NEW YORK -- NBA owners and players are doing all of their talking to each other, and that's good news. They concluded two days of bargaining Wednesday -- more than 24 hours altogether -- and left federal mediator George Cohen to make a public statement afterward.
"The discussions have been direct and constructive," he said.
The sides spent eight hours Wednesday moving toward a likely 50-50 split of revenues, according to a report by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski that is both promising and sobering. Commissioner David Stern has been declaring for weeks the revenue split could be worked out. It has long been thought the players would be forced to compromise down from their previous offer of a 53-47 split in their favor.
Once they've agreed on the money, the question then becomes whether that understanding makes it more difficult than ever for the players to compromise on the system issues. Anything close to a 50-50 share ensures the union will have surrendered a large amount of money -- having received 57 percent of basketball-related income last season -- and in return, it has made clear that it expects to be compensated with a system that resembles the NBA's traditional soft cap on salaries.
Good luck to Cohen resolving this issue. The owners insist they need a ceiling on payrolls in order to prevent the richest teams from outspending the less-rich. The players say they won't accept a hard cap in any form because it will ultimately kill off the majority of guaranteed contracts in the NBA, forcing most players to earn their pay year by year.
This mission to protect and maintain guaranteed contracts remains a "blood issue," as defined by union executive director Billy Hunter, the cause that unites the players more than any other.
It looks very much as if the cobbling together of the normal financial mechanisms -- an enhancement of luxury taxes and downsizing of exceptions -- is not going to help the owners and players find middle ground. They may have to arrive at some entirely new approach that will enable the owners to limit payrolls while providing guaranteed deals to the players, and the options currently on the table appear to ensure an extension of this lockout.
"Everyone is extremely focused on the core issues, the difficult issues that confront them," said Cohen.
Management indicated its interest in pursuing an agreement by rearranging the owners' meetings that had been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Soon, however, the owners and the players will reach the point where creativity and new thinking may be more important than long, dogged negotiations.
If they can't figure out a way to satisfy their competing interests on a system for the NBA, then the next best hope for a deal may arrive at whatever deadline Stern imposes to salvage a limited schedule of games for 2011-12. Let's say he decides that a deal must be made by Jan. 7, as was the case in the 1998-99 lockout -- neither side can afford to do without a season of basketball, so maybe that deadline will change the terms of the negotiations, and force compromises that would not have been made otherwise.
In the meantime, they will meet again Thursday afternoon to continue to make an investment in understanding one another that they hope will pay off sooner than later.