If the NBA regular season isn't canceled entirely, there's a decent chance we could see an abridged 50-game schedule, identical to the one caused by the last lockout in 1998. That lockout eliminated the '98 from the '98-99 season, starting the year in February just after the Super Bowl. There are varying opinions whether or not the shortened season was actually an improvement to the real thing. Some believe the regular season to be horribly over-saturated, and that a 50-game sample size doesn't drag nearly as much as an 82-game schedule. Others discount that year's results specifically because the season was 32-games shorter; Phil Jackson once said the San Antonio Spurs needed an asterisk next to their 1999 NBA Finals victory.
The tea leaves from the latest labor negotiations suggest that we may not see a season at all. But if there is, in all likeliness it'll follow the 50-game template from a decade ago, in which case, it doesn't hurt to familiarize what it might entail. Will we see everything that we saw in 1999? Perhaps not. But here's a list of things to anticipate if there indeed is a 50-game season.
- How do you cram 50 games into a season that starts in February and ends in April? By playing back-to-back-to-back games, something the league has vehemently stayed away from since the 80's. Way, way back in the day, it was common for NBA teams to play five or even six games in a week. But such a heavy workload eventually became discouraged, and teams now only play on three straight games in makeup situations, like when the Wizards rescheduled to play three straight in 2010 due to a snowstorm. And even that's a rarity. There's talk of the NBA beginning the season on Christmas day, and if that's the case, there'd be little purpose in playing on that many consecutive days. If there is a season, expect at least a minimum of 50 games; the only way to salvage revenue lost from the lockout is to play as many games as possible, and if that means playing on three nights in a row, so be it.
A League Dominated By Veterans
- It's common sense that an increased workload would greatly favor the younger teams, with rosters more equipped to handle a lack of off days. But that wasn't the case at all in 1999, when veteran teams like the Jazz, Spurs, Heat, Magic, Blazers and Pacers finished with the top six records -- teams with aging superstars like John Stockton, Karl Malone, Penny Hardaway, Jim Jackson, David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning. Teams with younger rosters, like the Grizzlies and Nuggets and Celtics, languished in the standings.
- Why was this the case? There are a couple theories. In 1999, the average age of an NBA player was 28.6 years old, which according to Basketball Prospectus was the highest the average age has ever been since the ABA merger, if not ever. Maybe, because there was already a disproportionate amount of veterans, the lockout had little effect on the success of old dudes in the league. But it's also possible that with hardly any time to learn on the spot, teams with rookies had an enormous disadvantage against teams that didn't need any on-the-job training. Also, the lockout could've worked in the favor of the veterans by giving them an ample offseason to rest their bodies, even if the season was more taxing.
- Such veteran favoritism may not repeat itself if there is a season this year. The NBA is substantially younger than it was in 1999. Yes, the veteran Mavericks just won the title, but the league now has an armada of young contenders that it didn't have in '99, teams like the Heat, Thunder, Bulls and Hawks. And they may be waiting to pounce on the older teams, if they happen to be exhausted.
No All-Star Game Festivities
- Here's the deal: the All-Star Game exists solely so sports writers can mercilessly bitch about it. Every February, the All-Star Game is held, and when it's over, analysts go on and on about how much they didn't like it, how (gasp!) there wasn't any defense played in the exhibition game, and how (gasp!) the dunk contest wasn't nearly as good as when Michael Jordan was in it. Every February, sports writers suddenly morph into pretentious wine-sniffing snobs, unable to retain even the slightest bit of enjoyment out of a game that they readily admit means nothing. (Yeah, I'm bitter. But I'm tired of listening to analysts whine about it. I seriously don't think it's possible for there to be an All-Star Game good enough that people will actually admit they liked it. Okay, I'm off my soap box.)
- However, if the lockout extends into the new calendar year, there probably won't be an All-Star Game, which was canceled for the first and only time in 1999. If the season starts on Christmas, the weekend may still be salvaged, although the voting would strictly be a popularity vote (I know, I know, like it isn't already), since it's impossible to accurately determine who deserves All-Star privileges after only 15 or 20 games.
