NEW YORK — NBA owners relaxed their insistence on non-guaranteed contracts in a new collective bargaining agreement Friday, but players cautioned that isn't enough because the league is still seeking a hard salary cap.
Even so, the proposal by the owners during a 4 1/2-hour meeting was perhaps their most significant movement yet as the sides try to agree to a new deal before the current one expires June 30.
"We think it's significant. Very significant, actually," Commissioner David Stern said.
Much more is needed, though. The sides set up another meeting for Tuesday, which Stern indicated would be crucial for determining if enough progress can be made in time to avoid a work stoppage.
"I really think that the time to have an optimistic or pessimistic view is at the close of the day on Tuesday," Stern said. "I think Tuesday's a very important day in these negotiations."
Stern said Friday's meeting, which Knicks star Carmelo Anthony attended along with the players' executive committee, was the first time the players had expressed so strongly their objection to the issue of non-guaranteed contracts. So the league made a new proposal closer to the current system, which allows players and individual teams the right to negotiate guarantees between themselves.
"They said to us that they wanted to look at that and they wanted to reconvene next week on Tuesday, and we're hoping that we will receive from them a proposal directed to the economics," Stern said.
While the players recognized the proposal as a positive step, they downplayed it because it was giving them something they already have — without any change to the owners' stance on the salary cap.
"We can't talk about one part in a vacuum because it impacts the entire system, so we haven't been at this point inclined to say that's a huge thing, because without other things it doesn't mean much," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the union president.
Owners are seeking significant changes to the league's salary structure, and Fisher last week identified the issues of reductions in contract lengths and guarantees, plus the salary cap system as the three areas the league hadn't budged on. The current soft-cap system allows teams to exceed it through certain exceptions, a system the players want to maintain.
Also Friday, the league told the players that this weekend it would be canceling its Las Vegas Summer League, which would have started in early July. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver, the league's lead negotiator, stressed that was simply a function of the calendar, not a threat to the players.
The sides met three times during the NBA Finals and held a small meeting between Stern and Silver, plus union executive director Billy Hunter and their staffs earlier this week. The meeting Tuesday is expected to include many players, along with as many owners from the labor relations committee as possible on short notice.
Nine owners attended Friday, including Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a day after his team's victory celebration in Dallas.
The sides are still far apart on numerous financial issues, mainly the split in revenues. Players are currently guaranteed 57 percent, and owners have been seeking a swing of about $750 million annually in player salary costs.
Stern said the players made an economic offer Friday that even they would characterize as minor. He said both sides have now made three formal proposals.
Maurice Evans of Washington said both sides are frustrated, and the players "feel like they're trying to give us things that we already have." He added the owners are still working off their initial proposal from February 2010 that the players believe was rejected.
Yet despite the long odds and short time, both sides hope enough can get done in the remaining 13 days to avoid a lockout. Fisher was asked if the CBA was a one million-piece puzzle, how many pieces had been completed.
"One piece controls several hundred thousand pieces, so essentially we could put together a million-piece puzzle in a very short time if we can get two or three pieces in the right place," he said, "and that's what we're focused on doing."