By Jonathan Crowl (@jonathancrowl)
Editor’s Note: This is the second-part of our NBA season preview series. To read the first part of the series, “How to Pick a Favorite Team,” click here.
So much to talk about, so little time. The NBA’s hurried collective bargaining agreement left just a month’s time for free agency, blockbuster trades, training camps and endless speculation. It’s been an exciting time, and the resulting 66-game season is going to be the litmus test by which some of the offseason’s significant events will be measured. Not that that’s necessarily fair in all cases, since such a condensed schedule has reshaped the dynamics of the season in ways that would be jarring even to Dolly Parton herself. Nevertheless, the show must go on. Part II of the Recess NBA season preview series provides a rundown of the big stories coming out of the offseason, and how they affect the basketball you watch in the months to come.
The most important thing to know about the lockout is that everyone’s sick of talking about it, Particularly basketball-related income and how it’s divided up among millionaires and billionaires. A handful of greedy, penny-pinching owners are the primary culprits of a delayed start to the NBA season, which is ultimately all any basketball fan cares about. Small-market teams wanted to fatten their bottom-line with revenue sharing and reduced player salaries. They got the bulk of what they wanted. Whatever. Now we can watch basketball. Like I said, all that anyone really cares about is that the lockout is over.
The Compressed NBA Schedule
The new regular-season schedule aims to minimize revenue losses and preserve TV exposure and its coveted ad revenue — and to preserve the tempting three-game slate on Christmas Day (now expanded to five games and sure to nab killer ratings as the NBA’s post-lockout coming-out party). The result is 66 games packed into four months, a rough average of one game every two days. For basketball players, that’s a red-line pace. Teams will play a lot of games back-to-back and will sometimes be called on to play three games in three nights. Rest assured that this will lead to more injuries, particularly among older players. (Guys like Kobe Bryant, with high mileage on them and a history of small, nagging injuries, are going to find it much harder to let those injuries properly heal — the pace of the season will be a constant strain. I’m serious about Kobe — he’ll take a dive this season. An ongoing divorce and the start of the post-Phil Jackson era won’t help him, but Kobe seems to strain a tendon or ligament every other day, and that’s in a normal season. He’ll miss games, team chemistry will suffer, and Kobe’s aging body won’t be able to make the comeback.)
The other consequence is greatly reduced practice time, which hurts every team as well as the overall quality of NBA basketball. It’s worse for rookies trying to learn the ropes of the professional game, players on new teams and teams with new coaches. How teams handle their limited time off will also be important — despite the insane pace of the schedule, players will still need days off to recover both physically and mentally.
Ultimately, the condensed schedule is worst for aging teams like the Boston Celtics, which won’t be able to recover physically from the constant onslaught of games, and for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, which has a new head coach and a number of projected starters who have never played with their teammates. By contrast, a team like the Chicago Bulls will have an advantage in the regular season thanks to a young roster that has been by-and-large retained from last season.
The effects of this shortened season could be seen into the playoffs, where slow-to-congeal teams may finally hit their stride. The last time the NBA had a lockout, prior to the 1998-99 season, the New York Knicks — which had installed three new starters onto the team before the start of the season — needed a late regular-season surge to make it into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference No. 8 seed. The Knicks went on to win the Eastern Conference before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
The lockout was often portrayed as a legacy-maker for David Stern, who has been the NBA’s commissioner since 1984 and is now approaching retirement. For all the good Stern has done in expanding the league’s reach and popularity both in the United States and around the world, the last half-decade of his tenure has been marked by controversy. The NBA lockout was often viewed as Stern’s chance to wrest power from the players and put it back in the hands of the league. In the end, we learned the extent to which Stern has lost his clout with players and owners alike. The commish spent most of the lockout trying to appease the owners and get them all to agree with one another — something Stern wouldn’t have stood for in his younger years. Overall, Stern has been an excellent commissioner for the league, but the lockout showed us the NBA is ready to move beyond its longtime front-man.
