NEW YORK – A pivotal stretch in the NBA lockout begins Tuesday, when full bargaining committees return to the table.
That could move players and owners closer to a new labor deal, but it also could send things in the wrong direction with time running down if more voices in the room leads to discord.
Any setback now would diminish hopes of the preseason opening without delay.
"The reality is our training camp would be scheduled to start on Oct. 3rd I believe, and so if there's any intention of trying to get that started on time, then we both have to figure some things out very quickly," players' association president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said last week. "That's just the reality of the situation."
The process toward getting a new collective bargaining agreement seems to have gotten back on track after three meetings in the past two weeks between top negotiators from each side.
They decided their full committees have to return before they can go any further, so the owners' labor relations committee and the union's executive committee were told to come to New York for a session Tuesday, and perhaps even Wednesday. That should more than double the number of people in the room from last week, when there were nine.
On Thursday, both sides will report back to their memberships, with owners meeting in Dallas and players headed to Las Vegas, where more than 40 are taking part this week in a series of games at the Impact Basketball academy.
If things go poorly in New York, the message may include warnings that camps might have to be postponed, even though Commissioner David Stern said last week he didn't expect any vote to be taken among owners Thursday. Nor would he say what he needs to hear before then to know if the schedule is in jeopardy.
"We have no conditions of any kind," he said.
Stern hasn't revealed much else, as both sides vowed to keep details of the process quiet until a deal is done. Clearly intent on sticking to his word, he gave more than a half dozen one-word answers during two brief meetings with reporters last week.
That has created a guessing game about how far along things really are, not only among fans and the media, but even with players themselves.
"I wish that I was in a position to say we knew when NBA players would be back on the court and we're getting close, but we're just not at the point where we can make those type of statements," Fisher said. "It wouldn't be fair to the players, it wouldn't be fair to the fans to get any false sentiments or hopes up at this point."
It's even unclear if any new proposals have been made since owners locked players out at the end of the day June 30. Fisher has said there haven't, but Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, the lead negotiator for the owners, indicated last Thursday that there have.
The only certainty is that any adjustments to the 2011-12 calendar would have to be made sometime by late this month. The first postponements came on Sept. 24 during the 1998 lockout, when camps were scheduled to open Oct. 5.
Large groups from each side haven't met since late June, when players expressed frustration that owners were still sticking to points from their original proposal from back in January 2010. That included changes to the current salary cap system along with pay cuts and shorter contracts for the players.
The process has been more cordial, even if not significantly more productive, with smaller groups. But Fisher said expanding them will allow both sides to know how to proceed going forward.
"To think about where we were July 1 to now in terms of just the process itself, not what's being discussed and what type of deal it will end up being, just the process itself, we've put in a lot of time," he said. "And we're going to try to continue that process and see if we can get a fair deal done as soon as possible."
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney