"Basketball never stops."
That was the slogan Nike tided us over with as the NBA hurtled toward oblivion and top earners like Kevin Durant became staples at playgrounds and rec centers near you. If the league was screwed, it wasn't because of basketball. The players were ready, and they weren't waiting.
Once the 2011-12 campaign got underway, Nike tellingly never changed the tense. It wasn't "basketball never stopped." It still wouldn't stop.
This made sense, on the surface. Now that the NBA was up and running again, of course basketball was on.
However unintentionally, though, it provided a sardonic commentary on the season ahead.
The standard 82-game season is, according to everyone who doesn't make money off of the number of games played, too long.
There was some faint hope that a lockout-shortened season might lead to better basketball. This view failed to take into account the havoc wrought by a lack of preparation, and in some cases, poor physical conditioning.
Yet part of the grand compromise that ended the lockout was a fittingly demonic 66-game season—engineered precisely so players would only miss one paycheck.
The result has been the worst of both worlds—too many games crammed into too little time. Players who came into the season a step behind their usual selves getting no chance to catch their breath.
Quality of play aside—there's every reason to believe it will pick up, if everyone doesn't go down with injury first—this environment is hardly ideal for fans. "Basketball never stops" has been unpleasantly accurate, with each night packed with more action than even the most devoted League Pass junkie can keep track of.
Rather than drawing us in closer than ever, it makes for nearly automatic burnout. There's no way to casually enjoy the NBA this year without feeling like you're always in the middle of missing something. It makes fantasy hoops especially vertiginous and eventful, probably in a good way. But it's darn hard to stay on top of this league.
The losers, in addition to fans who end up alienated from their sport, are the small-market teams, the curiosities.
For better or worse, the so-called "meaningless" part of the regular season has often been a chance for League Pass to do its real work, to let unheralded teams gain notoriety and players who start the year below the radar get some intermittent exposure. It's where, in this age of increased game availability and web-based conversance with the entire league, trivial games and young players started to earn their stripes. It's where buzz was born, making teams popular faster and allowing the league to get further away from the same old major-market titans.
This year? Forget it.
Timeline-wise, we're already coming up on the All-Star break, after which the race for the playoffs begin in earnest. Between the need to catch up with last year's contenders and to survey the 2012 field, the curiosities are getting squeezed out.
For some, this won't pose any sort of problem. The players, too, will get paid either way.
But it's ironic that the players agreed to push themselves harder and risk injury more than usual so they could miss out on a minimum of money. So far, this season has shown that the owners did very little to squelch the players' power.
The CBA may have tried to crush them, but everything from Chris Paul's trade (minus a small hiccup, which left David Stern looking more vulnerable than ever) to Paul Westphal's firing has suggested the opposite.
Maybe they thought they were pulling one over on the owners, cashing in by getting back some of those "meaningless" games. While in past years, they would have slacked out of apathy, this year, they just might not have it in them.
If the owners had a sense of humor or were smart enough to see how diabolically things have played out, they would see the schedule as a small measure of revenge.
Basketball never stops. The players have to work for their money.
And in the end, we all suffer.