One hundred and thirty-three days have gone by since the NBA lockout began way back on July 1, and in that time, owners and players have negotiated in person more than 20 times.
Was Thursday night's session their last?
With a revised offer from the owners in hand, the players' union will call player representatives from all 30 teams back to New York either Monday or Tuesday of next week to discuss the matter further. Will the players accept the deal and end the work stoppage? Will they reject it and go back to the drawing table, despite David Stern's decree that the offers will only get worse from here on out?
With a lot on the line, we called on our lockout experts to answer the major questions at hand. Here's 5-on-5:
1. Fact or Fiction: The owners and players essentially have an agreement.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fact. The players have religion on some of the remaining system issues -- issues that I can't imagine mean nearly as much to the owners. Who cares, honestly, if the Lakers can add a backup point guard who'll cost them a fortune in luxury tax? How mad can Paul Allen be to want to cancel a season over that?
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fiction. This latest offer from the owners could very well be rejected by the players. One executive committee member told me that "in some ways, this offer is worse than the last offer.'' Another influential player in the league told me he hopes "the players reject the deal'' so they can decertify the union. The players' main problem with this offer is their belief that it restricts player movement significantly. For the players, the owners have not addressed that enough in this most recent proposal.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fact. They've essentially had an agreement for a long time. It didn't take a crystal ball to see where they would eventually land on the BRI split and system issues. But they still needed to do the dance that gets them there.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fact. The two sides, from both a monetary perspective and a system perspective, are very close. What stands in the way right now is pride. No one wants to be the side that caves. The players are hurting because they're getting screwed. The owners are hurting because they didn't totally destroy the union. Both sides are miserable. Sounds like a deal.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. There will be a massive push from various corners of the NBA universe to turn this deal down. It's already started, actually. And everything I've heard in the wake of Thursday night's proposal suggests that the player reps want to heed those calls. Players still have to have the steel to resist the urge to cave and check "no" on those ballots when it really counts if they're so unhappy with this deal, but overwhelming disappointment in the player ranks about this offer immediately filled the air. Nothing has been settled yet.
2. Fact or Fiction: The players' decision is the biggest one yet.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fiction. The theatrics of it are overblown. Ignoring rhetoric, the two sides have done nothing but move closer and closer together. One way or another they'll hammer out these final few remaining points, while David Stern's ultimatums will either keep getting pushed back or cause only temporary breaks in the talks.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fact. I could be wrong because I did not foresee David Stern suspending his ultimatum this week, so who knows? Maybe he'll do it again. But it seems like if the players reject this deal, the owners will indeed drop to their 47 percent/rollback/flex cap offer, the union will decertify (or issue a disclaimer of interest), and the season will be thrown into serious jeopardy.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fact. Since the stakes rise over time, this is their biggest decision thus far. But it's possible there are bigger decisions yet to come.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fact. If the players say no they're saying no to the season. They're also going blindly into the wilderness of decertification without any assurances that they'll ever be able to get the same deal, let alone a better one, from the owners. That's a huge leap of faith for the rank and file. It might pay off, but it could also be disastrous. A known evil is usually better than an unknown future.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. Because if this thing actually goes to a player vote next week, there will inevitably be a section of players that winds up caving and voting for the deal against their instincts because they so badly want to play and know that voting against it greatly increases the likelihood of a canceled season. Which is something lots of guys can't stomach financially or emotionally. It's easy to scream to the heavens about this deal until that ballot is in your hands. Complicating matters further: Turning this offer down would mean the players believe they can get a better deal eventually ... even though the available evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Since their leverage count still basically sits at zero.
3. Fact or Fiction: This is truly the owners' last, best offer.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fiction. Not buying it. All the other big and final rhetoric has dissolved, and this can too. The league may mess around at 47 percent of BRI for a time to show who's boss, but the owners can offer whatever they want, and they have showed time and again that they are OK with offering 50. So long as a season can be played, I suspect the players will be able to get half the revenues.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fiction. I write that word with hesitation because it seems absurd that the league would offer another toothless ultimatum, but if the players ask for just a couple more "tweaks,'' why blow up the entire season (potentially) when there is still plenty of time left to negotiate en route to a 60-some-odd-game season?
