When NBA players descend on Los Angeles for a regional meeting on Friday, that will be the question on the minds of so many who planned to be playing by now. This week would have marked the start of the preseason, with youngsters like Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams and Jimmer Fredette making their debuts and stars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Derrick Rose continuing the storylines that made last season so great. Instead, the endless talk of BRI, hard cap vs. soft cap and Bird Rights will drag on without any end of the lockout in sight.
The answer, contrary to the litany of collective bargaining issues at hand, won't be all that complicated.
"We ask you to maintain the same strength and focus you have exhibited since the beginning," National Basketball Players' Association executive director Billy Hunter wrote to his players in a tone-setting letter on Oct. 5 that was obtained by SI.com. "We must demonstrate our unity, especially as we expect the league to announce the cancellation of the first two weeks of the season next Monday if no further progress is made. The owners must know that the players are firm, educated and resolved to getting a fair deal."
The players -- who reportedly stand to lose about $165 million combined with the elimination of the first two weeks -- will follow the union's lead in this waiting game now. While decertification of the union remains a possibility, it doesn't appear to be on the immediate horizon.
One of the agents known to have pushed for that strategy, Mark Bartelstein, echoed the sentiments of players and union officials alike as he looked back on the day the season got shorter. He took great exception to how commissioner David Stern characterized the recent bargaining sessions on Monday in New York.
"You look at these press conferences, and you're thinking, 'Are you kidding me?' " Bartelstein told SI.com of Stern. "He's the master of spinning a story so as not to tell the entire story or give you a real picture of what he's trying to accomplish.
"I think the owners' strategy all along was to play a game of chicken with the players and see who would blink first. But I would have more respect if they just said, 'We think we're going to be able to jam a horrible deal down the players' throats, and that's what we're going for,' instead of trying to act like you're worried about all these other things that you're not worried about."
Specifically, Bartelstein discussed the topics of guaranteed contracts and the owners' push for a so-called pay-for-play system that, in part, increases their ability to steer clear of long-term deals with players whose production hardly matches their pay (see Eddy Curry, Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas).
"[The owners] don't want to do pay-for-play the other way, when the 27th pick in the draft becomes a starter early in his career and then has a chance to get out of his contract after two years and get rewarded for being a major contributor to a team," said Bartelstein, noting how rookies are locked into rookie-scale deals in which the first two years of salary are predetermined and guaranteed, the third and fourth are rookie-scale team options and the player becomes a restricted free agent in the fifth year. "They're worried about having a competitive league, but they're not worried about the players who are underpaid on their rookie contracts.
"There are a lot of rookies who absolutely outperform their contracts and have to wait five years before they can get into the free-agent market. ... And for them to talk like they've given in on guaranteed contracts is as disingenuous as you can get" because players already had them previously.
Bartelstein, who has more than 30 clients, also disputes the notion that the current soft salary-cap system precludes parity.
"They say the system doesn't allow every team to compete, and that's just not true," he said. "Sacramento, for years, was a vibrant, Western Conference championship-caliber team. ... Orlando has been a high-level, competitive team that was like that. The argument just doesn't hold up.
"It's not about how much money you spend. It's how you spend it and the choices you make. Any business you run, the No. 1 connection to the success should be the management of the business."