Now that the high-priced free agents have settled into new surroundings, the rookies have ended their holdouts and baseball is in its waning days, it is time for the National Basketball Association to begin.

As usual, most of the news, controversy and uncertainty took place off the court in the offseason. Once Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Marques Johnson, George Gervin and Magic Johnson start performing Friday, everything will seem normal, even if the league continues to face serious problems.

The threat of financial disaster -- many believe 18 of the 23 teams lost money last season -- still exists. While salaries escalate, attendance declines and television ratings tread water, it doesn't take a financial wizard to realize that it's a formula for economic disaster.

The familiar cry of the rich getting richer continues. Los Angeles will pay a power forward $800,000 a year to satisfy its only need, but financially drained Kansas City lost its two leading scorers in the free-agent market.

There has been the annual adjustment of the rules to increase the entertainment value of a product many people are tiring of, and, of course, a couple of coaches have moved.

When the league's 36th season finally nears an end next June, it is safe to assume that a perennial power -- Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles or Milwaukee -- again will be playing for the championship.

Off the court, the latest -- and most distinctive -- version of free agency was tried during the summer and there are still coast-to-coast repercussions.

The Lakers apparently strengthened their weakness at power forward by signing Mitch Kupchak for nearly $8 million, leaving the money-strapped Washington Bullets and coach Gene Shue without one of their most popular players.

The New Jersey Nets finally moved into their new arena in the Meadowlands. With the assets obtained from selling 11,000 season tickets, they were able to plunge into the free-agent market for one of the league's most formidable guard lines. By agreeing to pay Otis Birdsong $1 million a year and Ray Williams $500,000, the Nets can challenge neighboring New York for a playoff spot and a large share of the entertainment dollar.

"This is the first time we've been able to afford to get involved with free agents," Bob MacKinnon, the Nets general manager, said. "This is an untapped area and we could become one of the most successful franchises in the league."

While New Jersey and Los Angeles were improving, such struggling teams as Kansas City and Indiana lost key players. The Kings lost Birdsong to the Nets and Scott Wedman to Cleveland; the Pacers' seven-footer, James Edwards, defected to the Cavaliers and Dudley Bradley went to Phoenix. The Bullets lost Kupchak but signed guard John Lucas.

"Some teams, like L.A., can go out and buy whatever they need," Rod Thorn, the Chicago Bulls general manager, said. "But the rest of us, well, I'm worried about some of the franchises surviving."

Free spending by a few teams is hurting many of the less fortunate teams and, if the trend continues, it could kill several franchises.

"It only takes a couple of franchises making questionable business decisions to affect everybody," Jerry Colangelo, the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, said.

Those not immediately hurt are the teams already near the top. Defending champion Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, content to play pat hands, didn't disturb their rosters in the offseason. But eventually, as happened to the Bullets, their stars will age and those teams, too, will have to rebuild.

"Not too many super players were available this year, but wait until some centers are on the market," John Steinmiller, Milwaukee's vice president of business operations, said. "This time a lot of teams were able to get something in return, but it may not be like that anymore."

Most general managers are more concerned with the financial ramifications of free agency without compensation than in mismatches on the court. Last year only 10 of the 23 teams had winning records. Worse, probably only five showed a profit.

According to league sources, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle and Boston made money. But many teams lost more than $1 million.

Ted Stepien, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, admitted his franchise lost $3 million. Yet he was the freest spender in the free agent market and has 13 players with guaranteed contracts trying to earn jobs on a 12-man roster.

"It was the only choice we had," Don Delaney, the Cavalier coach and general manager, said. "We had to buy the free agents or play and get beat with third- and fourth-round draft choices . . . That's the nature of the game; you spend a lot and try to win or you spend a little and lose a lot. Professional basketball isn't a highly profitable business."

MacKinnon said several teams had been for sale all summer, but no takers had been found.

The players can't be faulted for getting as much as they can for their talents.

"I went into the free-agent thing with an open mind," said Wedman, who tripled his yearly salary to $700,000. "I didn't want to leave Kansas City, but if I was going to, I made up my mind to go to the team that made the best offer."

Many team officials thought cable television might solve the financial crisis, but its benefits might not be widespread soon enough to save some franchises.

Larry Fleisher, long-time legal counsel for the NBA Players Association, admits that salaries have dramatically increased because of the new free-agent system, bringing them to an all-time high in professional sports.

"Now the average must be at least $200,000 a year," he said. "But that's not the reason teams are losing money. The teams in the red are the ones who can't generate enough revenue."

When the players get on the court this weekend, fans will see some changes.

There will be no more constant parades to the foul line. Fouls in the front court and back court will be treated the same and there will be no more three-to-make-two and two-to-make-one situations. The players will have to do it right the first time.

And the league has strict new guidelines that supposedly will make zone defenses easier to detect.

There were only two coaching changes. Larry Brown went from UCLA to New Jersey, where he will have another ACC North with Duke's Mike Gminski, North Carolina's Mike O'Koren and Maryland's Buck Williams and Albert King. Kevin Loughery has moved from New Jersey to Atlanta, replacing Hubie Brown.

Washington traded Elvin Hayes to Houston and San Antonio dealt James Silas to Cleveland for draft choices; New Jersey dealt Mike Newlin to New York for Mike Woodson, and Dallas traded Bill Robinzine to Utah for Allan Bristow and Wayne Cooper. None of the trades is considered major.

At Seattle, Gus Williams returns from a year layoff because of a contract squabble, and Lonnie Shelton is back after missing the season because of a wrist surgery. They could get the Sonics back near the top.

The major absentees will be Wes Unseld (retired), Bob McAdoo and Bob Dandridge (unsigned free agents) and Paul Westphal (unsigned and injured).

Some new players will have an immediate impact. Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman will make the Mavericks fun and Isiah Thomas will enliven the Pistons.

The other rookies who are expected to be starters are Williams in New Jersey, Dan Schayes in Utah, Al Wood in Atlanta and Herb Williams in Indiana.