December 02, 2011
After falling to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day last year, the Los Angeles Lakers stood at 21-9, leaving the team 52 regular-season games left to play. At the same point towards the end of Dec. 25 this year, the Lake show will either be 1-0 or 0-1 with 65 games left to play. The NBA didn't just lop off two chunks of the season while attempting to continue apace in 2010-11; it lopped off two months of time while adding 13 games to the old pace.
How to fit those in? Back-to-back-to-backs, as you've heard, and a whole lot more scurrying from town to town for NBA teams. Twenty teams that don't play on Christmas will have 14 games to fit in with one or two fewer days to work with; and in a league where every small advantage counts even though the NBA is dismissed as a playoffs-only watch, we're already trying to determine who has the advantage.
Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears echoes what quite a few of us were thinking even last summer. Veteran teams, despite their smarts and obvious talent, will have it rough. Younger teams? The season is all yours to run through. Here's Marc:
SI.com's Zach Lowe isn't going to dismiss any "help/hurt" candidates, but he does a fine job of informing readers in this excellent piece that hard and fast rules gleaned from the 50-game 1999 season can't be relied upon as we attempt to suss out what we're about to see from the NBA between Christmas and June.
Let me ape some of his points, and add a few of my own:
1999 was an anomaly. An anathema, too, for those that enjoy good basketball. Relying on that run as a template makes no sense, because there were too many factors flying in its face to take that one-off as a sample size to work with.
For one, the schedule was much tougher. Though the regular season extended about three weeks later than usual, 50 games were shoved into a campaign that started on Feb. 5. By comparison, the Lakers wrapped up their 51st game of 2010-11 on Feb. 4, leaving 31 to play in nine weeks' time that included an All-Star break.
Secondly, this was a bad time to be a fan. Not only was the star power not as significant (not just in terms of those that fair-weather fans would tune in to see, but honest-to-goodness talent) as it was just a few years prior or especially as it stands now. But the stars that would grow into their own in the NBA's little lost half-decade from '99 to 2004 had yet to truly develop.
Kobe Bryant(notes) was 2 1/2 years out of high school. Shaq was huge, Phil Jackson was in Montana and Allen Iverson(notes) had yet to figure things out. Patrick Ewing was fading, Houston's big three of Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley were fading and clearly mismatched, and Karl Malone and John Stockton couldn't keep up long enough to pull out their third straight Finals appearance.
Not only that, but while the names were huge, the games were not. That class, save for Tim Duncan(notes), just couldn't hold a candle to today's cadre of stars. Things would be different if this were 1996 or 2002 even. But it wasn't. It was 1999, and it was ugly.
Coaches had quite a bit to do with that. The possession count and overall pace to that year's "action" was miserable. Teams took the air out of the ball, and not just because the extended lockout took the air out of their lungs. Yes, players were out of shape. And, yes, the schedule hurt. But this was just about the apex of nasty NBA basketball. Hand checking was still being ignored, and teams walked it up court. And, I'm sorry, but they had to -- there weren't a lot of Russell Westbrooks and Monta Ellises dotting the landscape in 1999. Mookie Blaylock wasn't exactly keen on dashing from end to end.
On top of all that sludge, caveats abounded. The Jazz may have been old, and they may have been hurt by the schedule, but they were also dismissed from the playoffs by a Portland Trail Blazers team that was legitimately better. And nearly bounced by a Sacramento Kings team in the series before that was better than its record once Chris Webber returned from injury.
The Heat, the East's top seed, was felled by a crucial inch when Allan Houston's(notes) runner bounced in. Houston's Knicks were also way, way, better than their No. 8 seeding, especially once coach Jeff Van Gundy opened up the roster and went away from Patrick Ewing offensively.
The Indiana Pacers? Expected to rule the East a year after taking the Chicago Bulls to a seventh game, the team made a point to hold informal workouts that often ran 10 deep during the lockout. And the squad ended up losing a tough one to a very good Knicks team, with that crucial Larry Johnson call going New York's way in a pivotal Game 3. A year later, after opening up for Austin Croshere(notes) (don't laugh) and enjoying a rejuvenated season from Reggie Miller (who now thrived after picking up mid-post hints from Kobe Bryant, of all people), Indiana dominated the East.
These are just things that happened, not patterns to rely upon. And now that this is out of the way, let us never talk of the 1999 NBA season again.