- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Bring up the NBA’s ongoing labor talks, and commissioner David Stern likes to call himself “Easy Dave,” a nickname that betrays his hard-won reputation as a brutally tough negotiator.

Union boss Billy Hunter talks frequently about his profound hope that a new deal can be done before the end of the regular season.

Both sides are quick to say the NHL’s labor woes that wiped out its 2004-05 season have little directly in common with basketball.

But make no mistake: Even without the likelihood of an all-out labor war to rival hockey’s, the NBA is wrestling with rather serious issues of its own and a negotiating process both sides describe as “slow-moving.”

The league’s soft salary cap is here to stay, but within that basic underpinning is a series of structural divides regarding the league’s minimum age, escrow tax thresholds, time limits on multiyear contracts and the annual levels of the cap itself.

The stakes, as with any collective bargaining session, are high and will define the basic course of the league for at least the next half-decade. But in this case, the juncture is particularly interesting as the NBA continues to move past the Michael Jordan era and redefine itself as a much more diverse and international brand. The current labor deal expires June 30.

“I don’t have to be reminded about what a lockout is like, but I also don’t have to capitulate and accept any deal,” said Hunter, quickly recalling the last round of negotiations in 1998 and 1999 that resulted in a 202-day work stoppage. “We all know what the blood issues are.”

Said Joel Litvin, NBA executive vice president: “The questions out there are about how to modify the current framework. No one is trying on either side to overhaul our system. … But there are some changes being discussed.”

Unlike the landscape of the talks of six years ago, the NBA is now enjoying the fruits of an economic and creative renaissance. Global fandom, merchandise sales, average attendance and local TV revenues are on the upswing and, in some cases, growing exponentially. Thanks to the exploits of Steve Nash, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and others, sloppy play and a lack of fundamental skills are no longer the immediate buzzwords of the NBA’s brand of basketball.

A particularly intense fight, however, awaits on the minimum age. Owners want the level raised to 20 or two years after a player’s high school class graduates, believing the extra time will prove immensely valuable in allowing players to develop skills on and off the court. The desire for older entry-level players is coupled with Stern’s aim of restructuring and expanding the National Basketball Developmental League to make it a true minor league. A much-needed revival in college basketball also awaits if owners succeed on this front.

But players have strongly resisted a higher entry age in the past. And a shift would prove jarring to some prep players eyeing direct entry into the NBA, their dreams fueled by the presence of scouts at their games since elementary school and an average league salary that has soared to $4.9 million, easily the best in the major pro sports.

Another major flash point exists within setting the threshold for the escrow tax in the next contract. In the existing deal, owners are allowed to take back as much as 10 percent of player salaries if those payroll costs surpass 57 percent of league revenues. Management would like to lower the threshold, while players want less of their paychecks put into escrow and an outright dismantling of the luxury tax. A complex and not widely understood beast, the luxury tax has prompted many teams to curtail spending on player payrolls, something that registers very clearly within the union.

Hunter himself is a bull’s-eye in this fight. Relatively new on the job in the last labor fight, Hunter saw Stern communicating directly with players, annual limits on raises for free agents qualifying for the cherished Larry Bird exception, and the increase from three years to five before draft choices can become unrestricted free agents. The result was a deal widely seen as a major win for owners.

Now after nearly a decade in his post, Hunter recently was given a five-year contract extension. He also claims a much deeper and more constructive relationship with Stern.

Average fans, however, have little tolerance for yet another millionaires versus billionaires fight, regardless of how cordial it may be relative to prior battles, which gets back to basketball’s linkage with the NHL. Sharing a season, 11 arenas and a few owners, the NHL dispute is bound to have some effect on NBA negotiations. The question is how much.

“There is at least a psychological effect,” said Howard Ganz, a sport law and labor lawyer with Proskauer Rose in New York. “At least it colors the environment because no one wants to be there.”

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