As of Saturday, there was exactly one month left for commissioner David Stern and his 29 teams to decide whether to exercise the league's Dec. 15 option to extend its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players through the 2004-05 season.
The prevailing sense around the league is that Stern and the owners will indeed opt in for one more year, with the hope that the recent spirit of cooperation with the union -- since last All-Star Weekend -- will lead to terms being reached on a new long-term deal by next summer, before the current pact expires.
That, of course, is the best-case scenario ... and assuming the spirit of cooperation isn't just myth.
In a worst-case scenario, the owners would refuse to extend the current CBA -- and league sources say there are owners out there who favor this option -- and thereby put a clock on negotiations. "In that case," said one source, "there is the possibility of a lockout before the NHL has one."
The NHL's current labor agreement, amid forecasts of certain doom forthcoming, runs through Sept. 15, 2004. If the NBA option weren't invoked, owners and players would only have until July 1 to reach a new agreement.
After the damaging lockout of 1998, which cost the NBA its previously unblemished record of never losing a regular-season game to a work stoppage, all parties have been unusually willing to open talks well before any deadlines to guard against the prospect of losing games in the future. Yet there remains much to hash out even if the 2004-05 option is triggered.
Teams contend that their players take home too much of the league's revenue and dream of shortening guaranteed contracts, which can run for six or seven seasons in the NBA. Players complain about the increasing difficulty to change teams ... which is tied in to the dreaded luxury tax that neither side cares for. Among the teams themselves, the luxury tax has spawned numerous philosophical debates.
Stern has said that he's not married to the idea of a tax -- perhaps because it tends to pit high- and low-spending teams against each other, which could make it difficult to maintain a consensus among the owners. Stern has made it clear, though, that he will insist on some sort of mechanism that punishes overspending and ensures a level playing field for teams of all market sizes -- something baseball and hockey sorely lack.
The NBA's owners and players, mind you, have yet to exchange any formal proposals, so there have to be some serious negotiating in coming months -- with or without the option -- to secure a new deal by July.
Cardinal was Golden State's last invitee to training camp. After he spent three seasons mostly on the injured list in Detroit and Washington, all Cardinal wanted to do was make the team.
Cardinal has instead managed to emerge as the early season's Ronald Murray, Power Forward Division. Injuries to Troy Murphy and Adonal Foyle have opened up minutes for the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder from Purdue, and Cardinal has responded by recording career highs in scoring in four of the past six games: 12, 13, 17 and then 24 points in Friday's loss to the Clippers.
It helped that he picked the right team to go to camp with, and the right coach. Cardinal had multiple invites but scanned the Warriors' roster and believed that his pick-setting and loose-ball-chasing and high energy -- along with accurate shooting from the floor and the line -- would have some appeal to Golden State. Eric Musselman, the coach who proved what he could do last season when given his shot-of-a-lifetime, didn't hesitate to give Cardinal meaningful minutes when no one had before.
Not that Cardinal complains about the past. He was drafted by Detroit in 2000 and still wound up spending this past summer under the Pistons' watch despite leaving them before last season as part of the Jerry Stackhouse-Rip Hamilton deal. Cardinal spent most of last season in Washington and, in a rarity for the Wizards of 2002-03, came away feeling privileged to have logged some time as Michael Jordan's teammate.
"I looked at it as a learning opportunity with the greatest player ever," Cardinal said. "There were some other guys who probably couldn't handle his competitive drive. I'm sure some of them thought they were better than him. It was disappointing. I wish we had more camaraderie because I think we could have been a pretty good team."
Released by the Wizards late in February, Cardinal finished the season in Spain with Valencia. That gave him the opportunity "to have the ball in my hands again." It's unexpectedly happening now with the Warriors, too, and Cardinal, who knows his minutes are bound to be cut if Golden State can ever get healthy, is so giddy that he says "it's nice just to be interviewed."
"It's nice to be included more than anything," he said. "Even though you're in the NBA, when you spend the majority of your time on the IR, you don't feel as much a part of the team. I'm not going to be an All-Star, but I've always believed I could contribute in some capacity."
Pacers line up new partner for O'Neal
Orlando isn't the only team whose plans in the pivot haven't clicked. The Magic has not yet managed to get by with a tandem of Juwan Howard and Drew Gooden up front, much as we believed that would make Orlando big enough in the size-challenged East. Indiana has likewise not seen much from Scot Pollard, who is supposed to be the Pacers' replacement for Brad Miller, but there's a difference.
Difference is: Indy has another option. Rick Carlisle is playing Jeff Foster alongside Jermaine O'Neal, and Foster has been fairly solid so far, as evidenced by a 19-point, 12-rebound showing in Friday's victory over Seattle.
O'Neal, meanwhile, insists that all he needs is somebody of legit center size as a tag-team partner to spare him all the down-low duty at both ends.
"The problem before Brad came is that I had to play the other team's best post player and then I had to come down and score every time," O'Neal said. "I don't really have a problem playing the five, but that wore me down."
It remains to be seen if that's really all O'Neal needs over 82 games. Miller's ability to hit the perimeter jumper helped open up the inside for O'Neal last season. Neither Foster nor Pollard can shoot it like Miller can, so it might not be as easy as Jermaine claims.
Before they lost Tony Parker to an ankle injury last month, San Antonio tried to convince Lithuania point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius to jump to the NBA. Jasikevicius outdueled Parker at the European Championships, then followed the semifinal victory over France by leading his country to an unexpected championship triumph over Pau Gasol's Spain. It's the same Jasikevicius who nearly shot Lithuania to a massive upset of the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and the same Jasikevicius (as if there's another) who played collegiately at Maryland. Instead of coming back to the States at 27, Jasikevicius is serving a one-year contract with Israeli club power Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Parker is back now for the Spurs, but with Anthony Carter ailing, his backups are Jason Hart and Australia's Shane Heal.
LeBron James (went long enough without mentioning him) is shooting 44 percent from the floor and has a routine established already to keep that figure rising. He watches tape of every game he plays and then, after every five games, sits with Cavaliers assistant coach Bob Donewald to watch clips of every single shot he has taken to study the release, elbow position, follow through, etc. "I'm really working at it, because y'all said I can't shoot," James said. "I'm gonna surprise y'all."
Never imagined I'd be writing about Flip Murray as often as LeBron and Kobe Bryant, but Murray's start for the Sonics has been that much of a shocker. He's got the Most Improved Player award locked up if he stays anywhere near his current standard and he suddenly has people comparing him to Joe Dumars because of Murray's ability to shoot, handle, defend and play both guard positions. We asked Dumars what he sees, and the Pistons' president says: "We brought him in for a couple of workouts during his draft because we liked him so much. He scores, passes well and can be a really good defender. He has a lot of toughness as well." Have to concede all that does sound rather Dumars-like. Murray, incidentally, went No. 42 overall to Milwaukee in the 2002 draft. The Pistons, who grabbed Tayshaun Prince at No. 23, didn't have a second-rounder that year.