team will be a function of management rather than how deep the owners' pockets are or how large the market is."

The players? It seems they got a deal they can live with. While many players will likely be unhappy with the concessions made by the union, the majority will vote to approve the deal, in part because they believe it's the best deal they can get and in part because they are not willing to sacrifice an entire season's salary.

"For myself, as a representative of our players, the most important thing here is that our fans and the support from the people," Fisher said. "The efforts that have been made are largely with them in mind. That being said, there is still a lot of work to do. [But] it's great to be a part of this particular moment in terms of giving our fans what it is they so badly want to see."

The players' lawsuit was impactful. Say what you want about the players' chances of winning an antitrust suit, but the threat of a prolonged court battle -- and potentially $6 billion in damages -- clearly affected the way the league negotiated. Stern's long threatened "reset offer" (which would have given the players 47 percent of the BRI and included a hard cap) never crossed the table. Instead, the two sides resumed bargaining even after the union elected to dissolve and locked down the principle components of a deal that will salvage the season.

Yes, this could still be screwed up. It's unlikely -- the system issues and financial split were the key sticking points in a new deal -- but there are still issues to negotiate. The NBA is believed to be in favor of a revamped Development League system -- one that allows teams to demote players beyond their first two years in the league. And previously, the union had lobbied for more incentives in rookie contracts that would pay top rookies commensurate with their status. And, as noted above, there will likely be a faction of players against signing the deal because of what they are being forced to give up, and there could be a public unwillingness from some to drop the lawsuit in Minnesota. Still, after five months of heavy lifting and with the approval of the key figures on both sides, it would be surprising if the deal wasn't ratified. It may not be unanimous -- on either side -- but it will get the majority of votes needed to pass it.

Bad blood will be minimal. A growing concern on both sides was that there could be long-term damage to the relationship between players and owners as a result of a tough negotiation that was often played out in the media. But the representatives in New York professed mutual respect for each other during the press conference and exchanged handshakes and hugs after it. All's well, it seems, that ends well.

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