NEW YORK — They don't have a deal yet, and they are just about out of time.
After some two years of on-and-off negotiations, that's about all NBA players and owners agree on. The gaps in their financial proposals have been so great that they sometimes decide it's best to just talk about something else.
Now they have to figure it out quickly. Without at least getting very close to the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement this weekend, hopes of the 2011-12 season starting on time would be all but lost.
"We realize that the calendar, the clock, the watch, whatever you want to say, is running out in terms of starting our regular season on time. So we're going to try to get some things done this weekend and see what we can do," said the Lakers' Derek Fisher, president of the players' association.
The owners' labor relations committee and the union's executive committee — perhaps joined by some All-Stars — will meet Friday and have committed to keep talking throughout the weekend. Both sides have cautioned that bringing back the large groups after as series of discussions among smaller parties doesn't mean they are close, but rather that more voices are required to consider the crucial decisions.
There are 11 owners and nine players on the committees, including All-Star Chris Paul, who may try to bring along friends such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James that are scheduled to join him Saturday in a charity game in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.
It's doubtful the presence of the superstars makes much impact — Anthony acknowledged this week that "we really don't know how powerful we are at this moment" — but opening up the room beyond the top negotiators has backfired before.
Talks broke down last time the large groups were together on Sept. 13, but Commissioner David Stern said he and union executive director Billy Hunter believe it's necessary to summon them again with the Nov. 1 opener at stake.
"If we're at a period of enormous opportunity and great risk, the larger the group that is assembled to focus on that, the better from my perspective," Stern said. "And I think Billy and I are on the same page on this."
They aren't, though, on major salary and system issues.
Owners are seeking a more restrictive salary cap system, while the players favor the current one that allows teams to exceed it through use of certain exceptions. Players fear a harder cap system would eliminate fully guaranteed contracts for all but the top players.
And that may be the easier one.
Owners want a significant reduction in the players' guarantee of basketball-related income, which was 57 percent in the previous deal. Players proposed lowering it to 54.3 percent before the lockout began July 1, though Hunter indicated this summer they were prepared to go lower if owners would agree to leave the cap system untouched. Union officials have said the league's proposals would have them in the mid-40s.
Each percentage point equates to at least $30 million. Players totaled $2.1 billion in salaries and benefits players earned this season.
"We just haven't been able to get to a space, at least the formal proposals that have been on the table, get us to place where we can agree on a deal at this point," Fisher said. "And so economically, we've tried to kind of leave that one floating and deal with some system issues and see what we can carve out there, but we're working at it."
Hunter has said players have instructed union leadership that they would rather sit out than accept a bad deal. But Stern has warned that offers will only get worse once games are missed, which he seemed to be alluding to Wednesday when he said without progress in the upcoming talks "then it won't be a question of just starting the season on time, it will be a lot at risk because of the absence of progress."
The NBA later denied an ESPN.com report that he planned to threaten players with cancellation of the entire season without progress by the end of the weekend.
With the two huge items still to tackle and numerous smaller ones remaining untouched, it won't come easily — and there's a chance it doesn't come at all.
"There's not necessarily a win-lose scenario to get our season started on time," Fisher said. "We certainly have to be in a place where both sides feel that it's a fair deal to be sustained and we'll see if we can do that sooner rather than later."
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