The biggest story of the new NBA season won't have anything to do with Miami's Big Three or Boston's Old Three or even the Lakers' attempt to Three-Peat. Instead, it'll involve three of the most powerful entities in the sport: commissioner David Stern, union executive director Billy Hunter and the collective-bargaining agreement.
And the major issues between them are that dark cloud in the distance.
The issues threaten the momentum of a league that seemed to be open all summer, with the free-agency season offering almost as much drama and intrigue as the postseason and setting up a highly anticipated 2010-11. Stern is predicting the NBA will have "our best season ever" while also outlining all of the reasons why the league can't go another year under the same CBA.
"I would say the league is viable as long as you have owners who want to continue funding losses," Stern said during his annual preseason conference call with the media Friday. "But it's not on the long term a sustainable business model that we're happy to be supporting."
Without discussing the hundreds of millions that they're squabbling over and none of us regular people can comprehend, let's put it in simple terms: Players make money off the NBA each season. Most owners do not.
The owners, who essentially hire Stern to represent their best interests as a league, want that to change.
And that's why, aside from failing to use the phrase "cost certainty" in his address, Stern was reading directly off of Gary Bettman's script from 2004-05, when the NHL shut down for an entire season over a CBA dispute that Bettman, once Stern's understudy with the NBA, eventually won by an overwhelming rout. At the time, Bettman spoke proudly of exponential growth by the NHL but also gave stern warnings that the cap-less CBA his league had in place was sending the NHL hurtling toward financial doom. Bettman even allowed talk of contraction -- of dissolving weak franchises to shrink the league -- to exist.
Stern on Friday called contraction for the NBA "a subject that will be on the table with the players as we look to see what's the optimum way to present our game and are there cities and teams that cannot make it in the current economic environment."
Of the idea of eliminating franchises (as if anyone would miss the Memphis Grizzlies), understand this is scare tactic No. 1: Contraction means fewer teams. Fewer teams means fewer jobs available to players, which means fewer players are in the NBA. That's not something the NBPA, the union that represents NBA players, should prefer over the alternative: the same amount of jobs, just less money to go around.
But it's also rhetoric from the league, just as much as it was, in Stern's words, "classic negotiating rhetoric" when the NBPA after Friday's session issued a statement from Hunter that said the union "unequivocally rejected" the league's proposal.
The league really aimed high with this one: a hard-cap system and a 40 percent rollback in player salaries.
The NBA knew this most recent concept would be rejected because it was purposely overzealous. You don't make your best offer until the 11th hour.
Sometimes, as in the case of the NHL in 2004-05, you make it in the 11th hour and the union refuses to take it until the 25th hour, after an entire season is lost. No one believes Hunter will gamble as Bob Goodenow did then, but Hunter already is instigating the fight.
"If the owners maintain their position," the NBPA said in the statement, "it will inevitably result in a lockout and the cancellation of part or all of the 2011-12 season."
History has taught us that this aggressive attempt by the league to put greater control on payroll spending will not be easily accomplished. It might have to come at a cost to both sides in the form of a truncated season in 2011-12 or, perhaps, the total elimination of the NBA for an entire winter.
If you don't think the league would allow it to happen, look to the NHL as an example. The standard already has been set.
Enjoy the game while you can.