- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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NBA commissioner David Stern expressed cautious optimism this week that he can eventually broker a new labor agreement that pre-empts any threat of a work stoppage after the league's current deal with its players expires in June 2011, telling ESPN.com that he and NBA Players Association chief Billy Hunter will meet as early as May or June for "substantive" talks.
"Billy and I have agreed that we will sit down after my owners' meeting [in April], with fully fledged committees on both sides, and commence a very, very intense and open dialogue about our business and its model," Stern said.
Since late February, when longtime NBA agent and power broker David Falk told the New York Times that league owners were likely to threaten players with a lockout in 2011 to force radical changes to the league's venerable salary-cap system, fears about a second protracted work stoppage in league history have been steadily bubbling.
Asked specifically if he believes that the unusually early jump on negotiations could lead to a fast deal, Stern said: "We'll see what happens. I don't rule that out as a possibility. ... I wouldn't be overly surprised if we were able to work this out with our players given how attuned they are to the situation with our fans and sponsors.
"I believe that [the talks] will be the start of something substantive. Whether it leads to an agreement or not is up to both sides, but there will be substantive discussions."
NBA owners have the right to extend the current collective bargaining agreement through the 2011-12 season, but are widely expected to reject that option either on or before the deadline of Dec. 15, 2010. There is growing dissatisfaction among many owners with issues such as contract lengths, average salary -- roughly $5.4 million -- and the 57 percent annual share of revenues guaranteed to the players during the most crippling worldwide economic slump in 80 years.
Although there has been no formal indication from the league office about the owners' intentions, Hunter told ESPN.com earlier this season: "As of last year, David informed me that in all probability [the owners] would not exercise their option to extend the agreement."
Hunter said before his joint appearance at All-Star Weekend with Stern that he expects serious negotiations to commence in June.
"Keep in mind that David and I will have some discussions before that, but for things to really heat up, one of the things I like to do is to have one or two of the ballplayers present," Hunter said.
Stern stopped short of calling the scheduled talks a formal re-opening of the collective bargaining agreement, but said: "It is commencing negotiations for a successor contract earlier than usual, although you can't always predict what positive developments might come out of early negotiations, especially at a time of economic crisis."
Falk described the league's labor outlook in far bleaker terms in his recent Times interview, suggesting that many owners are losing "enormous amounts of money" and thus would be motivated to lock the players out for a year or two than continue with the current salary-cap system, which was the first of its kind in major North American team sports in 1984-85 and helped saved the NBA when the league was struggling to survive.
"The owners have the economic wherewithal to shut the thing down for two years, whatever it takes, to get a system that will work long-term," Falk said last month. "The players do not have the economic wherewithal to sit out one year."
Multiple players who wished not to be identified have told ESPN.com this season that Hunter, who typically meets face-to-face with each team on its first swing of the season through the New York area, has made some pessimistic projections of his own in those private meetings.
The players said Hunter warned them of the lockout threat early, knowing that league owners reportedly want to implement a variety of aggressive changes to the cap system, such as shortening the lengths of guaranteed contracts; reducing year-to-year raises; slicing into the amount of guaranteed revenue players receive; and lowering maximum and minimum salaries.
"I think it's going to be very, very extreme," Falk said previously, "because I think that the times are extreme."
Without mentioning Falk by name, Stern responded to the notion of this "doomsday scenario" during a public appearance in the nation's capital earlier this month by saying: "The predictions of the demise of the NBA were frequent and profound [over the years] and they've always been wrong."
In Washington, shortly after the NBA secured $200 million in loans to distribute to a dozen teams that requested the financial assistance, Stern said: "We've managed to keep the ship afloat and I think we will continue to do that this time. I'm not unduly pessimistic. I think when we see where this economy comes out, there may be some adjustments that are necessary at the team level and at the league level.
"But I think that in our players and in our union, we find a group of realists that are sensitive to the needs of our fans and our sports, and I'm optimistic from that perspective that we will be able to ultimately work something out."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
NBA commissioner David Stern expressed cautious optimism this week that he can eventually broker a new labor agreement, saying he and NBA Players Association chief Billy Hunter will meet as early as May or June for "substantive" talks.