An NBA collective bargaining agreement will be reached by the end of this weekend. That's my prediction. That's where I'm putting my beer money. I've already told two friends I would buy the kegs if I'm wrong.
If the lockout persists, regular-season games will be lost for only the second time in NBA history. But nothing that transpired these past few days convinces me to tap into the savings.
Progress was made on a number of issues, including the adoption of a more generous revenue-sharing package that the small- to mid-market owners have pursued for years. Also, the owners softened their insistence on implementing a hard vs. soft salary cap, though details about luxury penalties, guaranteed contract lengths and player exceptions have yet to be finalized.
The most contentious issue remains the split of basketball-related income (BRI), the very essence of the league's economic model. Should the players continue to get 57 percent of BRI? Should that figure be cut to the mid-40s, as suggested by NBA owners, 22 of whom claim to have lost millions this past season? Or can a middle ground accommodate both parties?
The 50-50 split of BRI has been the answer all along, not only because it establishes an equal division of revenues, but because its very language advances the notion of a legitimate partnership between owners and players.
"We asked the players: Would either side entertain the notion of a 50-50 deal?" NBA commissioner David Stern said. "While in the process of discussing that with the owners, we were advised by the players that they would not do that. It's fair to say we were making good progress with the owners, but it was disrupted by the players saying no."
So they're not there yet. Give it a week. Late Tuesday, Stern said the owners have offered to accept a players' share of 47 percent and would entertain the possibility of jumping to 50 percent. Perhaps because the revenue-sharing proposal is said to have been successfully bargained, appeasing a few of the hard-line owners, Stern appears to be receiving less resistance these days in his own camp.
Union executive director Billy Hunter, who is also an attorney, is in a far more delicate situation. Though he has long believed his constituents would compromise with 50 to 53 percent of total revenues, he continues to feel pressure from several high-powered agents lobbying for decertification, among other things.
In a letter that agents Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Jeff Schwarz, Leon Rose and Henry Thomas sent to their NBA clients before Tuesday's meeting -- and obtained by SI.com -- players were urged to proceed cautiously and given specific advice on the issues.
But in contrast to talks in 1998-99, when the union leadership was in the grip of individual agents, current players association president Derek Fisher has been steadfast behind Hunter and able to keep his rank and file from splintering.
"We are employees and the NBA are the employers," Fisher said Tuesday, "and they hold the key to when the lockout will be over."
Losing preseason games is a minor inconvenience. But a week from now? If Stern, Hunter and Fisher aren't seated together at a microphone, all smiles and ready to start collecting their salaries, I'll take back my beer bet.
As was patently clear during the 1998-99 labor impasse, when the lockout wiped out the first two months and shortened the regular season to 50 games, once that original threshold is crossed -- those first meaningful games missed -- the dynamic changes.
Positions harden. Compromises become more difficult. The three most important people in the room -- Stern, Hunter and Fisher -- will have more voices in their ears, more challenges to their leadership. Then, folks, forget about a shortened season. Then, we could actually be staring at no season.