At long last, the NBA looks forward to a day of promise. For the first time since Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks finished off LeBron James' Heat in the NBA Finals four months ago, the league is within reach of rescuing itself from ruin.
On Friday, the owners and players will convene in the privacy of a New York meeting room in order to salvage the NBA's season by seeking accord on the crucial elements of a collective bargaining agreement that could enable basketball to be played by early December.
Talk of salvaging an 82-game slate -- as helpful as that would be financially and inspirationally -- is far less important than getting the details right on Friday. The negotiators spent more than 22 hours Wednesday and Thursday hammering away at a new system of financial rules that can maintain guaranteed contracts and free-agent opportunities for players while shrinking the competitive gap between the richest and less-rich franchises.
Those recent talks have provided commissioner David Stern with a vision for the rules that will govern the league in a new agreement, as he acknowledged Thursday night with unprecedented optimism. "I think we'll get there tomorrow," he said of Friday's talks, which will begin at 10:30 a.m. ET.
Union executive director Billy Hunter agreed, describing a deal as "within striking distance."
Once they reach agreement on the "system issues" -- salary cap exceptions, luxury tax, raises, contract lengths -- they will attempt to work out a split of revenues. Last week the owners demanded a 50-50 sharing of the money, but then agreed to put aside that demand in order to renew conversations on the system this week.
"I expect that tomorrow we'll be in a position to see whether we've made adequate progress on that, to be able to turn to the split," said Stern.
Union economist Kevin Murphy was unavailable for Thursday's session, but will be back Friday to help resolve the most difficult financial issues.
Months of conversation and argument have enabled both sides to understand each other's positions. Weeks ago, the players were openly willing to surrender money in order to install a system to their liking. That barter has influenced the latest round of talks this week: If the owners want players to compromise down from their latest proposal guaranteeing them 52.5 percent of basketball-related income -- down from the 57 percent earned by players last season -- then the union's interests in the system have to be taken into account.
But that view is not necessarily shared by the NBA. "We don't see the two issues as tradeoffs," said deputy commissioner Adam Silver. "We don't need to know where we are or they are on BRI in order to discuss the system issues and vice versa. One goes to the overall economic health of the league, the other goes to competitive balance and parity.
"We need to resolve both issues and both issues are critical. One is not dependent on the other."
At the end, however, there may be a need for the owners to relent on the system in order to net the split of money they need in order to reach agreement. "For deal-making purposes, everything is on the table," offered Silver. "There's no question that trades are often made when you have the final pieces of a deal that you need to put together."
The optimism was tempered by an understanding that promising talks have broken down in previous weeks. Union president Derek Fisher pointed out that the momentum of this week's talks guarantee nothing, that finding agreement can grow "tougher down at the end."
A breakthrough would provide enormous relief to a league that simply cannot afford to lose the entire season. That both sides came back to the table after the acrimonious ending of last week's mediated talks served as proof of their shared understanding: They need each other desperately, because their league may not be able to recover from the consequences of an extended loss of games.
"There are no guarantees that we'll get it done, but we're going to give it one heck of a shot tomorrow," said Stern. "I think that Billy and the union's negotiators feel the same way. I know that ours do."