NBA commissioner David Stern's announcement Monday that the league was canceling 100 regular-season games was the easy part.
Now comes the real, hard work.
About the only thing that representatives for NBA owners and players have been able to officially agree upon since the 103-day lockout started July 1 is when and where to meet in New York. But as Monday's last-minute collective bargaining agreement (CBA) conference proved, simply spending seven hours in the same hotel room and offering up high-minded economic and systemic proposals does not result in the end of a work stoppage. Nor does it prevent the wave of damaging effects that has just begun to unfold.
Add the erased 2011-12 preseason to regular-season cancellations, and the NBA has already wiped 214 games off its calendar. Meanwhile, CBA progress has been minimal at best. And in some ways, negotiations have gone backward, with each entrenched side staking its claim to high ground before the financial flood begins.
That was evident Monday, when the attempt to temporarily table a dispute about the split of basketball-related income backfired. Choosing to instead focus on system issues, negotiators discussed intricate contractual details concerning everything from a reduction in the length of guaranteed contracts to the severity of a penalty teams exceeding a soft salary cap would face. CBA talks went full circle as Stern's deadline for regular-season cancellations loomed. But by the end, owners and players wound up in the same position that they found themselves more than two years ago, when negotiations first began staring straight at each other, waiting for the other side to blink.
Neither did. And neither will until they have to. The threat of canceled games and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue wasn't real enough to spur compromise. So what will be?
High stakes • Larry Coon, a salary-cap expert and ESPN.com contributor, said that the lockout just entered phase two of four. The first wasJune 30, when the previous CBA expired. The second passed Monday, resulting in canceled games and concrete being poured into each sides' trenches. The third will occur Nov. 15, when many players miss their first paycheck and owners watch the hillside in search of union deserters.
"Time is the variable here, and the longer [the lockout] goes on, the more the pressure increases," Coon said.
In a sign of just how serious the work stoppage is, the race to save the 2011-12 season is already on, and started the second that Stern announced Monday's cancellations.
Stern acknowledged that owners' proposals will only become worse as the lockout drags on, while NBA Players Association (NBPA) executive director Billy Hunter said that the union won't fold just because some athletes' checking accounts take a hit. Thus, neither side will likely be affected by phase three, leaving phase four early January, when the cancellation of the entire season will be on the line as the true deadline.
Owners and players are not scheduled to meet and the sides likely won't reconvene for a couple of weeks. Since it takes about a month to formalize a CBA, allow for a brief free-agency period and hold abbreviated training camps and preseason contests, the final two weeks of the regular-season schedule in November could soon be erased from the calendar.
"We're going to get to Nov. 15," Coon said. "The rhetoric is certainly going to change at that point."
If there's no deal by then, the end of November and 31 days during December will become a proving ground. During a 1998-99 lockout that produced a shortened 50-game campaign the only other work stoppage in the league's 65-year history that resulted in canceled contests the sides didn't reach an agreement until Jan. 6, 1999, and that deal arrived just before a deadline to cancel the entire season.
Destination unknown • Monday's hard-line stance showed just how dug in owners are, and the league can easily wait the NBPA out. Thus, any movement will likely have to come from the union. Players could remain united, stand their ground and fight for what they believe to be a fair deal; cave and give in to mutiny; or decertify and file an antitrust lawsuit in the attempt to gain legal leverage that could force owners to finally budge.
"Billy Hunter's resisting that. In part because I think he knows it's not likely to succeed because of what happened to the players in the NFL case," said Gary Roberts, dean and professor at the Indiana University Law School-Indianapolis. "I really do think that unless the [NBA] players were to draw a very unusual panel of judges that they would be unlikely to succeed with litigation. And in the process, when you decertify, the union leadership loses some of its political clout."
For now, the work stoppage will continue. As will the $4-billion chess match. And the feeling that, now that owners and players have shown their willingness to miss regular-season games to achieve their goals, the road is wide open and the ultimate destination of the 2011 lockout is totally unknown.
"It would be foolish for them to kill the season, and we're coming off the best season in the history of the NBA," Hunter said. "I'm not so sure in this kind of economy that if there is a protracted lockout whether the league will recover. It took us a while to recover from the '98 lockout, and I think it will take us even longer to recover this time around."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.