As NBA soars on and off floor, trouble could be looming

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NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 mid-season 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.

"The game is bigger than ever," said James, Cleveland's star now in his 12th season. "The money that's generated is bigger than ever and our athletes and our guys are doing what they need to do on the floor and off it to represent the game at a high level. So hopefully we don't have to come to the point that we were in 2011-12, when we had the lockout. The process is going to get started and we don't have to come to that."

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," said Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver. "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."

It's not like Silver isn't paying attention.

The commissioner 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 told The AP. "Over the course of my business career I've seen a lot of great businesses seemingly disappear. We don't take anything for granted and we realize that especially when it comes to the changing world of television that we have to focus on what's happening on tablets and smartphones and how young people are consuming media."

Silver sees other ways the NBA can increase profit margins.

He's the first commissioner of a major professional sports league in the U.S. to publicly support legalizing sports betting outside of Nevada. He wants Congress to change the federal ban on sports gambling and craft a structure that allows states to legalize and regulate betting.

That could bring billions more in revenue to the league, though it also could create challenges to protect the game's integrity, last tested by the scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy in 2007.

On the court, the game has been pure basketball bliss.

There has been a return to team play with the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks - the conference leaders at the break - picking up where the San Antonio Spurs left off in last year's Finals when their selfless style dismantled the Miami Heat.

Teams are breaking away from isolation play and trying to copy San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich's pace-and-space system. Leading the way is a pair of Popovich's coaching protégées, Golden State's Steve Kerr and Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, whose emphasis on ball movement is spreading rapidly.

"Five guys touching the ball and playing defense together," Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins said. "It's the way basketball was meant to be played."

The hope, for now, is that the togetherness continues, but both sides sense a bigger game coming off the court in 2017.

"We'll take care of that once we get there," reigning MVP Kevin Durant said. "We're preparing now for anything."

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