Innovation's last stand

The NBA and the Players Association will reconvene next week.

When the June 30 deadline passed, and NBA owners locked out players, people focused on the fact that the NBA and its players had labor trouble.

But that never struck me as the important date, because nothing much was lost then. Players typically don't get paid over the summer anyway, and the threat of missed games won't arise until -- when, mid-August perhaps? It was never likely to be a date that motivated big changes in the talks.

So the real time pressure wasn't then, and it's not early next week either. And with two sides this far apart, I guess the common assumption is that it will take the real and present danger of lost salaries and games to really get the two sides blinking.

Therefore, what is the point of next week's talks. Without crunch time, what could they really accomplish?

Then I read this, from the New Yorker's James Surowiecki, writing about the debt crisis:

You might think that there are benefits to putting negotiators under the gun. But, as the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu has shown, time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure, negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don't consider as wide a range of alternatives, and are more likely to jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Time pressure also also reduces the chances that an agreement will be what psychologists call "integrative" -- taking everyone's interests and values into account.

And suddenly I'm all for next week's pre-crunch time talks.

Talk to both sides privately about what they really want, and it's clear that this is indeed a big fight about money. But it's also a rare chance to rewrite the governing document of the league. Most of the time, if you have a new idea about how the NBA ought to run, the right answer is "sounds cool, but the only chance to do that would be in the next CBA."

This is that time. All of those ideas are in play right now. The league, for instance, really does want not just to reduce how much it pays players, but to do a smarter job of handing out the dollars to those who most get the job done. They also want to fix a problem with the way basketball-related income is calculated that, foolishly, discourages the league from investing overseas. Worthy topics! New ideas along these lines could be critical to the league's success.

The Players Association, meanwhile, has interesting concepts about how to inspire players to stay in school longer and how to preserve a middle class of players.

This is also both sides' chance to put it in writing things like how they'll address performance enhancing drugs, certain to become a central issue in every sport on the planet in the decades to come.

So, yes, if you see this purely as a fight over a pile of cash, then the big high-stakes game of chicken is likely how we'll get there. The pressure will build to a point of both sides blinking some, and there's precious little thought required in tug-of-war.

But if you see it also as a chance to integrate new ideas, to make the league's operations more intelligent, well if Carsten de Dreu knows his stuff, the last good chance for that is now, short of the deadline.