NBA players cavorted as if training camp was around the corner, some of them showcasing their new-and-improved games and others content to stretch their lockout legs and lungs in this five-on-five, pros-only setting. There was laughter (thank longtime point guard/comedian Damon Jones), entertainment (add Knicks rookie Iman Shumpert to your YouTube search list) and the hope for more hoops fun to come in the two weeks ahead at Impact Basketball's Competitive Training Series (is Blake Griffin here yet?).
You'd never know their livelihoods are on the line this week.
By the time Friday morning rolls around, the league's workforce should know whether it's time to start rationing the savings account or preparing for business as usual. The NBA's labor relations committee is meeting with the union's executive committee in New York on Tuesday, with a follow-up session on Wednesday reportedly possible and both sides expected to update their respective sides on the status of the labor negotiations Thursday.
The owners will meet in Dallas, and the players in Las Vegas. But the bigger question, of course, is whether they'll find a way to meet somewhere in the middle.
"It's a huge week," said forward Jared Dudley, the Suns' player representative. "It's a week for us to see how [the owners] are going to react. Are we going to get a proposal [on Tuesday]? That's what we're hoping for. ... If [the owners] stay the same [in their stance], then we just know that we're so far apart, what are we going to do as players?"
While union officials have indicated that the owners have not made a formal proposal since the start of the lockout on July 1, there is a strong expectation from the players' side that the league will come equipped with an offer Tuesday. Yet, despite the optimistic tone set by last week's back-to-back meetings, which included just nine representatives and totaled more than 11 hours of talks, the distance between the two sides on the core issues remains substantial.
There's a four-year gap on the desired length of the deal (10 years for the owners, six for the players), the hard-cap issue (owners want it, players don't) and the most obvious disagreement related to the splitting of revenue (a $7.6 billion gap based on the owners' 10-year proposal, according to National Basketball Players' Association vice president Maurice Evans). But as Bobcats player representative Corey Maggette sees it, there is also some reason for optimism.
"[The two sides] had some really positive talks [last] week, and the only thing you can really expect right now is being positive and having some sense of compromise," Maggette said. "I know we're willing to do that. Hopefully [NBA commissioner] David Stern and the owners are willing to do that. But we still have to stay positive.
"I think [NBPA president] Derek [Fisher] is doing a good job, and so is [NBPA executive director] Billy [Hunter], in trying to secure something for the players. ... They want to talk more to figure out some compromise. It's baby steps in this process. If the owners are willing to talk, that means you're moving in the right direction. If they shut it down, then you're not."
Yet the players' handling of the possible tough times ahead will play a role here as well. While the likes of Hunter, Fisher and Evans keep their focus on the relevant issues at hand, some of their constituents will be more prone to panic the longer the lockout lasts. That element should make for interesting theater on Thursday, as Tuesday's events will set the mood for the large-scale players meeting and opinions are surely to be shared about the state of their affairs.
It is believed that a large majority of NBA players will start missing paychecks in mid-November, although they'll soon be receiving a well-timed bonus of sorts. According to SheridanHoops.com, checks totaling 8 percent of each player's salary from last season have already been sent out as part of an agreed-upon giveback from the league's escrow tax system.
Still, as Dudley didn't hesitate to discuss, there are plenty of players who struggle with their money no matter how much they make.
"My mom is a lawyer, and I've been blessed with the mentality of, 'If you don't have someone smart in your corner, it's easy to fail,' " he said. "You get a lot of money, maybe you don't know about the taxes, and you're talking about coming from poverty, maybe you're trying to help everyone [family and friends] out ... and maybe you're living check to check.
"A lot of people don't know these things. But to me, the only difference now is that if you've known for four years that there would be a lockout. When I first came into the league, I started saving. In Year Two, or Three or Four, [I was told that] you should have a year of savings. What are the odds of that? I would say out of the whole league, of 100 percent, probably 50-60 [percent of players] could do that. The other 50? I don't know."
Nonetheless, Dudley made it clear which part of the group he plans to represent when it comes time to discuss a possible deal.
"At the end of the day, I make the decision for the Suns -- that's why you have your player rep," he said. "People know that if people are struggling [financially], then they're going to be out. ... I'm not going to accept that for my vote. I'm willing to lose [money]. I signed a deal for $4.5 million [for next season] and I'm willing to give up $4.5 million, which is a lot of money for me ... if [the deal] is not better. They're talking about cutting 50 percent of my check anyway, so I'm going to lose that money anyway."
Fisher, it would seem, represented the players in accurate fashion on Monday when he tweeted, "We want to go back to work."
"I don't care how much money you have in the bank," Maggette said. "If you're not getting paid for your job, it's still a bad situation. Regardless how much money I have in the bank, it's still a bad situation if you lose a year's wages or two years' wages.
"We don't want to wait to where guys aren't making money, because it's not going to help us in the long run. It's not going to help the people who are working in the arenas because they're losing money as well, and it's not going to help the owners. It's still a tough situation for everyone. Everyone is going to lose if we don't play."