The current state of professional basketball was summed up rather fittingly on the biggest day of anticipation the NBA calendar has to offer.
At 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, a studio show airing on NBA TV was supposed to spark the unveiling of the league-wide schedule for the 2011-12 season. Instead, the announcement that typically triggers excitement over another year was pre-empted by WNBA basketball.
For 12 real-time minutes, fans were forced to watch the Indiana Fever and Atlanta Dream wrap up what perhaps is normally a riveting 84-74 final. Somewhere in that window, someone in New York finally gave the green light to release the schedule on NBA.com.
But the delay was the irony of all ironies.
One way or another, the NBA seems to be stuck in an indefinite holding pattern. Tuesday's unintentionally satirical release of the schedule for a season that might never happen only drove home that point.
When the NBA TV show finally started, host Matt Winer began by calling the release “admittedly an optimistic exercise.”
Under normal circumstances, the Oklahoma City Thunder could puff out its chest as one of a handful of the league's television darlings. The NBA and its television partners penciled the Thunder in for 27 nationally televised games. But a box of erasers might soon be needed with the league wrapped up in a labor dispute that has forged a near three-week-long lockout and threatened to cancel some or all of the upcoming season.
Because owners and players are so far apart on an agreement, there are hardly any observers who believe the NBA season will start on time. The possibility of forfeited games not only puts a damper on news like the Thunder's nationally televised season opener at the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 1, but it also creates confusion over how the league might handle the schedule in the event that games are indeed lost.
An NBA spokesman declined comment on the subject Tuesday since the league is still months shy of being faced with that reality.
But it was Sept. 24, 1998 when the league began cancelling portions of the season the last time it was stuck in this stalemate. During that lockout, the NBA cancelled 24 exhibition games and indefinitely postponed training camps. Three weeks later, the league cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season. By Oct. 28, 1998, the first full month of the 1998-99 season was forfeited.
Although negotiations have yet to resume since the work stoppage began July 1, the two sides are expected to reconvene in the coming weeks. How long it takes them to strike a deal will determine what happens with the schedule. For example, if the league has an agreement in place by early- to mid-September, this season could go on as business as usual. But if the dispute drags on into late September and October, training camp, the preseason schedule and the start of the regular season will be in jeopardy.
In the 1998-1999 lockout, the two sides didn't reach a deal until Jan. 6, the day before the deadline to save the season. But by that point, the NBA could only salvage a 50-game season, and the original schedule had to be trashed so revamped and shortened team schedules could be put in place for a season that started Feb. 5.
Where things get tricky if games are lost is settling on a system that maintains fairness. The schedule's current setup sees teams play 82 games, 41 at home and 41 on the road. Teams play opponents from opposite conferences twice each season, once at home and once on the road, and play the remaining intra-conference rivals either three or four times.
If a partial schedule has to be used, the league must keep balance so that teams won't gain an unfair advantage such as additional home games or fewer games against teams in their own conference. Such benefits could have damaging effects on the game, wrecking the tiebreaker system for postseason positioning in the short term and ruining the season's credibility in the long term.
On Tuesday, the cloud of confusion and uncertainty with the schedule overshadowed statewide anticipation for what could be a championship season for the Thunder. Rather than enjoying the usual ecstasy of finally eyeing the home opener — Nov. 4 against Indiana — fans can't be sure if anything next season is what it appears.
The Thunder already has begun informing its season-ticket holders of its plan to offer refunds with interest if games are ultimately lost. The organization also is allowing season ticket members to keep their money on their accounts as a credit that also is eligible for interest.
The Thunder also announced on Tuesday that it is scheduled to play a seven-game preseason schedule. OKC is tentatively scheduled to play New Orleans on Oct. 17 in Wichita, Kan., in what is considered a home game and will face Denver in its annual preseason tilt in Tulsa on Oct. 21. The Thunder also is scheduled to play two exhibition games inside Oklahoma City Arena, first hosting Charlotte on Oct. 14 before wrapping up its preseason slate against San Antonio on Oct. 27.
A look at a few highlights of the Thunder’s 2011-12 schedule.
* The Thunder is scheduled for 27 nationally televised games across the ESPN (nine), TNT (eight), NBA TV (eight) and ABC (two) networks.
* The Thunder is one of only two nationally televised games scheduled for opening night on Nov. 1. OKC will travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers.
* The home opener is Nov. 4 against Indiana.
* Kobe Bryant and the Lakers make two visits to Oklahoma City, the first on Wednesday, Nov. 23 and the second on Sunday, April 8.
* Blake Griffin and the L.A. Clippers make two visits to Oklahoma City, the first on March 21 and the second on April 11.
* The Thunder will host a New Year’s Eve game for the fourth consecutive season. This year, the Thunder will play Phoenix at 7 p.m.
* The longest home stand is five games, from Dec. 29 through Jan. 8. The Thunder will play Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, Houston and San Antonio during that stretch.
* The longest road trip is four games. But the Thunder has three four-game trips, one in December, one in January and one in February.
* The Thunder’s home schedule includes 13 Friday games, 10 Sunday games, nine Wednesday games, four Tuesday games, three Monday games, one Thursday game and one Saturday game.
* No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers come to town on March 9.
* The Thunder will not play a Christmas Day game this year.
* The Thunder-Celtics game on Jan. 16 will be featured as the first game of a TNT double-header on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
* The Thunder is scheduled to play 19 back-to-back games. The team had 17 last season.
*All Thunder games that are not shown on TNT or ABC will be broadcast on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
BY DARNELL MAYBERRY