Posted: Friday September 30, 2011 8:29AM ; Updated: Friday September 30, 2011 8:29AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA

All on the line as NBA lockout heads into crucial weekend of meetings

Story Highlights

NBA players, owners will meet Friday and through the weekend to get a deal done

David Stern could threaten to cancel the season if no deal is reached this weekend

Sides risk losing money, unification, games and their fans if no CBA is reached

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The most promising weekend of the NBA lockout commences Friday in New York, when the union and owners attempt to reach agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in time to play a full 82-game season.

The lockout has been defined by arguments, misunderstandings and frustrations over the last three months. They were unavoidable and necessary to the creation of this stage. The crucial negotiating sessions were always going to come this weekend, when the time for argument had lapsed, leaving barely enough hours to negotiate a deal before regular-season games are to be canceled.

Each side of the bargaining table will be represented by more than a dozen owners and at least as many players, which will complicate the negotiations but also facilitate an agreement that takes into account the needs of everyone, from the biggest-spending owners to those from small markets, from the lesser-paid players to the max stars.

After Wednesday's bargaining session, ESPN.com reported that NBA commissioner David Stern would threaten to cancel the entire season if substantial progress wasn't made this weekend; the NBA responded by denying he will make such an ultimatum. By now everyone should understand the stakes this weekend -- that this may be the best, and last, opportunity to arrive at a deal that satisfies the most concerns and saves the season. If no progress is made, then each side may find itself to be less unified a month from now.

It's not as if the owners share a single point of view for the design of the next CBA. The union has talked openly of a divide that separates the owners from the big and small markets. If true, then the players have to wonder how Stern will be able to hold the owners together once the lockout is extended into the season, because that's when the divide will become crucially obvious. When regular-season games aren't being played, the overburdened small-market owners will be saving money by no longer having to pay the player salaries that have put their franchises in the red, while the big-market owners will be losing money by way of ticket revenues and other incomes. This could further polarize the two coalitions of owners, making it more difficult than ever for them to agree on compromises with the players after a portion of the regular season has been eliminated.

The same kinds of fissures may appear within the union, as different agendas become more pronounced -- some players won't be able to survive the missing paychecks, some agents may push harder than ever for decertification. Once the lockout extends into the regular season, neither side of the table may be unified enough to agree on the priorities and parameters of a new deal. That's why it makes sense for the leaders of the union and owners come to some kind of agreement now, while they are able to maintain leadership of their coalitions.

The owners have always been driving these talks while citing losses of more than $1 billion over the last three years. It has always been understood that the players would accept less money in a new agreement. They've already agreed to a lesser share of league revenues, with the understanding that more give-backs will be necessary to complete an agreement.

A key issue is the importance to the owners of salvaging the full season. Will they be willing to compromise this weekend in order to start on time Nov. 1, when the Bulls are scheduled to visit the champion Mavericks in Dallas? Or do enough owners view this upcoming CBA as a watershed deal that provides them with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the league as they see fit in these recessionary times?

But there is a huge risk involved in making a take-it-or-leave-it offer that extends the lockout into November, December and beyond. Of course the recession has supplied owners with the hammer to force enormous across-the-board concessions from the players. The danger in bludgeoning the union with demands that extend the lockout deep into the regular season is that fans will turn on the NBA for its inept failure to share $4 billion in revenues while the rest of the nation is suffering economically. As much as the recession empowers the owners to punish the players, the league may discover that NBA fans hold the greatest power of all -- and those fans promise to be recoil more harshly during this lockout than in 1999, when the economy was stronger.

Which brings this whole mess back to the issue of deadlines. The absolute drop-dead timing for a resolution is early January -- that's based on the events of '99, when Stern and union chief Billy Hunter reached agreement the day before the Jan. 7. Can the negotiations this weekend create the urgency to make a deal now rather than three months from now?

"I'm focused on [getting] the two committees in and seeing whether they can either have a season or not have a season," Stern said on Wednesday. "And that's what's at risk this weekend."

Was he referring to the risk of missing the Nov. 1 opener, or the risk of losing the entire season? Depending on what happens this weekend, the one may lead inevitably to the other. It's a risk neither side of the table can afford, which explains the guarded optimism around these talks.

 
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