Union chief Billy Hunter said Thursday "it's obvious the lockout will happen tonight" after players and owners failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, potentially putting the 2011-12 season in jeopardy.
Despite a three-hour meeting Thursday and a final proposal from the players — which NBA leaders said would have raised average player salaries to $7 million in the sixth year of the deal — the sides could not close the enormous gulf that remained in their positions.
"The gap is too great," Hunter said.
The CBA expires at midnight, after which all league business is officially on hold, starting with the free agency period that would have opened Friday.
Commissioner David Stern said "with some sadness" he would recommend later Thursday to the labor relations committee that the first lockout since the 1998-99 season be imposed.
"Needless to say we're disappointed that this is where we find ourselves," Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said.
The last lockout reduced the 1998-99 season to just a 50-game schedule, the only time the NBA missed games for a work stoppage. Hunter said it's too early to be concerned about that.
"I hope it doesn't come down to that," he said. "Obviously, the clock is now running with regard to whether or not there will or will be a loss of games, and so I'm hoping that over the next month or so that there will be sort of a softening on their side and maybe we have to soften our position as well."
The NBA's summer league in Las Vegas already has been canceled, preseason games in Europe were never scheduled, and players might have to decide if they want to risk playing in this summer's Olympic qualifying tournaments without the NBA's help in securing insurance in case of injury.
Training camps usually open the last week of September and the regular season about a month later.
"These kinds of things take on a life of their own, and I just don't know where their life is going to lead," Stern said.
Hunter said he hopes the two sides will meet again in the next two weeks.
The players' association seems unlikely, at least for now, to follow the NFLPA's model by decertifying and taking the battle into the court system, instead choosing to continue negotiations. Hunter said last week he felt owners believe the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which is debating the legality of the NFL's lockout, will uphold employers' rights to impose lockouts.
The NBA projected $300 million in losses this season and said it lost hundreds of millions in every season of this CBA, ratified in 2005. League officials said 22 of the 30 teams would lose money.
But owners don't just want to minimize their losses. They want to make a profit, along with developing a system in which small-market teams could compete with the biggest spenders. The Lakers and Mavericks, who won the last three NBA titles, are annually at the top of the list of highest payrolls.
So they took a hard-line stance from the start, with their initial proposal in 2010 calling for the institution of a hard salary cap system, along with massive reductions in contract lengths and elimination in contract guarantees. Though the proposal was withdrawn after a contentious meeting with players at the 2010 All-Star weekend, the league never moved from its wish list until recently.
Hunter said he believed it was hard for the players to ever move past the start of the process.
The expected lockout comes exactly one year after one of the NBA's most anticipated days in recent years, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the celebrated class of 2010 became free agents. That free agency bonanza kicked off a flurry of moves, with James, Wade and Chris Bosh teaming in Miami, Amar'e Stoudemire heading to New York, and Carlos Boozer moving to Chicago.
It got the league started on a season where ratings, ticket and merchandise sales were up, weakening the owners' case that the system was broken beyond repair. But it also demonstrated why they wanted changes, with Stern saying owners feel pressure to spend as much as possible to prove their commitment to winning to fans.
He agreed the league had a great year, but "not a profitable one."
Stern wouldn't say when negotiations would resume.
About 90 percent of NBA players get paid from Nov. 15 through April 30, so they won't be missing checks for a while. But Stern has warned that the offers only get worse once a lockout starts, so the league could try to push through elements of its original proposal when bargaining resumes. Hunter said, however, that was not expressed to him Thursday.
Like with the NFL lockout, NBA players won't be the only ones affected. Employees of teams and the league also face a very uncertain future. Stern admitted all options would be considered, including furloughs for his employees.
"The people who stand to have their livings impacted by a shutdown of our industry are going to have a negative view of both sides," Stern said. "I think our fans will tend to have a negative view of why can't you guys work this thing out."