How Could Lockout Impact Season?
Given the back and forth between the owners and the players it seems quite unlikely today a new collective bargaining agreement will be agreed to quickly enough to begin the 2011-12 NBA season on time. If an agreement does happen a little later and still early enough to play some kind of season – as it did in 1999 – there are a lot of assumptions people make about that it could mean for this year.
Back in 1999 the 50-game season included back-to-back-to-back games, something a normal NBA season does not. This necessitates extra travel and shorter turnaround times for players, meaning they don’t have the down time a body needs to fully recover from the stresses of the game. All the extra travel also means less practice time during the season, meaning teams who come in with greater sense of chemistry already should fare better.
Of course, these are usually the same teams comprised of veterans who like or need the normal recovery time. As the theory goes, veteran teams would become more susceptible to injuries during a condensed season – think the current versions of the Boston Celtics or the San Antonio Spurs. The edge, the same theory says, would go to younger teams who while they may not have as developed a sense of chemistry do have the talent and youth to bounce back faster – think the current versions of the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Miami HEAT.
That’s the assumption anyway. But is it true? Is there any credence behind the assumption? To answer that we have to go back and look at the 1999 NBA season and see if we can answer some questions.
Who were the notable successes and failures of 1999?
The San Antonio Spurs: In 1999 the San Antonio Spurs won the first of their four NBA titles in the Tim Duncan airing, pairing him with Hall of Fame center David Robinson to tie with the Utah Jazz for the best regular season record at 37-13 en route to the rings. With Duncan a young Malik Rose and Antonio Daniels were contributors, along with veterans Sean Elliott, Mario Elie and Avery Johnson. The season before the Spurs won 56 games and the season after 53. While both of those represent a lower winning percentage, San Antonio’s success was hardly surprising and cannot be viewed as an aberration.
New York Knicks: The Knicks won 27 games, sneaking into the Eastern Conference playoffs in the eight spot. After upsetting the Miami HEAT in the first round the Knicks unexpectedly swept the Atlanta Hawks and finished off the Indiana Pacers in six games. That series featured a season-ending injury to star center Patrick Ewing – in his 14th season at the time – and the Knicks still found a way to get to the Finals. Had they not won six of their last eight regular season games they may not have stolen the final playoff seed from the Charlotte Hornets. A nice blend of youth – Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Charlie Ward – with veterans like Ewing, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston allowed the Knicks to get hot and stay hot. This team is the one every points to in support of the theory described above. However, these same Knicks returned to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 and reached the conference semifinals in 1995-98, which would seem to indicate they weren’t an aberration after all.
Portland Trail Blazers: Portland is the team San Antonio beat in the Western Conference Finals. They had young veterans, like Jimmy Jackson, Walt Williams and J.R. Rider, plus young talent like Damon Stoudamire, Brian Grant and Rasheed Wallace, anchored in the middle by Arvydas Sabonis. They seem like a team who, like the Knicks, would have the right mix to find success in a shortened season, according to the theory. However, this Portland team returned – slightly different with the addition of Scottie Pippen – the next season to the Western Conference Finals, posting an even better record. They weren’t an aberration based on the theory; instead, 1999 just happened to be the season the chemistry worked.
Sacramento Kings: In 1997-98 the Sacramento Kings won just 27 of 82 games. In 1999 they won 27 games again, this time out of only 50. They reached the Western Conference playoffs and pushed the second-ranked Utah Jazz to the full five games in the first round before falling. Again, on the surface this young, athletic team would seem to be a qualifier for the theory. But are they really? These 1999 Kings had two rookies who played major roles: point guard Jason Williams and wing Peja Stojakovic. In addition they had young talent in Scot Pollard and Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Their veterans were only moderately so outside of Vlade Divac – Jon Barry and Chris Webber had only six and five season respectively on their resumes. This was also the first season of coaching the Kings for Rick Adelman, who brought with him a relaxed style perfect for Williams, Divac and Webber. These Kings surprised in 1999, but then went on to make the playoffs the next seven years. Yes, they happened to break through in 1999, but again it wasn’t an aberration.
Seattle SuperSonics: On paper the Sonics seem like an example of a team who couldn’t adapt to the pace of the condensed season. Five of their top eight scorers were 30 or older (Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, Dale Ellis and Olden Polynice). The three rookies on the team – Jelani McCoy, Vladimir Stepania and Rashard Lewis – combined to score 13.0 points a game in just 33.6 minutes. The season before they won 61 games, but in 1999 won just half of the fifty and failed to reach the playoffs. But that’s not the whole story. These Sonics were coming of a streak of eight straight playoff seasons, including an appearance in the NBA Finals and another in the Western Conference Finals. George Karl was no longer the head coach, replaced by Paul Westphal. After failed to make the playoffs in 1999 the Sonics returned in 2000, but then escaped the lottery just once in the next four years. Instead of blaming the shortened season for a veteran playoff team failing to find success, just as equal an argument can be made it was just their time to start rebuilding.
Efficiency as a whole took a hit during the 1999 NBA season. Just one team cracked the 100 points per game mark – the Kings, barely, at 100.2. In 1997-98 four teams averaged more than that and in 1999-2000 seven teams cracked 100. During the strike year the Los Angeles Lakers led the league in field-goal shooting at 46.8%, while seven teams shot that or better in 97-98 (just one did better in 99-00).
The Vancouver Grizzlies led the league by turning the ball over 16.96 times a game in 1999 – actually BETTER than the worst teams in the seasons on either side. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who were best in the category at 12.82, also had a BETTER number than the league’s best in the category in 97-98 and 99-00.
Interesting, is it not? Efficiency and scoring were down across the board, but ball handling was actually better (Jason Kidd’s 10.8 assists a game were better than Rod Strickland’s 10.5 in 97-98 and Kidd’s 10.1 in 99-00).
Have we learned anything? Does any of this support the theory posited at the beginning of this piece?
It actually doesn’t. The Sonics would seem to fit the example of a failed veteran team who couldn’t adapt, but they seemed set up for a regression back to the pack anyway. San Antonio, New York and Portland all in previous and subsequent seasons proved to be top-tier teams.
This goes to show if the Boston Celtics or another team seems to surprise with limited success in a shortened 2012 season – if it happens – the lockout may not be to blame. If the Oklahoma City Thunder wins the title or another young team seems to come out of nowhere to find playoff success, it’s doubtful they will successful in only that season. An argument could be made that teams who come together for successful runs during a shortened campaign then build on that success the following year, having proven to themselves they are successful, but evidence supporting that is slim and mostly anecdotal. There is no way to disprove a theory they would have found the same success anyway.
If the 2011-12 season is not played in its entirety it will be a shame on many levels, but the demise of a veteran team or surprise emergence of a young one likely would happen whether the season is 30, 50, or 82 games.
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