NEW YORK // Players have rejected the NBA's latest contract offer last night and will disband as a union, a move that could wipe out the entire NBA season with the sides taking their labour dispute to court.
The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) said it would no longer continue in collective bargaining and will become a trade association to pursue legal action against the NBA, with the entire 2011/12 season hanging in the balance.
"We have arrived at the conclusion that the collective bargaining process has completely broken down," NBPA executive director Billy Hunter said at a news conference in New York.
"As a result, within the last hour we served a notice of disclaimer on Commissioner [David] Stern and the NBA."
A shift from the negotiating room to the courts also came during this year's NFL labour dispute, but NFL owners and players were able to reach an agreement before their season began and did not lose any regular season games.
The NBA, however, has already cancelled the first month of a regular season that was scheduled to begin two weeks ago and offered no assurance that further cuts can be avoided.
"There will ultimately be a new collective bargaining agreement, but the 2011/12 season is now in jeopardy," Stern said in a statement.
The NBA, which claims it lost US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) last season with 22 of its 30 teams in the red, locked out its players on July 1 given a disagreement over two major issues — the division of basketball-related income and salary cap structure.
The latest offer by the NBA called for a 50-50 split of basketball related income between the owners and players and would have provided for a 72-game season to start on December 15.
Players, who received 57 per cent of basketball income in the previous contract, also are at odds with the owners over rules governing contracts and free agency.
"We will allow our legal team to really lead the charge and hopefully at some point assist us in getting a deal done that is fair to our entire body," NBPA president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers said.
Stern said the NBA prepared for the union's latest move.
"In anticipation of this day, the NBA filed an unfair labour practice charge before the National Labor Relations Board asserting that, by virtue of its continued threats, the union was not bargaining in good faith," Stern said.
"We also began a litigation in federal court in anticipation of this same bargaining tactic."
The last abbreviated NBA season was in 1998/99 when a six-month dispute reduced the campaign by 32 games to 50 and forced the cancellation of the All-Star Game.
That year, Stern said he would recommend scrubbing the season if there was no deal by January 7. The day before that deadline, Hunter and Stern agreed to terms of a deal, and the season began in early February.
"We have negotiated in good faith for over two years and we've done everything anybody could reasonably expect of us particularly when you look at the number of givebacks and concessions," said Hunter.
"But the players just felt that they have given enough, that the NBA was not willing or prepared to continue to negotiate. Things were not going to get better and they were going to continue to reach and grab."
Stern had told the players that if they did not accept the latest owners' proposal, that their next offer would be rolled back to 47 per cent of the pie for the players.
"There were some owners, not the majority, who felt our offer had gone too far in favour of the players," Stern told ESPN. "But I was confident I could use my powers of persuasion to navigate through to an approval if the union said yes.
"But that's really academic now, because it looks like the 2011/12 NBA season is really in jeopardy."
While a legal battle could drag on, a quicker solution is more likely, according to one sports law expert.
"There can be an expedited legal progress that gives us a decision from a court within a matter of weeks," Gabe Feldman, Director, Sports Law Program, at Tulane University Law School, said in a telephone interview from New Orleans.
"For the case to play itself all the way out from complaint to antitrust litigation, could possibly take years ... I just don't foresee that happening. It is more likely that whoever wins the initial legal battle is going to have more leverage, and that could lead to a settlement."