- In 1999, the New York Knicks were in something of a transition year. They had just traded away John Starks and Charles Oakley for Marcus Camby, a young shot-blocking specialist with the Toronto Raptors, and Latrell Sprewell, who had nearly been kicked out of the league when he strangled his head coach in Golden State. It took a while for the Knicks to gel. With Camby and Sprewell coming off the bench, the Knicks finished 27-23, beating out the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by one game.
- Despite barely making the playoffs, the Knicks went on to upset the Miami Heat in the first round, then swept the Atlanta Hawks in the second round and defeated the Pacers in the conference finals. By the time the season ended, both Sprewell and Camby had been promoted to the starting lineup. In reality, they were nowhere near as bad as a No. 8 seed; the following year, they again made it to the conference finals. But they needed time to figure things out, time for Sprewell to assert himself as the best offensive player they had. The Knicks remain the only 8-seed to win a series beyond the first round.
- This was a source of contention to a lot of people. With an 82-game season, it was pretty clear that the top seeds were substantially better than the lower ones. But in the lockout year, it seemed the standings were less indicative of who the best teams really were. On the one hand, that meant that the playoffs were more of a toss-up. Some people didn't mind it though. The NBA postseason tends to be fairly predictable, especially in the early rounds. If there is another 50-game season, you won't know for sure if the No. 3 seed really is better than the No. 6 seed, or if the 6-seed is just a late bloomer. A shortened season may not produce the absolute best teams in the postseason, but it'll certainly make them more open.
Marginally Decreased Attendance/Ratings
- That the NBA lockout was a disaster for the league is something of a misconception. No, it wasn't a good thing. How could it be? Attendance fell by 2.2%, and ratings were well off from the year before. However, the NBA was going to experience a setback whether there was a lockout or not. 1998 was perhaps the highpoint in the history of the NBA, a year that saw record ratings all the way up to the last game of the finals, when Michael Jordan hit the winning shot against the Jazz in a game seen by over 70 million viewers.
- Compared to that, ratings and attendance were going to fall anyway. Yes, ratings trickled off for years and fan attendance waned, but that may have had as much, if not more to do with Michael Jordan's retirement. Jordan was a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, an athlete who moved ratings like few others in history. Had Jordan been there to greet casual fans when the lockout ended, it's possible life would've continued as usual, and the impression wouldn't have been left that it damaged the game. Instead, his absence left the league without its greatest player. Numbers would have slipped regardless, since there was a contingency (small or otherwise) of disillusioned fans who felt their athletes had become too greedy. But without Jordan to watch, turning away from the NBA became infinitely easier. What looked like a consumer protest simply may have been apathy.
- Some publications have made the assertion that the lockout had the same effect on the NBA that the 1994 player's strike had on baseball. (I'm looking at you, TIME.) But that absolutely isn't the case. In fact, some of the numbers detailing the 1999 season aren't as bad as you'd think. Yes, attendance fell and dollars were lost. But television ratings were more or less the same as they were in 1998. NBC averaged a 4.3 rating for NBA telecasts in 1999, down from a 4.6 rating in 1998. And cable ratings for games on TNT and TBS actually went up in 1999. All things considered, with the loss of Jordan, with the lockout and the horrible PR hit the players took from it, and considering how great things were in '98, a 2.2% dip in attendance isn't that bad.
- The NBA is in an entirely different place than it was in 1999. Jordan was gone. A league that had been driven by legends like Bird, Magic and M.J. suddenly had no one who could draw casual fans to the stands. That certainly isn't the case right now. Ratings and attendance are great. People want to see if LeBron James and the Miami Heat can fulfill the expectations everyone has for them. The Lakers, the Knicks, the Bulls and the Celtics are all competitive at the same time. Fans want to see basketball played, as opposed to 1999, when it was easy to be indifferent.
- If there is a ratings slide when the lockout ends, it'll be small, if it isn't nonexistent. As long as the product comes back as good as it was before -- as long as the Miami Heat continue to fascinate the country -- people will be interested. And they will tune in.
A New Advertising Slogan
- At the time of the lockout in 1998, the NBA's slogan was: "I love This Game!" When the league came back, they changed it to what they hoped reflected the mood of the casual sports fan: "I Still Love This Game!" The current NBA slogan is "Where Amazing Happens," and if I were a betting man, I imagine we'll see a "Still" added to it whenever the season picks up, if we don't see an entirely new slogan altogether.