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Square deals

NBA and union reach agreement on 6-year contract

SAN ANTONIO -- You can throw away the sabers and the spitballs. The NBA and its players have decided it's better to keep their 3 billion dollar baby up and running.

NBA commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter announced yesterday that an agreement has been reached on a new collective bargaining agreement for the next six years. (The current deal expires June 30.) The agreement came a week after Stern issued ominous threats about the effects of a possible lockout and Hunter responded in kind that a work stoppage would be a ''death knell" for the league.

Happily, for all concerned, that is not going to happen in the land of milk and honey. As Stern succinctly put it at a news conference prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals, ''It's better to be operating than not operating."

The owners will approve the agreement with near-unanimity, Stern said, while Hunter said the players, meeting next week in Las Vegas, will do the same. It will take the lawyers and bean counters a while to make sure everything is kosher, so an extra week has been added to the two-week July moratorium on signing free agents. The new date is July 22. Teams can, however, negotiate with free agents, sign rookies, and conduct summer leagues until that date.

Both Stern and Hunter took pains to say that the new deal was one that benefits both sides. Among the key points:

Drug testing. Players are now subject to four random tests a year for performance-enhancing drugs. The ''year" in this case goes from Oct. 1 to June 30. Previously, players were tested once, in training camp. Hunter said that was the biggest concession the players made. There will be further discussions as to how to handle situations like the one involving Vin Baker, when the team drew up a side agreement with the player.

Contract length. The NBA wanted a big reduction in the maximum length of contracts, but instead there was only a one-year reduction. Players can now re-sign with their own team for up to six years and with another team for up to five years. The annual percentage increases have also been reduced.

Rookie contracts. Up to now, first-round picks were guaranteed three years, with two additional years at the team's call. The new agreement calls for guaranteed deals of two years with two one-year options, again at the team's call.

Age limit. Beginning with the 2006 draft, players (including international players) must be 19 years old or have to have been out of high school for one year (that includes a post-grad year). That already has made an impact, in that Indiana high school center Greg Oden was everyone's pick to be No. 1 next season. (In fairness to the kid, he has expressed an interest to go to college.)

High schoolers intent on not going to college can now go to the NBA's developmental league, which will lower its age limit from 20 to 18.

Stern said he wanted NBA people out of high school gyms and said he will issue a directive toward that end.

NBDL. Players in their first two years in the league -- and that can range from a rookie free agent to the No. 1 pick in the draft -- can be placed on teams in the developmental league for what the league calls ''skills development." The plan is for the NBDL to have 15 teams and that each NBDL team will be affiliated with two NBA teams to facilitate player exchange.

Escrow taxes: The players have had 10 percent of their pay withheld and placed in an escrow fund to reimburse cost-conscious owners should the players' total compensation exceed an agreed-upon threshold. The players will still have to fund the escrow, but the percentage drops to 9 in years two through five and to 8 in the final year.

Salary cap. Previously, it was based on 48 percent of total revenue. It will now be based on 51 percent, a sizable increase but one nonetheless unlikely to affect most teams. All the cap exceptions (mid-level, veteran minimum) will remain the same, although the numbers will change (read: increase) when the final numbers are crunched.

Discipline. In a compromise stemming from Stern's harsh penalties for the three Indiana Pacers after the infamous melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills, any suspension of more than 12 games can be reviewed by an independent arbitrator. Previously, the process was solely in Stern's hands, although the union did challenge that and got Jermaine O'Neal's suspension reduced. Had that provision been in effect last Nov. 19, all three Pacers (Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and O'Neal) would have been able to go to arbitration.

Rosters. All teams will have to carry at least 14 players (bad news for the Clippers). There will be no more injured list; ''an honest list," is what Stern calls it. It will now be more like hockey, where you can dress a certain number (12) and anyone else either showcases his wardrobe on the pine or perhaps gets to ply his ''skills development" in Asheville, N.C.

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