And with less than three weeks until training camps, the latest setback may be a tough one.
"I think coming out of today, obviously because of the calendar, we can't come out of here feeling as though training camps and the season is going to start on time at this point," players' association president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said.
Still divided over the salary cap structure, owners and players decided to pass on talking again Wednesday, and no further meetings are scheduled at this point.
"Well, we did not have a great day, I think it's fair to say that," Commissioner David Stern said. "On the other hand, we did say that it is our collective task to decide what we want on the one hand on each side, and two, what each side needs if we choose to work ourselves in such a way as to have the season start on time. That's still our goal."
Training camps have been expected to open Oct. 3 and the regular season's opening night is scheduled for Nov. 1.
"We're a bit pessimistic and discouraged at one, the ability to start on time, and we're not so sure that there may not be further damages or delay trying to get the season started," union executive director Billy Hunter said. "The owners are not inclined at this stage to move off the position where they've anchored themselves."
Stern and Silver countered that the union insisted the current soft cap system remain exactly as it is before they would agree to discuss anything else.
"Frankly, we're having trouble understanding why the label of a hard cap is what's breaking apart these negotiations right now, and that's what we discussed for a long time as a committee and then discussed together with the players," said Silver, his voice rising as he spoke.
After three meetings among small groups in the last two weeks, full bargaining committees returned to the table Tuesday. They could also have met Wednesday, but Stern said it was best the two sides step away and meet with their own membership groups on Thursday.
Though owners are seeking an overhaul of the league's financial system after saying they lost US$300 million last season and hundreds of millions more in each year of the previous collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap appears to have emerged as the biggest obstacle to a new deal.
The current system allows teams to exceed the ceiling through the use of various exceptions if they are willing to pay a luxury tax, giving big-market teams such as the Lakers -- who can take on added payroll -- an advantage over the little guys.
But Hunter said a hard cap is "highly untenable," referring to it as a "blood issue" to the players. He added the players were prepared to make a "significant" financial move, but they would only agree to give on dollars if they got a win on the system.
"For us, if we give on one, we have to have the other. It can't be just a total capitulation," he said.
The league said players wanted owners to guarantee they would concede on the cap as a condition of talking about anything further, but Stern said "all of the owners were completely unified in the view that we needed a system that at the end of the day allowed 30 teams to compete."
Added Silver: "That should be the goal of both the owners and the players in this negotiation, not to come in and say that that's off the table, and we won't discuss it and it's a precondition of us making an economic move."
The recent meetings had been cordial, sparking hopes that progress was being made. Instead, Fisher and Hunter sat in the middle of a row of players who looked dejected, and now may have to wonder if they need to look harder at finding a job overseas.
A sign of how the day went: Owners spent the majority of about five hours behind closed doors caucusing among themselves.
"We can't find a place with the league and our owners where we can reach a deal sooner rather than later," Fisher said.
Besides the cap, the other main issue remains the division of revenues. Players were guaranteed 57 per cent under the old deal and had offered to lower that to 54.3 per cent before owners locked them out on July 1. They say the league's proposal would have them a percentage in the 40s, and Hunter said if the owners are serious about a hard cap, he'll give it to them if players get 65 per cent.
Owners are scheduled to meet Thursday in Dallas, and Stern again said there won't be any decisions to cancel training camps at that session. But that would have to come sometime later this month without a deal. The opening of camps was postponed on Sept. 24 during the 1998 lockout, which reduced the season to 50 games.
The union will update players Thursday in Las Vegas, and Fisher said he will tell them that "the way it looks right now we may not start on time." He stressed that players are still committed to the process and "not walking away from the table," but Hunter repeated that they "have instructed us that they're prepared to sit out" rather than accept owners' current proposals.
Progress should come eventually over finances. Settling the cap issue could take longer.
"We know how to negotiate over dollars when the time comes, but they so conditioned any discussion on our acceptance of the status quo, which sees a team like the Lakers with well over $100 million in payroll and Sacramento at 45," Stern said. "That's not an acceptable alternative for us. That can't be the outcome that we agree to."
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