NEW YORK -- Defining one of the goals of owners in ongoing collective bargaining talks, NBA commissioner David Stern said teams would like some type
of relief from long-term contract obligations to unproductive players.
The NBA's seven-year labor agreement expires after the upcoming season, and the league and players' union have been holding preliminary talks on a new
deal -- the first since the sides went through a costly lockout that wiped out a large portion of the 1998-99 season.
Sounding a fairly optimistic tone, Stern said it was far too early in the process to even be speaking about the possibility of another lockout.
But he did give some insight into what's behind one of the owners' current proposals -- cutting the maximum length of contracts from seven years to
"Owners, on balance, want to come up with system that's a bit more profitable than the existing system and doesn't reward players who are no longer in
the league -- or who shouldn't be in the league at higher prices," Stern said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.
"Players getting contracts and not playing in the league is taking money from players who are in the league and are playing heavily. That's what gets
us into discussions of shorter contracts," Stern said.
Stern met with ownership's negotiating committee earlier this week during the league's Board of Governors meeting, giving a briefing on what
parameters have been established thus far in talks with the union.
The union is seeking greater freedom of movement for players, along with an end to the escrow tax system under which 10 percent of players' paychecks
are withheld, and the luxury tax system that penalizes owners with the highest payrolls.
Stern also said he has asked for a 20-year-old age limit, with incentives provided to players who defer their draft eligibility to stay in college.
The union says it adamantly opposes raising the current age limit of 18.
"There are lots of proposals and ideas going around. We remain committed to a process that guarantees the players a specific percentage of revenues,"
Stern said. "We're talking more about certain approaches as to redistributing money than we are about major efforts to clamp that money down."
Basketball's collective bargaining talks come as the National Hockey League is in a work stoppage, the owners having locked out the players and
postponed the start of the 2004-05 season.
NBA owners are also seeking a reduction in the size of annual raises given in long-term contracts. Currently, players can receive 12.5 percent raises
if they re-sign with their current team; 10 percent if they sign with a new team as a free agent.
Owners are also seeking a reduction in the starting salary for the midlevel exception, which allows teams over the salary cap to free agents.
But the most important item on the wish list, Stern made clear, was some mechanism to prevent teams from having to pay millions of dollars to players
who stop being productive after signing long-term contracts.
The New York Knicks, for instance, paid $6 million to Travis Knight -- along with an additional $6 million in luxury tax -- despite cutting him prior
to last season.
Also, Matt Maloney is being paid $3.2 million by Houston this season despite having been out of the league for most of the past three seasons, and the
Knicks are on the hook for $1.2 million to John Amaechi despite having waived him just days after acquiring him from Houston last season.
New York is currently pondering a buyout of the three years and $24 million it owes Shandon Anderson, and the Chicago Bulls are in similar straits
trying to part ways with Eddie Robinson.
"The system may not have adequate rewards for veteran players and others who can make contributions," Stern said.
Union director Billy Hunter did not immediately respond to Stern's statements. He said during the summer that a lockout is possible if ownership
didn't move significantly away from its initial demands.