OK, the NBA is back. Now what will it look like?
In the days leading up to Christmas – and likely through the first month of a truncated season – there will be a fair amount of hand-wringing about the quality of play. Gloom-and-doom purists will reference the last lockout preceding the 1998-99 season, which by any measure was not among the NBA’s brightest days.
In that forgettable season, the NBA was replete with quickly formed teams made up of poorly conditioned players playing an unforgiving schedule. That three-headed monster exposed a league that had outgrown many of its rules. And the second retirement of Michael Jordan left the NBA without its beacon who could always put a glow on the mounting pile of garbage.
By any measure, those arguments are irrefutable. The game’s pace was the slowest ever recorded. Offense plummeted to its lowest point in decades, with a scoring champion who missed three of every five shots he took. The Finals between the Spurs and Knicks were the basketball equivalent of watching paint dry, borne out by TV ratings that dropped a staggering 33 percent from an all-time high of 18.7 the previous year.
As in 1999, there is still just a month of prep time, the proposed schedule is nearly as challenging and Jordan remains retired. So there are certainly some parallels between now and 13 years ago to allow those told-you-so arguments to be heard again.
To which we say, hogwash. The NBA’s financial system was not nearly as broken as owners wanted us to believe, and the product isn’t, either.
As a whole, the players are better than ever – yes, better than ever – unshackled by recent rules changes tilted toward ball and player movement that have offense on a steady rise over the last decade. Free throw and 3-point percentage are at or near the highest rates ever.
Even the most cynical fan would have to admit that at the very least, the NBA is now a two-player league, with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James vying for the top of the popularity heap. And last season, neither was the scoring champion, MVP, Finals MVP or bathing in champagne in June.
Into those voids moved young bucks Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, neither of whom is old enough to rent a car, and the long-underappreciated Dirk Nowitzki, who cemented Europe’s undeniable impact on the NBA. As a result, last year’s Finals was the first in the post-Jordan era to do a double-digit rating without a top-five market entered.
Does that sound like a league that is broken?
Look, it’s understandable if you discard our viewpoint as one with rose-colored glasses. After all, our editor-in-chief maintained steadfast optimism in the face of 149 days of doomsday. (And ultimately was proven right.) So we hope to convince every Gloomy Gus that when the forecast says partly cloudy, it is also partly sunny.
Basketball-Reference.com should be acknowledged for making many of the stats used here very easy to find.
ROSTER REBUILDING: As in 1999, GMs will have just two-plus weeks to fill their available slots and will have to do so while learning new salary cap rules. But they will have two potential useful new tools at their disposal – the amnesty provision and the stretch exception, both of which have the ability to flood the market and expand player movement, adding to the feeding frenzy.
On the first day of business in 1999, there were 60 free agent signings and seven trades. The next day, there were 29 signings and four trades. And none were dummy-proof. One of the first signings was the immortal Michael “Yogi” Stewart receiving a six-year, $24 million deal from the Raptors, who also traded Chauncey Billups.
Mistakes will be made this time around, too. And with amnesty and the stretch exception in place in a fallow free agent market, they have the potential to be even bigger.
SCHEDULE: In 1999, the season began Feb. 5 and had teams playing 50 games in 89 days, or once every 1.78 days. This season, a 66-game slate will start Dec. 25 and last until April 26 – eight days later than the original end date – for one game every 1.88 days.
Not much difference, except for one. About midway through the season, there will be an All-Star break that the 1999 season did not have. The festivities in Orlando in late February cannot be moved due to hotel room commitments. That means 3-4 days off for most players, who certainly will need it.
Just FYI, the original 82-game schedule had teams playing once every 2.07 days.
CONDITIONING: When training camps open Dec. 9, players will be in much better shape than they were 13 years ago, for a number of reasons.
For starters, Europe wasn’t even in the thought process of any American player during the last lockout. As colleague A.J. Mitnick recently pointed out, approximately 10 percent of the rank and file are playing in Europe. Those with out clauses should return and breeze through their NBA training camp.
There have been far more venues stateside as well. From the Drew League in LA to the Goodman League in DC to the Hartford Pro-Am to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, players had no shortage of opportunities to stay in game shape. And that doesn’t even include the one-off exhibitions that dotted the calendar.
Compare that to the last lockout, when agents organized one game in Atlantic City best remembered for Shawn Kemp’s impersonation of the Michelin Man.
Today’s players also are much more attuned to the idea that staying in shape translates to longer careers and more money. That’s not to say there won’t be any “Biggest Loser” candidates arriving at training camp on Dec. 9, but there won’t be nearly as many.
And although it seemed like forever, this lockout was nearly two months shorter than the last one, leaving less time to lie around like a fat cat.
QUALITY OF PLAY: Jordan announced his second retirement eight days after the resolution of the last lockout and exposed all of the NBA’s warts.
The ensuing season produced a league-wide .437 shooting percentage, the worst in 33 years; a team scoring average of 91.6 ppg, the 10th straight year of decline and a drop of 4.0 ppg from the previous season, the biggest one-season drop in 28 years; a league-wide .720 free-throw percentage, the worst in 31 years; and a pace of 88.9, the lowest figure ever.
After the season, the competition committee took its head out of the sand, outlawing handchecks and forearms above the foul line, dislodging by both offense and defense in the post, chipping and bumping cutters, and backdowns of more than five seconds. Two years later, illegal defense rules were abolished, allowing teams to play zone with the exception of camping in the paint.
It took some time, but the results have been undeniable. Scoring rose for four straight years – climbing above 100 ppg – until taking a tiny dip last season. Last season’s pace was 92.1, better than any season of Chicago’s second three-peat. The league shot nearly 46 percent from the field and backed that up with better than 76 percent from the line, the best figure in 20 years.
And forget the numbers for a minute. Think about what the game has given us in terms of aesthetics. The Suns and “Seven Seconds or Less.” The Spurs, abandoning their defensive mind-set to run more. The Mavs, building a champion around a stretch-4. The growing number of teams that win with point guards looking to score.
Will there be a dropoff this season? Probably. But the league’s stats won’t fall off a cliff the way they did 13 years ago.
APPEAL: In a normal season, the hoops junkie adopts a combination of acceptance and disdain for the casual fan who comes on board on Christmas, when the season is more than one-third over. But when Christmas arrives this season, the hoops junkie and the casual fan will be starting from the same blocks – and that is a good thing.
As the Washington Post pointed out over the long weekend, there were owners who were not willing to give away the TV revenue from ABC, whose coverage begins annually with the Christmas games. That may have been a driving force in getting the sides talking again.
So when the Christmas tripleheader tips off, the casual fan will be engaged at the same time as the hoops junkie. Whether the casual fan stays engaged remains to be seen. But with a shorter season and an All-Star Weekend in place, there is a much better chance for the NBA to retain the casual fan who completely disengaged during the last lockout – and perhaps win back a few more viewers.
The lineup includes the history and tradition of the Celtics taking on the biggest-market Knicks, James and the love-hate Heat in a Finals rematch with Nowitzki and the champion Mavs, and Bryant and the Lakers facing MVP Rose and the Bulls.
If that doesn’t put an early hook in the casual fan, not much else will.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His column appears every Thursday. You can follow him on Twitter.