OK, so you were looking forward to this lockout-shortened NBA season, right? You no doubt thought you’d be seeing some high-level professional basketball. It’s entirely possible that you might see something close to that- in February- but we certainly haven’t seen much of it yet. It’s going to take time for some of the players to get back into game shape and learn one another’s names. In the meantime, we’ve been paying to see games that would embarrass most beer league players.
The NBA: It’s FANTASTIC!!
If you thought the lockout wouldn’t have an impact on the quality of the product on the floor, you’re in for a shock. Then again, I’m guessing you believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Mitt Romney’s honesty and ideological consistency, and Newt Gingrich’s unshakeable commitment to the sanctity of marriage.
Anyone who’s played competitive basketball at any level understands that you just don’t put on a jock, roll out a basketball, and begin the season at full speed. You may think you’re in good shape. After all, you spent the offseason playing beer league ball every Tuesday and Friday night down at the “Y” with your buddies, right? If you’re being honest with yourself, though, you know that you don’t get into game shape without playing at game speed. It’s a reality that’s as true now as when James Naismith nailed the first peach basket to the wall at the Springfield YMCA. Anyone who’s ever huffed and puffed and felt their lungs burning as they take off on a fast break on that first day of practice understands this.
Basketball is not an easy game. Not playing for an extended period of time means being out of shape. Being out of shape means lacking endurance. Lacking endurance means getting fatigued quickly. And fatigue makes cowards of us all. Even worse, fatigue wreaks havoc on your jump shot. Tired legs don’t have the energy to stop, jump, and get off a solid shot. Tired legs mean shots fall short and clank off the front of the rim. This is referred to as “bricklaying”…and there are enough bricks being laid around the NBA to build a mall.
Evidently, someone forgot to remind NBA players and owners of this. With training camps shortened and the preseason compressed to two games, no reasonable observer could have expected much…and that’s exactly what fans are getting. A month in, and this lockout-shortened season is subjecting fans to a brand of basketball only a mother could love. How ugly has it been so far? Well, how ‘bout we check the numbers? Commissioner David Stern may be furiously spinning and sugarcoating the ugliness being foisted upon NBA fans, but numbers are impervious to spin. Numbers, as a very wise man once told me, never lie…no matter how much you might wish otherwise.
So far this season, five teams are averaging less than 90 points per game. Last year, the lowest scoring average was Milwaukee’s 91.9. The Bucks also “achieved” last season’s lowest shooting percentage: 43%. This season, eight teams are looking up at that number. Sacramento’s team shooting percentage (39.6%) is so abysmal that three teams are shooting a higher percentage from behind the three-point arc. It can be difficult to watch a game without thinking, “Hey, I can do that!”…and you might be closer to the truth than you realize. The only problem is that the players you’re watching are making seven and eight figures to lay bricks and struggle up and down the floor like a pudgy beer truck driver.
Even the Blazers aren’t immune to the widespread bricklaying. Their 43.9% is the league’s 17th-best shooting percentage. Last season that performance level would have put them in 28th position. It’s becoming fashionable to complain about the performance of the law firm of Felton, Matthews, and Crawford, but it’s not as if they don’t have company. Virtually every team is struggling to score.
A number of players were fortunate enough to score gigs overseas during the lockout. The level of competition may not have been the same as the NBA, but at least they were able to play at game speed. Most of the players played pickup ball and maybe a few “all-star” exhibitions, which, while better than nothing, were hardly serviceable substitutes for NBA action. After an abbreviated training camp, the season began on Christmas Day with most players a step slow and out of shape. The excitement of the first few games masked the reality that the product on the floor was nowhere close to what it should be. A month into the season, it’s impossible to ignore the reality that fans are paying for steak and being served Alpo.
It’s difficult to believe that fans are willing to pay full price for games featuring players dulled by fatigue and dead legs. With teams frequently playing games three days in a row, and in some cases four games in five nights, the teams that will survive will be the ones with deep benches. It likely won’t be until February that most of the league’s players will be in shape and the games stop resembling intramural games at Watsamatta U. The “X” factor is whether the compressed schedule and its byproduct, fatigue, will result in more injuries, further diluting the product on the floor.
I’ve noticed that a number of teams have reached out to their fans in an attempt to repair the damage done by the lockout. What I haven’t seen are teams openly admitting that the quality of play has been below par and that they can’t reconcile charging 100% for games played at 80%. It would be nice to see teams offer some sort of financial consideration to fans. Whether in the form of reduced ticket prices or a credit toward season tickets for the 2012-13 season, teams need to respect their fans. Few businesses would last long if they charged champagne prices and served PBR; customers would simply take their business elsewhere. The NBA, monopoly that it is, isn’t governed by the realities of the free market in the same way restaurants or department stores are. That doesn’t mean they can afford to take fans for granted.
The Blazers are fortunate. They have a rabid and very forgiving fan base. Being the only game in town during the winter (sorry, Winterhawks fans) means that the team’s consecutive sell-out streak continues apace. Even so, team management can’t afford to assume that fans are over the lockout. If any lessons were learned during the “Jailblazers” era, I hope that one of them was what can happen when you alienate ardent, loyal Blazers fans.
If all goes well, the quality of play should be back to normal by the end of February. It remains to be seen what long-term effect the lockout will have on fans. I can only hope they’ll be as forgiving as the league thinks they’ll be.