While it feels like a deathblow to the season, the NBA lockout's continued presence in our lives doesn't exactly end pro basketball as we know it for a full year. It just puts the whole operation on ice for a while, and leaves open the threat of the season vanishing. David Stern ordered the cancellation of 100 regular season games -- 8 percent of the season -- on Monday, and it's more likely that additional games will be axed than not.
But the actual issue of the lockout will continue. What are the paths it could take?
PATH 1: MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION
Billy Hunter, the director of the National Basketball Players Association, said late Monday that cancelling games was a part of the NBA's plan, that the owners intended to make the union squeal by yanking paychecks. If Hunter can convince a judge of that -- and based on David Stern's history of cancelling games and going to the brink, he could have a case -- then the union could land a groundbreaking anti-trust win against the owners.
The problem: that would require decertification, which the NBA has already preemptively challenged in federal court as a sham, followed by an anti-trust suit. In the lawsuit, for which oral arguments will be heard on November 2, Stern threatened to void all existing NBA player contracts if the courts don't block decertification. That is just as bad as it sounds.
As several experts have noted, the decertification route would serve to crank up the vitriol to 11 and could drag on for two years, costing players about $4 billion in salary, with no guarantee of good results on the other side. You'll understand that while it looks like the players could have a solid anti-trust case, no one wants this to happen.
How it starts: The union holds a vote to decertify. If a majority of players agree, the union is kaput and a set of players -- likely big, popular names -- will file an anti-trust lawsuit.
PATH 2: SAVED BY THE BUREAUCRACY
In May, the union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. At some point, the NLRB will rule on that complaint. No one seems to know when that will be, though the New York office's investigation has been complete for some time now. The NLRB headquarters is now left to make a ruling. If the board's general counsel sides with the union and alleges that the league has not acted in good faith, it can issue an injunction lifting the lockout while a circuit court considers the matter.
That's the only way that the union "wins" in the short term. It's unclear what impact an injunction would have: will owners open their gyms to players and direct their basketball staffs to start signing free agents? Will the league essentially operate under the last collective bargaining agreement while Stern rushes to appeal the injunction? Will it be a free-for-all? Whatever the case: it will send the league's top officials scrambling to keep the sport shut down. It'd almost be worth it for the spectacle alone.
The real impact it could have is to force the owners back to the table in a sincere, earnest way.
How it starts: It's already started, but it requires a decision from the NLRB to materialize.
PATH 3: SAME OLD S--T
The most likely path is the one that the league and union have traveled since June: ad hoc negotiations with some horse trading, plenty of spin and real concession only when pressed up against a deadline. The idea that owners will begin negotiating in earnest once a few paychecks are missed is bizarre and hilarious: the reason for cancelling games is to push the players, who are losing money every day now, to concede to a worse deal than they'd been offering in October.
But the players continue to emphasize their unity, and it's worth noting that all of the dissension within the union you'd heard over the last couple weeks -- with some players anonymously telling reporters that they'd take 50-50 -- has disappeared overnight. No players are publicly questioning the union's lack of a compromise right now.
Without concessions from either side or a unicorn invasion in New York City, don't expect negotiations to progress. Hell, they might not even happen: there are currently no further talks scheduled. Stern said Monday that the league will address cancellations two weeks at a time. Don't expect some high-tension meeting like Monday's every two weeks. Instead, pushes will be made in time for major moments: to save the Christmas Day games (last week of November and first week of December are the critical times there) and to save the season in some form (early January). Any talks held in the next month could very well be window dressing.
How it starts: This is the de facto next step. Unless Path 1 or Path 2 commence, this is what happens.