11/11/2011 08:35 EST | Updated 01/11/2012 05:12 EST

Owners await an answer from the players that could save or sink NBA season

NEW YORK, N.Y. - The time for talk in the NBA is over.

David Stern made that clear Thursday, saying the league is done negotiating. The next time he hears from the players' association, he expects an answer: Yes, players will accept the league's latest proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement, or no they won't.

If they do, the NBA will commence with a 72-game season on Dec. 15.

And if no? Then the next time LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the NBA's biggest stars are in uniform, it might be in London during next summer's Olympics.

So the NBA's lengthy labour fight could come to an end this week. Or, the next phase might just be beginning.

Should players reject this deal — and they certainly don't love it — the next one comes with terms they would never accept, likely sending them into the court system to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league after disbanding the union. That's far from an assured victory, but it practically assures there would be no 2011-12 season.

Stern knows which he prefers — and which he thinks the union should accept.

"We both recognize the seriousness of what we're facing," he said. "I think both sides would like to begin the season on Dec. 15th, if that's possible. I think our teams want to start playing. That desire is matched by our players. We've done the best we can to cause that to happen. I think the events of the week and the offer that we presented had the desired impact of causing us both to focus intensely on whether there was a deal here to be done. We very much want to make the deal that's on the table that would get our players into training camp and to begin the 2011-12 season.

"I don't have a crystal ball. I just have the ability to hope that it will come to that and that our players will accept this revised proposal from the NBA."

That's far from guaranteed.

The revised proposal makes some improvements over the one players said was unacceptable after a meeting of team representatives earlier in the week. A person directly involved with the talks told The Associated Press on Friday that there are some within the league — including owners — who "can't believe" players would hesitate to accept it.

"All this deal does is slow the growth of player salaries," the person said. "No one will be taking any cut. Their response to the movement on Wednesday and Thursday is very disappointing."

But it doesn't address all the players' concerns about the salary cap system. They have said before they would agree to the financial concessions owners are demanding if there is more movement toward their issues with the system.

"There are some important issues we feel that we need to close this out in order to get a deal done, in particular when you consider the economic concessions we have made thus far," union president Derek Fisher said.

The revised proposal will allow teams over the luxury tax to participate in sign-and-trades for the first two years of the 10-year deal, which would have the union's desired opt-out after six years. The "mini" mid-level exception for taxpayers would be for three years and US$3 million annually, up from two years and $2.5 million, and another midlevel would be included for teams that are under the cap.

Annual raises were upped to 6.5 per cent for "Bird" players re-signing with their own teams and 3.5 per cent for others, but that's still far below the 10.5 per cent and 8 per cent in the expired CBA. And players remain concerned that the "repeater" penalties the league wants to charge teams that are over the tax more than three times in a five-year span would be so punitive that it would scare some teams from spending, limiting the options they would have in free agency.

The revised proposal prevents taxpayers from using the full $5 million midlevel exception and bars them acquiring another team's free agent via sign-and-trade. It would not only raise the escrow from 8 per cent to 10 per cent of salaries, but also would seek to make up a shortfall during the following season.

Union officials have repeatedly said the system issues are perhaps more important to them than the split of basketball-related income, but owners say they need fundamental changes in both to allow for a chance to profit and to ensure more competitive balance throughout the league.

"They're trying to put a system in place that severely restricts the players when competitive balance can be absolutely taken care of through proper revenue sharing," agent Mark Bartelstein said.

Displeasure with the proposal from the players' side was all over the internet Friday. Problem is, players know what comes next if they reject this deal: one that would call for 53-47 split of BRI in the owners' favour, a flex cap with a hard ceiling, and rollbacks of current contracts. That's why Fisher and union executive director Billy Hunter, who said it was "not the greatest proposal in the world," have little choice but to see if it's one the players could support.

So Hunter said he'll have the player reps back to New York on Monday and "sit them down to say, 'You sent us out to get something, here is what we're coming back with. Let's sit down and decide what our next option is. What are we going to do? Are we going to go back and attempt to engage the NBA again to see if we can get something or what are our other options?'"

They can forget that one. After a two-month flurry of meetings in hotels throughout New York, Stern is all talked out and wants the deal done.

"We have done everything possible that was possible to do given our joint goals of both having a sound economic model and having the most competitive league," he said. "The union raised some issues, and we discussed those with the (labour relations) committee. We moved as far as we could move. So now we are at where we're at. I'm optimistic that the NBA owners will approve it if the union approves it. We await the response from the union. We've done our best."

Many players want to go back to work, and a 72-game season allows them to make back some of the money that seemed lost. They would collectively be out $250 million in salaries, about $100 million less than Hunter had said they would forfeit for every month they were locked out.

But Hunter said Tuesday on NBA TV he was aware that perhaps 200 players were in the process of signing decertification cards, so the fight may soon be out of his hands. He has only a few days left to see if that can be avoided.

"It's been a long haul, man," he said. "We're coming near the end of it. We're trying to get this thing done."