If there is going to be a 2011-12 season, it will be a shortened one.
As NBA commissioner David Stern said last Friday, after owners and the players union failed to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, “it's not practical, possible or prudent to have a full season now.”
League officials have yet to announce a contingency plan now that the traditional 82-game campaign is chopped liver. But if a deal gets ironed out in time to save a season, we're now guaranteed to see the second shortened season in 14 years. In 1999, the NBA played a 50-game season, cramming it into three months after starting on Feb. 5. It was a year that put significant stress and strain on teams.
This year, games have been canceled through November. Most teams have lost 15 or 16 contests, so a 60- or 65-game season is still possible. Barely. But even a 60-game season still could pose similar problems that cropped up in '99.
So how will it all play out? Here are five pertinent questions about a shortened season.
Which teams will benefit most?
In a way, older contenders such as Dallas, Boston, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers could stand to play 17, 22 or 32 fewer games. But not if stretches of that shortened schedule comes in the form of three games in three nights as it did in '99. That takes a toll on old legs. It means young teams like the Thunder, Bulls and Heat seemingly will have an advantage.
What will happen to performance and game play?
In '99, the league was forced to hold abbreviated training camps and cut back on preseason games, limiting each team to just two. It left players ill-prepared for the start of the season, leading to injuries and sloppy play. At 183.2 points per game, the 1999 season was the lowest scoring season since the league adopted the 24-second shot clock in 1954. Teams like the Thunder, that return their core rotation from last year, might dodge the sloppiness. But teams incorporating new coaches and numerous new additions could struggle.
How much will it cost?
Each month of the six-month NBA season reportedly is worth about $800 million to owners and players. Now that November has been wiped out, that's nearly $1 billion that the league will never recoup. That figure might continue piling up, which means the labor dispute has reached a ridiculous point. The two sides are now losing more money than they would if they simply made the final necessary concession on the thorniest sticking point and met in the middle on the split of the league's revenues.
Will the fans still show their support?
Interest in the NBA product clearly isn't diminishing in Oklahoma City. The Thunder has sold out its allotment of season tickets and has started a waiting list. But loyalty might not linger throughout the league. If games continue to be canceled, there is a serious risk of alienating thousands, if not millions, of fans. Since teams secure season ticket renewals in the spring, league-wide attendance still could be strong. But casual fans could boycott and deliver a blow to the league's merchandise and single-game ticket sales, as well as viewership.
How will the eventual champion be remembered?
The Spurs were ripped to shreds by critics for their championship in 1999. Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson led the charge, saying San Antonio's title needed an asterisk. Words like tainted and illegitimate could certainly crop up again in 2012, especially if, say, Miami takes home the championship. But what if it's the Thunder? Those in Thunder territory wouldn't care one bit. But it'd be a shame if the franchise and its fans couldn't enjoy Oklahoma City's first NBA title without critics discrediting it.