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fiction. If the players say "no" and counter, they can still meet in the middle of next week, Stern's "we're done negotiating" notwithstanding. And if they say "no" and file a decertification petition, this could all come to a head again in January.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fact. The hard-liners have been unhappy with the deal Stern has been negotiating all along. The fact that the players aren't moving on their so-called "concessions" should sway enough owners to the hard-liners' cause. Unless players start winning a court battle or two, I doubt they'll ever see 50-50 again.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. I finally buy it. The only way it can prove to be fiction is if the disgruntled players out there file their decertification petition Monday and it has the desired effect of creating sufficient uncertainty among the owners and real uneasiness about the prospect of this labor battle moving to the courtroom, thus nudging the owners to budge off that hard line at last. Chad, mind you, spells out beautifully in answer No. 2 just how tricky that scenario is.
4. Fact or Fiction: The owners care more about profit than balance.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fact and Fiction. BRI is destined for 50. That combines with revenue sharing to address profit as much as the league can. So they care about profit immensely, but have the progress they needed. Meanwhile, plenty of owners really do care about competitive balance, and the league has shown a willingness to fight like crazy for the harder cap they really seem to believe will deliver it, despite strong evidence that payroll is just not a big driver.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fact. The owners' competitive balance argument is flat-out wrong. Strong management, not payroll, is how you win in this league. San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix, OKC have all had great runs recently, while a big spender like New York was horrible for the past decade. The owners want to stop losing money, period.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fact, of course -- but that doesn't mean they don't care somewhat about balance. The revenue split helps determine the league's profits, and the revenue sharing and luxury tax help spread the wealth. The rest is about player mobility and the middle class.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fact. The real reason owners don't like LeBron James? He gave up millions for the chance to play on a team he thought could win it all. The owners -- especially the small-market ones -- don't get it. If hard-line owners were forced to choose (and right now they're having their cake and eating it too), they would take the money 100 out of 100 times.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. Although the two concepts are intertwined far more than advertised. There are a dozen or so small-market owners out there who don't even want to take a 50/50 BRI split because they believe that a 47 percent share for the players will greatly enhance their chances of winning a championship. But they've also taken that hard-line stance because they want to greatly increase their chances of being profitable, even if they're wrong about the competitive balance part. The owners want guaranteed profits and a more level playing field if they can get away with it although I find the notion that owners think any business in 2011 is entitled to a can't-lose system to be one of the more outrageous things we've seen over four consistently outrageous months.
5. Fact or Fiction: We'll have a 72-game season starting Dec. 15.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fiction. I think it'll start just a little later than that. It is the nature of these talks that they just keep going and going. Surely there will be a few more to hammer out the finest points of the systems issues, and to allow players to miss their first paychecks, which will help hard-line owners feel satisfied they have done what they can do.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fiction. Just an educated hunch, but I get the feeling we're headed toward decertification.
Larry Coon, ESPN.com: Fact. But just barely fact -- and to get there, Derek Fisher has to sell it to the player reps as the best deal they're going to get, with no better option on the horizon. This could still easily blow up, and it's still pretty close to a coin flip. I'd call it a 51/49 split.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Fiction. The rational thing to do is for the two sides to shake hands, split their billions and play ball. But human beings are rarely rational creatures when it comes to bargaining -- and the NBA owners and players left rationality behind months ago.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. Pains me to say it -- literally makes me hurt to type it -- but I don't see the sides striking a deal by next week. Am I secretly hoping to trigger one of Bill Simmons' famous reverse jinxes by saying so out loud? Of course. But everyone agrees that 30 days are needed to start the season after a handshake. And I just can't envision a handshake by Nov. 15. Sorry.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Marc Stein and Henry Abbott are senior writers for ESPN.com. Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Chad Ford writes for ESPN.com and ESPN Insider. Larry Coon is a special contributor to ESPN.com.• Follow ESPN's NBA coverage on Twitter | On Facebook