Raise your hand if you thought the 2011-12 NBA season would start on time. No one? Good, then you won’t be surprised when it doesn’t. Because it seems nearly impossible that we’ll see professional basketball played by professional basketball players for some time.
(However, we will continue to see playground basketball played by professional basketball players, including Saturday’s charity game at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington that will feature Kevin Durant, John Wall, Jeff Green, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins and Jarrett Jack, among others. These games draw well because they include even less defense than an NBA all-star game.)
I’ve felt all along that half an NBA season was a possibility, and after Tuesday’s talks ended with a marked lack of optimism on both sides, half a season seems even more likely.
Funny, I never felt this pessimistic about the NFL lockout. But then, NFL teams play just 16 regular season games; frittering away one or two of those cuts into the profit margin in a big way.
Of course, losing half an NBA season will cut into profit margins as well. Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis won’t be happy to have Verizon Center sitting empty several nights a week. Maybe if the league pulls the plug early enough on the scheduled Nov. 1 start, he’ll be able to round up a circus or a teenybopper to fill some seats.
The bigger problem for Leonsis and the Wizards, of course, is that any kind of cancellation will be a setback in their rebuilding plan. Andray Blatche tried to get some Wizards together for a workout, but only a couple showed up; the rest are scattered at various training facilities or working on their own. This season’s Wizards really need all 82 games.
So do die-hard NBA fans. But nothing that was said Tuesday can be construed as good news. Players union head Billy Hunter said, “We’ve advised [players] they may have to sit out half the season before we get a deal.” Commissioner David Stern didn’t sound any happier: “Well, we did not have a great day, I think it’s fair to say that.”
And let’s not underestimate lockout fatigue, which after a summer of back-and-forth among NFL players and owners is working its way through the sports world like that germ in “Contagion.” After being hopeful early, NFL fans adopted a “wake me when the season starts” attitude, and when it did, they found they were almost giddy in their excitement.
Giddy would be good for the NBA, too. Most casual NBA fans might not like the idea of a shortened season, but a few more negative days like Tuesday, and they’ll also adopt that “wake me when it’s over” approach.
And a shortened season may be just the wake-up call they need. The NBA regular season is regarded as too long by some fans as well as by players, who feel the travel is a grind. Some NBA fans pay little attention to the league until football is over. Less enthusiastic followers wait for the playoffs before showing any interest at all.
All fans should brace themselves for a shortened season, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A lockout in 1998 reduced that season to 50 games. The league dumped the all-star game — no great loss — and kept the playoffs at their normal length. Each of those 50 games took on greater importance and the regular season had a greater sense of urgency than it did in any 82-game season.
So get ready for half an NBA season. It may prove to be a glass half full.