David Stern hasn't yet made his best offer on a new collective bargaining agreement. But once he does, it won't be on the table for long.
The commissioner addressed almost nothing aside from labor questions Sunday at his annual NBA Finals news conference, revealing several areas where the owners have already altered their offer _ including a proposal to raise the minimum age to 19 instead of 20.
Speaking matter-of-factly and exuding little of the pessimism favored by deputy commissioner Russ Granik, Stern said the owners do not want a lockout and are trying to avoid one. But he nonetheless made it clear that if no deal is in place before the current one expires June 30, the league will shut down.
And if that happens, the owners will pull their offer off the table permanently.
"If July 1 comes and there is a lockout, the union will have made a mistake of epic proportions," Stern said.
"If we can't get a deal done, it'll be a new game."
He said the sides remain apart on issues of drug testing, an age limit and the maximum length of multiyear contracts, among other issues, although he said that the owners have changed their proposal on contract lengths several times.
Under the current labor agreement, players can sign with their old team for as long as seven years; or six years if they decide to switch teams.
Owners initially asked that those maximums be reduced to four years for players staying with the same team and three years for players changing teams. They have since moved their position to six years and five years.
No negotiating sessions have taken place in recent days, and no new talks are scheduled. Stern did send a letter to the players' union last week outlining the owners' positions and saying he is open to meeting soon to resume bargaining talks.
Union director Billy Hunter, who has been traveling around the country to meet with players, is not believed to have responded yet to Stern's letter. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Hunter was quoted last week as saying a lockout would be suicidal for the NBA, while Granik has been pushing pessimism buttons in his latest comments.
"I am saying here today, as I have been saying all along, that the last thing we want is a lockout," Stern said. "The one thing we wanted was to negotiate, and we don't understand the rhetoric coming out."
Stern tried to stress that the owners, despite coping with rising insurance, fuel and security costs in recent years, had authorized him to make several sweetened offers over the course of bargaining talks, which were at their steadiest in March and April.
There was a public breakdown in talks in mid-May, and the sides adjourned again less than two weeks ago after meeting two more times and failing to make much, if any, progress.
Stern and Granik characterized the union as resistant to a tougher drug testing policy and a heightened age limit, and said the union was asking for increases in pensions and reductions in the escrow tax without giving enough concessions on other issues. Hunter has traditionally portrayed Stern as an adversary who has sought numerous concessions without making substantial offers in return.
"If we don't have a deal by July 1, we won't make a deal any time soon thereafter," Stern said. "It would be much better to go all out to make a deal, and that's why it pains me to see our owners described in some predatory way.
"In fact, they are being much more conciliatory than they have been painted. But if that's not reciprocated, we're going to have a real problem."
The Spurs-Pistons game was not over at press time. See www.sptimes.com for a result.