Someday, when a biographer writes the life story about Stern, a chapter of the book will be dedicated to Chris Paul. To try and simplify a complex story, the for-sale New Orleans Hornets — which had Paul under contract — were purchased by the league office last season in hopes that time would produce an acceptable owner. This was the first time the league had owned one of its teams, and it created a huge conflict of interest. Since the other teams in the league all owned a portion of the New Orleans Hornets, all of them wanted a say in roster moves because they affected the team’s bottom-line. So when the Hornets’ general manager tried to trade Paul — who planned to leave New Orleans after his contract expired at the end of this season — to the Lakers in exchange for a decent package of players, owners guffawed and demanded Stern reject the trade. He acquiesced, setting off a tidal wave of criticisms and accusations of collusion.
The Hornets eventually got a Stern-approved, and better, trade package from the Los Angeles Clippers. (Please, oh please, click this link and share a really hard laugh at the expense of the traded players’ facial expressions in that main photo. They look like they’re holding up prison jumpsuits! I think Chris Kaman spent the offseason huddled in a spider hole.) But Stern’s questionable involvement in team affairs remains unprecedented in modern American sports, and it showed the degree to which team owners have him in their pockets.
The New-Look Clippers
Ahh, yes, about the Clippers. Recess co-editor Mike Schaefer literally shuddered when I said they’d be a focus of this piece. Said Schaefer: “I‘m so sick of the Clippers already. So much hype about a 50-win team that won’t get to the second round.” Ignoring the fact that 50 wins in a 66-game regular season would be an outstanding record, I’m more optimistic about the Clippers. At the very least, they’ve already cemented themselves as this year’s turnaround team for the quick work they’ve done to rebuild their roster.
The trade for Chris Paul (and his weak knee, which is worth noting but not liability enough to lower his value) was a big first step. But then the Clippers re-signed defensive big-man DeAndre Jordan to a long-term deal, upgraded at small forward with the signing of Caron Butler, and stole Chauncey Billups from the rest of the league by winning a silent auction with a $2 million bid — a savings unmatched by any after-Christmas sale. Combine that with budding superstar Blake Griffin, and you’ve got an impressive starting lineup.
Suddenly, the Clippers have a formidable starting lineup with two of the top 12 players in the league. They won’t win the NBA title this year, but they’re a top three team in the Western Conference between Dallas and Oklahoma City, and we’re spotting Dallas its starting position on account of their recent NBA title. No, I didn’t forget to mention the Lakers. Barring a trade for Dwight Howard, the Lakers are now the lesser of the two NBA teams in L.A.
The Superstar Arms Race
The dust is starting to settle in the race to acquire discontent superstars, if only because most of them have found homes — at least for the moment. Last year, the Knicks went out and pulled Carmelo Anthony from Denver. The Nets followed suit by getting Deron Williams from Utah. Although one of the promises coming out of the NBA lockout was that players would not have as much power in choosing when to leave and to which team they are traded, Chris Paul immediately bolted New Orleans for the Clippers — not his top choice, by any means, but still the major market and supporting cast he wanted.
The big question mark now is Dwight Howard, who has a list of teams he wants to be traded for and has publicly wavered on what he actually wants. (Yes, that whole bit about players not controlling their destiny really came to fruition.) The Lakers have the means to make a trade but have already upset Kobe Bryant once, which is important because the Lakers front office does not yet realize that Kobe’s officially an injury-prone player with declining skills and a soon-to-be bad contract.
While they ponder their best move, Howard is pondering his. Meanwhile, teams like Dallas, Oklahoma City and Chicago are hoping that deep rosters can overcome loaded talent on the front end. That was the case in last year’s finals, when the Mavericks drubbed the Heat’s Big Three (more of a Big 2.5, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue). A brutal schedule may once again favor teams that make an investment in their bench.
Jonathan Crowl is a writer and co-editor of Recess Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancrowl.