LAS VEGAS -- When NBA journeyman Melvin Ely heard the latest doomsday news of the league's labor situation, he offered a hearty shrug.
His good-riddance tour had already begun, as he recently decided to play in China on a one-year, no opt-out deal that he expects to be completed next week. After eight seasons with five teams as a role player, he has no intention of ever coming back to the NBA in his basketball life.
As for the rest of the players? They might be right behind him given the latest turn of events.
After the third session between NBA and union representatives in the last week -- and with optimism seemingly on the rise that this season might be saved -- both sides reported a major step back following negotiations on Tuesday. National Basketball Players' Association executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher predicted that training camp and at least half the season were seriously in jeopardy, with owners continuing to insist on a hard salary cap while Hunter deemed it a "blood issue" for his camp. Although both sides are scheduled to meet with their respective constituents on Thursday (the owners in Dallas, the players in Vegas), no further meetings are scheduled between them.
Some players taking part in Impact Basketball's Competitive Training Series here were shocked. The internal sentiment had turned since last week, with the optimism rooted in the perceived reality that the owners were finally willing to take the necessary steps to get a deal done.
"I just thought we wouldn't have a lockout after the type of season we had last season," Wizards forward Rashard Lewis said. "As a whole, the playoffs were awesome. [You had] Miami not winning the championship, so I'm sure the fans are anticipating to see what happens with them this year. Kevin Durant is an awesome player. The list goes on and on. There's a lot of good teams. Derrick Rose is the youngest MVP ever, and the Bulls were the best team in the league [in the regular season]. There's just so [many] things that happened this year that you'd think the NBA would make something happen because the fans are anticipating it.
"It is shocking. I don't want to bad-mouth the owners, or even on our side, but I think there's just so much great talent in the NBA they've got to figure out something. Meet in the middle."
Instead, as Bobcats forward Corey Maggette put it, it's "back to the drawing board." And straight to the unemployment line.
"Now guys have to make a decision about playing elsewhere, maintaining a living and all that," said Maggette, who was among the many who had been encouraged by the tenor of last week's talks. "As of right now, everyone is unemployed. You have to re-evaluate [your situation]. At the end of the day, you're unemployed right now and you have to do a job in order to feed your families or whatever.
"I'm not saying guys don't have money or that they're not saving their money the right way, but ultimately -- if you get fired or you have to find yourself another job -- you've got to put out another résumé and pull another gig."
If only it were that simple.
The Chinese Basketball Association has made it clear that it will not allow opt-out clauses in its contracts that let players return to the NBA when the lockout lifts. The Euroleague, meanwhile, has made it known that its teams have little interest in renting players during the work stoppage only to see them leave midway through the season.
Nonetheless, Maggette, a 12-year veteran who earned $10.2 million last season and would make $10.9 million in 2011-12, has been in serious talks with Greek team PAOK, but said he remains unsure what lies ahead. It's a very different situation for players like Detroit's Austin Daye, the third-year small forward who is owed $1.9 million next season.
Daye recently left agent Bill Duffy and has been taking his time in selecting new representation. Yet with the dire state of lockout affairs and international jobs available certainly limited, his need for an agent has never been greater.
"Toward the end of this month and going forward, I'm going to be looking at playing overseas, I guess," Daye said. "I need to find a job so I can make some money and also to play and get some experience. That's what my team needs, too. All the players that are young need as much experience as possible."
With the momentum of the talks seemingly gone, numerous agent sources who spoke with SI.com said the pressure on Hunter is now greater than ever. While some agents have been pushing decertification of the union all along, Hunter's strategy was to engage commissioner David Stern and company in a meaningful dialogue about a solution while awaiting the outcome of the National Labor Relations Board case that was filed in late May.
Now, however, the voices of the most ardent supporters of decertification have their "I-told-you-so" moment. The players are short on time and even shorter on leverage, and, as ESPN.com reported, the likes of power agents Arn Tellem, Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Jeff Schwartz and Dan Fegan are indeed pushing for decertification even as Hunter continues to avoid it.
One source with knowledge of that component said Hunter -- who can be sidestepped in the decertification process -- is still being included in the conversations about the merits of that strategy and no decision had been made regarding the next step as of late Tuesday night. While decertifying and filing antitrust lawsuits against the league could certainly provide leverage, some legal experts estimate that the move would likely wipe out the 2011-12 season while taking approximately two years to reach a resolution in court.
As for when they'll be back on an NBA court again, the very players who wish this week had gone differently insist they're prepared to sacrifice for their greater good.
"Guys are just concerned about the future of the NBA," Lewis said. "The older guys made the way for us to be paid well, and have guaranteed contracts. And I think the same for the guys who will come behind us.
"You don't want to just say, 'Well, I got mine.' We're all a family. We want to make sure [players] don't get taken advantage of and get bad deals."