Want proof that the NBA labor negotiations have absolutely zero to do with improving the product for fans?
No one—not the owners, not the players, not the agents trying to make sure their high-priced clients are protected—have broached the subject of a shorter season.
It's commonly accepted that 82 games is too many, and that the length of the schedule, as much as its timing, is what makes the regular season such a snooze-fest at times. But games equal revenue, and games equal paychecks, so no one's backing off of that position any time soon.
Except, as collateral damage of all the other squabbling, the 2011-12 NBA schedule will almost inevitably be a shorter one. It could be a unexpected bright spot in what's looking like an especially grim time.
Our only point of reference, the 1999 lockout-shortened campaign, is a mixed bag of data.
There's no asterisk there; the 50 games each team played that year was more than half of the usual 82, and presumably closer to what the ideal number would be. No one discounts the Spurs' title, and yet maybe that's because they won so many times subsequently. Their opponent in the Finals was a miraculous Knicks team that, under ordinary circumstances, probably wouldn't have been able to pull off that run.
What made the 1999 shortened season so hard to judge was the uncertain physical condition of so many of the players.
Shawn Kemp famously put on weight that year that had a lot to do with his fall from the upper echelons of NBA talent. Most players hit the ground running with less-than-optimal conditioning, and as a result, much of the play had a hazy, just-woke-up feel to it (as opposed to nodding-off-in-class vibe of usual January games).
The problem with a shortened season is more time off, which is to say, if the owners need to man up and accept their business failings as their own, then the players should be expected to do the same for their bodies. The good news is, these days, they mostly do.
Players have always sought out offseason run—Michael Jordan demanded his deal allow for it—but this summer, we've seen players great and small take part in pro-am leagues like the Drew and Goodman, or exhibition games, at an unprecedented rate.
And over the last few years, we've seen an uptick in "what I did last summer" information. A healthy and productive offseason, besides its obvious benefits, can factor into our expectations for them going forward, and if nothing else, is a useful PR stunt. More and more, a case like the overweight and out-of-shape Baron Davis is the exception that proves the rule.
Take, for instance, Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard studying under Hakeem Olajuwon. It helped Howard the most but, in all cases, kept them busy and in shape. Even if no progress was made, at least backsliding wasn't on the menu. There have also been reports on Kevin Garnett's nearly masochistic summer regimen, which includes a lot of dragging things through sand on the beach, as well as the routines of folks like Kevin Love. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook spent a lot of last summer going head-to-head in Los Angeles, which paid dividends for both of them.
Players understand the value of offseason work. And this summer, this ethic has been out on display like never before. They are ready to play basketball right now, if necessary.
And that's where it comes back to the 1999 season. Much of what came back to haunt the players during, and after, the lockout was the image of them as overpaid, lazy bums. This summer, the very public basketball playing doesn't just keep them in shape, it tells the world that they have made a priority of doing so. "Basketball Goes On," as the Nike ad says.
These players don't just want to hit the courts; they have held up their end of the bargain and stayed worth every red cent. The owners, meanwhile, would rather bully the NBPA than think about way to do their jobs. Expect that to carry over into the season. In more ways than one, this shortened season couldn't be less like 1999.