NBA BASKETBALL is back, and commissioner David Stern insists better than before. Maybe it won't be noticed right away, but Stern said the "tortured journey" of this 161-day lockout will prove to be worth it.

Stern announced that owners and players ratified a new collective bargaining agreement yesterday, the final step to ending the 5-month lockout and paving the way for training camps and free agency to open today.

The 10-year deal promises owners savings of perhaps a quarter billion dollars a year but largely leaves intact the soft salary cap system that the players fought hard to maintain.

The deal puts an end to nearly 2 years of difficult negotiations that resulted in the second shortened season in NBA history. A 66-game schedule will begin on Christmas and run through April 26, forcing every team to play on three straight nights at least once.

Noteworthy

* A person familiar with the situation says free agent Caron Butler is leaving the Dallas Mavericks to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. The person spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not been announced. TNT's David Aldridge reported it's a 3-year, $24 million deal.

*  Center Greg Oden, Portland's often-injured former No. 1 draft pick, will sign the Trail Blazers' $8.9 million qualifying offer today, Oden's agent said. The Blazers open the season at home against Philadelphia on Dec. 26.

*  Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko will re-sign with the Detroit Pistons, a person familiar with the situation told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deals have not been announced.

* Shane Battier, saying he only wants "a winning role" at this point in his career, announced that he would sign with the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat.

* The Boston Celtics have a deal in place to acquire veteran guard Keyon Dooling in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dooling's agent tells the Associated Press.