The NBA's players have until Wednesday to accept a proposal presented to them -- and subsequently rejected -- during collective bargaining that went into early Sunday morning. If not, commissioner David Stern said, the next offer will be worse.
But Jeffrey Kessler, the fiery outside counsel and lead negotiator for the players union, blasted the NBA's proposal of a 51 to 49 percent "band" of league revenue as "a fraud" and said of Stern's ultimatum: "The players will not be intimidated . . . It's not happening."
What happens next for a league that appears on the verge of blowing up the 2011-12 season will be decided over the next four days. Union president Derek Fisher said players will be appraised of the situation, but as for giving the full membership opportunity to vote on a deal to save the season?
"There's not a deal we can present to be voted on," he said.
The deal that the owners have on the table may be the best the players will see, at least while there is still a chance for a season.
"Hope springs eternal," Stern said after over eight hours of talks, presided over by federal mediator George Cohen, ended after 1 a.m. "We hope to see the union accept the proposal that is on the table."
Stern said the owners went along with a proposal based on concepts suggested by Cohen, who spent three days presiding over talks two weeks ago and was invited back into the process by the union. Cohen presented "what ifs" that the owners accepted as framework for a 10-year deal, which included:
-- League Revenue Split: 49-to-51 percent range, which would be based on revenue performance. Union president Derek Fisher dismissed this, saying it is in reality a 50-50 deal because, "There's no way in the world we'd ever get to 51 percent. It's not a band." The players instead offered a 51-49 split of league revenue -- a 1.5 percent concession from their previous offer -- and said that one percent would be set aside for pension and medical benefits for retired players. Currently, pensions and retired player benefits are funded mostly by union dues.
-- Luxury Tax: Extra $1 for every $1 over tax threshold for teams who pay tax in three out of five years. The union wants 50 cents.
-- Mid-Level Exception: $5 million annually, with maximum length allowed per team alternating annually from four years to three years. And a "mini" Mid-Level Exception for luxury tax paying teams of $2.5 million annually with a two-year maximum. The union wants a full mid-level exception for all teams, with a maximum length of four years.
-- Sign and Trades: Not permitted for teams that are over tax threshold.
-- Luxury Tax "Cliff": Non-taxpaying teams that are eligible would share revenue from tax payments at a higher rate than those who are taxpayers.
Stern said that the league would spend Sunday writing up two formal proposals, one as outlined above and another based on a less appealing offer that would come if Wednesday's deadline passes without an agreement. That deal, Stern said, would have two ominous parts: a 47-53 split of league revenue in favor of the owners and a "flex" cap system that would replicate the NHL's hard cap.
"We hope that this juxtaposition will cause the union to assess its situation and accept the deal," Stern said.
If they don't take the deal, the union is faced with one option: to decertify the union and fight the league in court. That, of course, would take up the kind of time that would essentially kill any chance of having a season. Neither Fisher nor Kessler would address decertification, which has been promoted by several agents. Union executive director Billy Hunter did not speak to reporters after the talks because, according to a union spokesman, he was under the weather.
It was yet another long day for everyone involved, as the owners met early Saturday afternoon to discuss their strategy going into the meeting with the players. Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats owner who is the marquee name among a faction of hardlining small market owners, was in attendance, along with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and Heat owner Micky Arison, who last week was fined $500,000 for a few candid tweets about the lockout.
On the players' side, Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, one of the most respected veteran players in the league, made his first appearance at the talks at the request of the union's executive committee, mainly vice president Mo Evans.
But it was Kessler who had the strongest voice after the meetings, as he continually charged the owners with having no interest in making a deal.
"Who negotiates in good faith and makes an ultimatum?" he said. Later he added, "The big story here is they want it all."