Ken Berger has the scoop:

…A hard cap, according to a person with knowledge of the NBA’s recent labor negotiations, will be “a total deal-breaker” for the National Basketball Players Association.

Not only that, it’ll sabotage the negotiations themselves. There are strong indications that the union would break off negotiations if the owners refused to back down from their pursuit of a hard cap. All the momentum gained from two less contentious bargaining sessions after All-Star weekend –- one in August and one in September –- would go up in smoke.

So which is it? Did Leonsis get fined so swiftly by Stern for speaking the truth? Or did the Supreme Court of Stern act so quickly because the owners have softened their stance on a hard cap, making rhetoric like Leonsis’ counterproductive?

We won’t know for sure until the owners put another proposal in front of the players. But there are growing suspicions on the owners’ side that their position isn’t going to be hard-cap-or-bust. At the very least, whether the cap has exceptions or not isn’t the issue the owners are primarily concerned with. They simply want to pay the players less; what system is used to pay the players is somewhat immaterial, at least at this stage of the negotiations.

Under the current deal, the players get 57 percent of basketball-related income (BRI). The two sides have a long way to go before they can agree on 1) how total revenue should be computed, and 2) how much of it the players should get.

“Trying to get the players to understand they have to take a lesser percentage, that’s going to be the hard part,” one person familiar with the bargaining dynamics said. “Once you get the percentage, then you figure out what the mechanism is to divide it.”

Which brings us back to Leonsis and his hard-cap mechanism, which a majority of owners clearly favored back in January, when they proposed it to the players. A significant number of owners still believe a hard cap would help competitive balance, according to sources. But one person familiar with the owners’ position said it would be “stunning” if they were fixated on a hard cap, and a hard cap alone as the solution to their problems. Eliminating or tweaking the bogus mid-level exception, reducing the number of guaranteed years, making it easier for teams to get out of bad contracts -– these are things the union would oppose, but at least it would be possible to have dialogue about them. Unlike a hard cap.

If you are still holding out hope that a work stoppage can be avoided, that’s encouraging news. Because there is virtually no chance that the NBPA would agree to a new CBA that includes a hard cap before the current deal expires on June 30, 2011.

For more on NBA labor negotiations, be sure to check out Ken Berger’s full column.