It won't be empty anymore on Saturday afternoon, when owners and players meet in New York for the first time since the latest impasse on Oct. 28, and there is a chance, however slim, that a deal can finally get done. But beyond the talk of players pushing for decertification of the union or of the owners being led by Michael Jordan -- of all people -- to take an even harder line on the economic front, there's the harsh reality that the system issues that remain unresolved are no picnic, either.
Especially in this climate.
The good news is that federal mediator George Cohen will be in the room again, meaning there's at least some hope of the meeting lasting longer than 10 minutes, even if it's only because he might tiptoe around the less-sensitive subjects at the outset. But the conversation will turn to the core issues at some point, and that's where a divide that simply can't be overlooked still remains. And it goes past the well-publicized dispute over the split of basketball-related income.
While it came as a surprise to most that the players retained the midlevel exception and did so at a rate far more reasonable than expected going in ($5 million per season compared to $5.8 million previously), the league's push to keep taxpaying teams from using the exception is no small matter. Ditto for the NBA's attempt to prohibit taxpaying teams from using the sign and trade exception that has also survived.
It's not hard to see the owners' vision: they want strict provisions on anyone who dares operate in tax territory. The players, not surprisingly, view this as a variation of the hard cap and aren't likely to bend very easily on this issue.
While the luxury tax system has mostly been agreed upon (see details here), the players are still concerned it could be a devil in disguise.
The league is still pushing for additional penalties for repeat tax offenders that the union sees as too restrictive. What's more, there is a disagreement on the "cliff" of the tax surviving the next CBA.
That is the point at which teams exceed the luxury tax threshold and not only pay that penalty (dollar-for-dollar in the last deal) but are no longer eligible for the distribution of tax money (approximately $2.4 million per nontaxpaying team last season, or 1/30th of the tax money). The structure under the previous collective bargaining agreement was a major disincentive for teams to consider creeping into the tax, as spending an "extra" million dollars would wind up costing $4.4 million ($1 million plus the penalty and lost tax payment, based on last season's tax numbers).
While the players would like to see all 30 teams receive tax payments and thereby avoid what they deem an extra penalty, the league's latest proposal would mandate that taxpaying teams receive a payment that was 50 percent of the one given to non-taxpaying teams. Knowing full well that the increased taxes will likely rein in the league's biggest spenders, the players' hope here is that a larger number of second-tier spenders would be willing to creep into the tax if they wouldn't be sacrificing a tax payment as a result.
Significant changes will be coming to the trade parameters for teams that are over the salary cap. While the previous deal dictated that the salaries of traded players had to be within 125 percent of each other, the latest proposals had the union offering 200 percent and the league at 150.
Quick recap: The owners' last proposal was a 50-50 split of BRI, while the players were at 52.5 percent. Numerous reports on Friday indicated that there's a strong push from some owners to reduce that offer today, and their stance should be clarified during a Saturday morning Board of Governors meeting that will serve as a key precursor to the latest bargaining session.
Unless the players can navigate the challenging road to decertification and are willing to risk missing the season as a result, Saturday may be their last chance to land the 50-50 deal. And while some stars have said privately that they won't accept less than 52 percent, it's not just the rank-and-file players who might be willing to go lower to get back on the floor.
Lost in the diabolical din of the recent Derek Fisher report on FoxSports.com was the assertion that Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant is willing to accept a 50-50 deal. Two sources with knowledge of his thinking, meanwhile, told SI.com that Bryant has indeed made it known that he's open to considering the down-the-middle split. Bryant, it is believed, has indicated to union leaders on numerous occasions that -- so long as the system issues were adequately resolved -- the season was not worth sacrificing if the negotiations came down to a couple percentage points on BRI (which, to be clear, are hardly chump change considering they're worth approximately $40 million annually per percentage point).
The threat of decertification returned this week with the revelation that approximately 50 players took part in a Thursday conference call with an antitrust attorney to discuss the so-called "nuclear" option. A smaller group took part in a Tuesday call with an attorney as well.
Yet a source who was briefed on the Thursday talks characterized it as "an equal education" session as opposed to a covert, anti-union meeting.
"Some guys said they were pro decertification, some guys weren't for it, and some guys were talking about 50-50," the source said.
It's a moot point until Saturday has come and gone, though, as the outcome of the talks will determine what's next on that front. Still, Boston's Ray Allen told The Boston Globe that the Thursday call was intended to be informative.
"The guys that were on the phone call, it was purely informative," Allen told the Globe. "And we talked among ourselves about where we were and what guys thought about the situation that we're in. We talked about decertification because where we stood at that moment we didn't know when the next meeting was. That was one option was decertification. I don't think anybody on the call assumed that's what we were going to do. We talked about if that was something we were thinking about doing."
While Houston shooting guard Kevin Martin did not take part in the call, he is among the players who are choosing to continue following the union's lead.
"I trust the guys who have been to every meeting and who are living and dying every day with this to get us the best deal possible -- not the most fair, but the best," Martin told SI.com. "[Union leader Billy Hunter] knows what he is doing. We just need the players to stand behind him and trust that he wants us back on the court ASAP. We owe it to the fans."