Is this NBA lockout -- the league's first since a similar dispute shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games -- really about ensuring that competitive balance?
Or if owners agree to a new system that doesn't have a restrictive hard salary cap and rules that allow small-market teams to keep their star players, is it simply a play for more money?
And will any conceivable system ever really save owners from themselves?
The NHL missed an entire season in 2004-05 in the name of a new owner-friendly system, and yet, soon after, those same owners went looking for every loophole they could find in the pursuit of a title.
The NHL's hard cap ensured small-market teams could again compete with wealthy Detroit, Toronto and the New York Rangers. But it also has seen Chicago dismantle its championship team just months after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, and the league next summer could be right back in a standoff over a new labor agreement.
"As athletes, we don't believe that competitive balance is completely decided by an economic system," Derek Fisher, Lakers guard and NBA Players Association president, told reporters last week. "We believe there are tons of other variables. We cannot just address competitive balance through the control or reduction of players' salary. Those things don't create basketball wins."
No system will stop NBA general managers and owners from unwise drafting or silly spending, although owners seek shorter player contracts that aren't fully guaranteed in the final years in any new deal as a way to protect themselves from injuries or their own bad decisions.
"I don't think that's something you can legislate," said Charles Grantham, who as its executive director negotiated the players' union through four historic labor agreements from 1980 to 1995 and now advises prospective sports franchise owners and teaches at Seton Hall and NYU. "Competitive balance, that's something you work for. The draft helps. The Larry Bird exception [which gives teams an advantage to re-sign their own players] helps. But when you start talking about management and management of those assets, that's an entirely different ballgame. Who can build a team? Who can identify the best players, attract the best players and keep them?
"A team like Minnesota, they've got some quality players, but how many high draft picks have they had the last several years? Whether they've made the right choices, that is another question. I'm sorry, but they've had the opportunity to build a pretty good nucleus. That's not the system."