Shortened season. Compressed season. Chance of a lifetime.
For any player in the NBA, these three statements describe the 2011-2012 NBA season. As the playoffs approach, we all forget about the nastiness of the lockout, and the excitement of the return of the game. The real question that drives me right now is: where is the NBA in the grand American sports landscape?
The MLB can be viewed as struggling to retain its position, the NFL is king, the NHL is growing in popularity, and progressively more and more, MMA is pushing for a greater portion of the pie (although much of that at the expense of boxing). The NBA, like all sports leagues, has its fanatics, but fanatics cannot fully sustain a league; it is the middle of the line fans, the people who are partially interested, maybe love a team more than the game itself: can you get those people to pay the expensive ticket prices? Can you get them to upgrade their cable to get NBA TV? Most importantly, can you get them to devote their evenings to watch the NBA playoffs?
As for the game itself, a lot was made about the quality of the product in the early part of the season, and most of the talk was horrendously negative, including some from Commissioner David Stern. However, that talk has died down, replaced with talk about coaches giving starters, in particular veterans, days off to deal with the high stress, highly compressed schedule, a situation more significant in San Antonio and with the Los Angeles Lakers. Injuries are also thrown into the mix, as less time off prevents players from only missing two or three games like normal, instead missing four or five.
Finally, when we get to the game itself, to what actually matters to most hardcore fans, we find many things that have changed. The seething hatred for the Miami Heat that almost universal last season has subsided quite considerably, replaced with disdain in some corners and abandoned entirely in others. The Knicks, after going through Linsanity, seem to have had the evolution of their game progressing into a solid game plan, complete with their starters all being healthy. The stories ran rampant, and it almost seems like the season is like any other.
Except that it’s not. The compressed schedule is taking a serious toll on players, whether or not we see it, and we will see if all the planning and schemes by coaches to protect players works out; another way of looking at it is we will see which players are in the best shape, since a schedule so draining will weed out players not properly taking care of themselves in the regular season will likely suffer for it in the postseason.