NEW YORK — David Stern returned to the bargaining table Monday and said "nothing" gave him reason for encouragement.
And for that, the NBA Commissioner pointed the blame in one place.
"I don't feel optimistic about the players' willingness to engage in a serious way," Stern said.
So the first meeting to include leadership from owners and players since the lockout began exactly a month ago produced nothing new — except blame.
A downcast Stern, who long maintained he was optimistic during this collective bargaining process, said that was no longer the case. He added nothing had changed since the last meeting on June 30, hours before the old deal expired, and said he doesn't feel players are bargaining in good faith.
Players contend that although owners insist they are committed to making a deal, their proposals say otherwise.
Neither side offered a new one Monday, exactly three months before the Nov. 1 scheduled opening of the regular season that seems more in doubt than ever.
Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver were joined by San Antonio owner Peter Holt, who heads the labor relations committee, and Board of Governors chairman and Minnesota owner Glen Taylor represented ownership.
Players' association Executive Director Billy Hunter, and President Derek Fisher and Vice President Theo Ratliff, both of the Lakers, attended along with union attorneys.
"It's a tough position to be in," Fisher said. "I think Peter, Glen Taylor, Commissioner Stern, Adam Silver are articulating certain things in the room, expressing their desire to get a deal done, but where their proposal lies makes it hard to believe that.
"So we're continuing to try to work around what's been said and really focus on the deal on the table, and right now we're still a very, very long way from getting a deal done."
Stern disputed Fisher's take on the owners' actions.
"He's entitled to draw his own conclusion," Stern said. "We have absolutely the opposite take on it."
Fisher said the sides would try to meet at least two or three more times in August. Stern said there is always reason to have meetings, yet made it clear owners feel not enough is happening during them.
"Right now we haven't seen any movement," he said, adding "there's still a very wide gap between us."
That was left over from late June. Owners are seeking massive changes to the league's salary structure, saying they lost $300 million last season and hundreds of millions more in each year of the previous CBA, which was ratified in 2005.
Players have acknowledged losses but dispute they're as large as owners say, and have balked at the league's desire to institute a hard salary cap, slash salaries and reduce the maximum length of contracts.
That has created the possibility of lost games because of a work stoppage for only the second time in league history. The 1998-99 season was reduced to 50 games, and players have been preparing for the potential of something similar, with many saying they would consider playing overseas to have a paycheck.
The NFL is back to work after settling its lockout that lasted about four months without missing any regular-season games. A work stoppage of similar length guarantees the NBA loses games, but the NBA's issues seem to go much deeper than the NFL's.
"From where we sit, we're looking at a league that was the most profitable in sports that became more profitable by virtue of concessions from their players," Stern said, "and with an average salary of $2 million. Our average salary is 5 million, we're not profitable and we just can't seem to get over the gap that separates us."
The central issue remains the division of basketball revenues. Players were guaranteed 57 percent under the old agreement and the league says it cannot address its losses without a significant change to that number.
The players offered a reduction to 54.3 percent that would have reduced their take by about $100 million a year — an offer Stern called "modest" — and said the owners' proposal would have them well below 40 percent in the later years of the deal.
Hunter indicated after the last meeting that the sides might bargain on something besides economics when they returned, since they couldn't get past that hurdle. They tried, but everything always comes back to money.
"You can only go so long discussing non-economic or system issues. Hard salary cap, flex cap, soft cap, eventually it all brings you back to what's the split and that's going to be," Fisher said.
"The hard work that's ahead of us over the next several weeks is how to get to a place where the split is where we consider to be fair for our players but also makes an attempt to address the concerns and the issues that owners are putting out."
Owners had proposed a deal that would guarantee players total compensation of no less than $2 billion annually, with an average player salary of about $5 million. But that represents a pay cut from the more than $2.1 billion players were paid this season.
Players have argued that owners can address their losses through an expanded revenue sharing system without taking so much from them. Owners quickly dismissed their last proposal, saying it would have raised the average salary to $7 million in the sixth year of the deal.
Fisher said the union is still not thinking about decertification, the tactic the NFLPA used. The NBPA has filed an unfair labor charge against the league with the National Labor Relations Board claiming unfair bargaining practices and is awaiting that decision before doing anything.
Both sides seem to feel the answers come at the bargaining table, not in the court system.
"There isn't anything new or any type of blockbuster idea or momentum that was created today, which is why we've all agreed we have to meet more, talk more and discuss more so we can try and figure this thing out," Fisher said.