Welcome to the NBA Lockout, where whatever meeting is occurring is the crucial meeting. After last week's crucial meetings ended without a settlement, NBA Commissioner David Stern set today as the deadline by which he'd be forced to delay the start of the season with an agreement. So, sure, assuming Stern keeps that particular promise, the meeting that started less than an hour ago at 2 PM Eastern is crucial to saving the start of the season.
Of course, after that there might be the deadline by which they can save an 82 game season with schedule changes. Or the deadline by which the can save a 58 game season in which every team plays every other team twice. Or whatever flavor of season you want to try to salvage.
Which is part of the problem. Although each side wants the other side to believe it's now or never, there remain contingencies.
With November 1 (the scheduled start date) a mere 22 days away, it is indeed very, very late in the game for an on time start. When the last lockout was settled, it took two weeks from the point where Stern and Billy Hunter shook hands on a deal just to cross the T's and dot the I's on the actual CBA - and they didn't start free agency negotiations or training camps until all that was done. So as it stands right now, we're looking at about 8 days to simultaneously build a team AND train a team before an on time start. Can you say "epidemic of hamstring injuries"?
The most attractive contingency if no agreement can be reached today is probably to take the first two weeks of the season and play those games in April, extending the regular season by a couple of weeks. They extended the season in 1999, in addition to compressing the schedule, in order to play a 50 game season. If you figure most teams will lose about seven games with a two week delay, that leaves 75 games each that are unchanged, and relatively few that have to be rescheduled. And given that all NBA arenas have to maintain a certain amount of flexibility in April, May and June to accommodate potential playoff games, I can't imagine that this would create an insurmountable scheduling problem.
One thing worth noting, if this lockout drags on into 1999 territory such that a compressed season has to be considered, is that in 1999 the Lakers and Clippers were still playing in the Forum and the Sports Arena respectively. As the only venue that is home to two NBA teams and also happens to host an NHL team and myriad other events including the Grammy's in February, Staples Center itself will present a scheduling challenge beyond anything the NBA faced in 1999. If the NBA schedule requires major revisions, you can expect significantly more weekend day games in a re-worked Clippers schedule.
Still, as I and many others have pointed out, the two sides are so close on the money issue at this point that it would be foolish to not resolve this situation. And the very fact that the sides have met as much as they have over the last few weeks indicates a sincere desire to resolve this dispute. Even if today is not necessarily the last chance to salvage an 82 game season, it remains the last chance to start the season on time, which is a significant goal. There's little question that the dispute will cost the league some amount of public good will, and those issues increase as games are missed, whether they can be made up or not.
So here's hoping that the negotiating committees meeting today are treating this like the final deadline, even if we know it's not.