- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Though there are about six months left before the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players union expires, the suggestion by some owners that the league establish a hard cap and do away with guaranteed contacts has left the two sides miles apart.

Players union executive director Billy Hunter, in town yesterday to meet with the Washington Wizards, said he will confer with commissioner David Stern and certain team owners next week to begin working toward a new deal that would stave off a repeat of the 1998 lockout.

“I think right at this moment, things are a bit tenuous,” Hunter said, adding that negotiations have been slower than he would like. “My understanding based on what they have proposed is, they want a hard cap. And there are some owners that have been extreme enough to suggest that players should do away with guaranteed contracts.

“I would say to you that is clearly not going to work. If that is their position, then unfortunately we might find ourselves in the same predicament that the NHL players find themselves.”

The NHL has been locked out all season and could lose the year if labor accord is not reached soon.

Hunter said he hopes to avoid the acrimony of 1998, when players and management were so at odds that the regular season was reduced from 82 games to 40. But he indicated the meetings must be substantive.

“The commissioner has indicated that he and the owners are prepared to meet as long and often as it takes to reach a deal,” Hunter said. “But it’s not just about meeting. It’s about a meeting of the minds and whether we can get a deal that is acceptable to both sides.

“It’s an arduous situation and a stressful experience. It’s just as stressful for the owners as it is for us. I would like to do everything reasonably possible to avoid it happening again. By the same token, I have indicated to the players, and they have agreed, that we are not going to accept a bad deal.”

Under the NBA’s current CBA, the salary cap of approximately $43million is flexible in that it allows teams to exceed the cap to re-sign their own free agents, which explains why the New York Knicks are paying more than $103million in salaries this season.

Also under the current CBA, player contracts are guaranteed through their duration — meaning if a player is cut, his team is obligated to pay the remainder of the contract.

“If we have a hard cap, what happens is all guaranteed contracts pretty much go out the window,” Hunter said. “You just can’t have a hard cap and have guaranteed contracts.”

Another sticking point is an age limit for players. Stern and the owners have campaigned to have a minimum age of 20, but Hunter and his constituency remain opposed.

To emphasize his point, Hunter noted the success of players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudemire and Tracy McGrady, who entered the league before their 20th birthdays.

“It’s OK with me,” Hunter said. “Obviously, that is something that is very stressful to some folks in management. But right now, absent their demonstration of some compelling overriding reason as to why kids 18 years of age should not be able to come into the league, the argument against it hasn’t been made. And when I look at people like LeBron James and others, that convinces me there are players who shouldn’t be marginalized.”

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