NEW YORK – The NBA is soaring higher than ever.
With a growing global reach and international players dotting most rosters, a group of marketable rising young superstars led by Stephen Curry, more competitive balance, financial stability and an upcoming infusion of $24 billion from a television deal, the league is bouncing beautifully.
The state of the game couldn't be much better. However, everyone knows good times can fade fast.
There's a pivotal play developing over the next few years that could threaten the thriving league again. As the movers and shakers in the pro basketball industry gathered this past weekend for All-Star festivities celebrating the league's past and present, there were watchful eyes on an uncertain future.
With players and owners able to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season, a labor battle looms — and players plan to be prepared.
The NBA Players Association unanimously elected LeBron James as vice president last week at its annual meeting. James' presence on the executive committee — and perhaps at the bargaining table — is a sign the union means business.
"We had a lockout before when I was in the league and our game was really good at that time, too," James, the four-time MVP and face of the sport told the Associated Press during the NBA's midseason showcase. "Hopefully, we don't have to reach that point because both sides love where we're at and what we're doing."
On the surface, it's hard to find many flaws with the league's current status.
Ratings are high, the value of franchises has exploded and Commissioner Adam Silver has taken the ball from David Stern and powered forward. Silver, who recently celebrated one year on the job, has skillfully navigated around some sticky issues, including the racial remarks made by former Clippers owner Donald Sterling that could've divided players and ended up uniting them.
Silver acted quickly in removing Sterling, and his swift punishment strengthened a relationship with players that will undoubtedly be tested in the years ahead. Those potentially crippling issues are out of sight now, and a widening international audience is tuning in to see NBA action.
Following the 2010-11 season, owners were able to negotiate a CBA that was more in their favor, cutting the players' share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to roughly 50, costing them millions in annual salaries. That contract runs through 2021, but with the economic boost — $2.6 billion per year — coming from the TV contract, players will fight harder for a larger portion of the pie.
"We want to negotiate a little better than we did last time," Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver said. "We're going to be well-equipped to stand toe-to-toe with the NBA and negotiate a fair deal. That's what we want — just a fair deal."
Silver has listened to the players on several fronts already, and he promised last weekend to take a harder look at scheduling and reducing the number of back-to-back games and the grueling, four-games-in-five-nights stretches to help keep players — "our partners," he calls them — fresh and the product crisp. Silver, too, will consider a makeover of the playoff format so that the best teams qualify.
Silver is concerned with keeping the game relevant amid stiff competition from other sports. It's vital to stay affordable and attractive to an aging population as well as the next generation of hoop fans. It's entertainment, after all, and Silver wants to keep the NBA in the center of the spotlight.
"I realize we have to earn the fans' support every day," he said. "Over the course of my business career, I've seen a lot of great businesses seemingly disappear. We don't take anything for granted."