The lockout-shortened NBA season will produce another tainted champion. The ’99 Spurs will forever have an asterisk next to it and this year’s winner will be no different.
This doesn’t count.
I know the playoffs start this weekend, but it won’t be legit.
A champion will be crowned in June 2012. That team will be the champion of a season that never was. Well, the season happened, they’ll call themselves champs, but a huge, fat asterisk* will be attached to the 2012 NBA champions.
That will be next to the winner of this year’s playoffs. Look forward to this staying in the record book:
Chicago Bulls, 2012 NBA champions*
Miami Heat, 2012 NBA champions*
Indiana Pacers, 2012 NBA champions*
Boston Celtics, 2012 NBA champions*
Atlanta Hawks, 2012 NBA champions*
Orlando Magic, 2012 NBA champions*
New York Knicks, 2012 NBA champions*
Philadelphia 76ers, 2012 NBA champions*
San Antonio Spurs, 2012 NBA champions*
Oklahoma City Thunder, 2012 NBA champions*
Los Angeles Lakers, 2012 NBA champions*
Los Angeles Clippers, 2012 NBA champions*
Memphis Grizzlies, 2012 NBA champions*
Denver Nuggets, 2012 NBA champions*
Dallas Mavericks, 2012 NBA champions*
Utah Jazz, 2012 NBA champions*
It’s everybody and nobody. No matter who wins, that asterisk will always be there.
The last time there was a lockout season (1999), a No. 8 seed not only made it out of the first round, it made it to the NBA Finals without its future Hall of Fame center, Patrick Ewing, who sat out the championship round because of a leg injury.
San Antonio, the eventual champion, punished the New York Knicks in the Finals with a devastating frontline led by David Robinson and a youngster named Tim Duncan. The Spurs weren’t one-trick ponies as they galloped their way to four titles from ’99 to 2007.
San Antonio won the NBA championship in 1999, the last time the season was shortened because of a lockout. The NBA had a 50-game schedule that year. A look at the Spurs’ success in ‘99:
Coach: Gregg Popovich
Regular season record: 37-13
Playoff record: 15-2
Tim Duncan: 21.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 2.5 bpg
David Robinson: 15.8 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.4 bpg
Avery Johnson: 9.7 ppg, 7.4 apg,
Sean Elliot: 11.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg
But thanks to Phil Jackson, who coached the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight championships from 2000-2002, the Spurs’ first run was diminished when he called that campaign the asterisk season.
“Anybody who was around basketball in ’99 knows it was entirely an aberration,” Jackson said. “Not that (the Spurs) didn’t deserve it … but that’s an asterisk.”
In ’99 every team played 50 games, a fraction of a normal 82-game season. Not to mention that it was played in about three months. A lot can happen in those extra 32 games. A losing streak, injuries, another team gets hot. That would radically change the outcome of the regular season standings going into the playoffs.
“It cut my career by a year,” said Robert Horry, who won seven championships with the Houston Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “Those times where we played three games in a row, your knees hurt so bad you walked around like you were on hot coals. And you were so tired from all the traveling, you’d walk right into walls at the team hotel. It was murder on our bodies. It wiped me out.”
Horry played for the Lakers that year, his team enduring three sets of back-to-back-to-back games, one of them all on the road in Seattle, Denver and Vancouver.
A Season That Almost Didn’t Happen
The 2011-2012 season began on Christmas as opposed to late October/early November. From Christmas to now, each team had the pleasure (and pain) of playing 66 pro basketball games. In the two months the league missed they could have easily fit the extra 16 games in, cutting the workload by one, sometimes two games a week per team.
Because of the condensed schedule, every team had to play at least one set of back-to-back-to-back games, players and coaches had practically zero practice time, games were played basically every other day, and rest became a luxury; two or more days off were very rare.
A hectic schedule such as this year’s favors young teams (Oklahoma City, Miami, Chicago), hampers aging squads (Lakers, Boston, Dallas) and made mockeries out of the shitty (presenting the 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats, the team with the worst winning percentage in NBA history; to be fair, Washington and New Orleans were laughably bad too, but not .106 bad).
At one point last year it didn’t seem as if there would be a season. Owners claimed they lost hundreds of millions of dollars while only a few teams prospered. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert would have been fine if the NBA canned a season, that would mean new nemesis and former franchise player LeBron James would get one less year to win a championship.
Labor negotiations got horribly ugly, it was owners vs. players, agents vs. owners, NBA Commissioner David Stern undermining players, players claiming that they were slaves even though they made more money in one week than some make in one year.
During one negotiating session Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and Stern exchanged words after Stern had pointed his finger at players while addressing them. Wade fired back with the same gusto a WWF superstar would display as if he were cutting a promo for a main event.
“Don’t point your finger at me,” Wade shouted. “I’m not your child.” Wade and other players in attendance stormed out of the room with thoughts that the season might get canned.
Wade’s team had a lot to lose with no season. The Heat was one of the favorites to claim the title. Well, a season took place, and after 66 games, the Heat still is.
Even the NBA Elite Break Down
When the season started, many players showed up out of shape. It didn’t help that training camp got sliced to less than a month with only two preseason games.
Not surprisingly, injuries hit players hard. Even the NBA’s best struggled. Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, who had only missed seven games his entire career, sat out 12 this season. Howard had back surgery last week and will be out the entire playoffs, crushing the Magic’s title hopes.
Or will it be the ’99 Knicks all over again?
Derrick Rose, MVP of the league last year, also spent a fat chunk of the season on the sideline. He has suited up 39 times because of various injuries. In the regular season, Rose’s absence hasn’t derailed Chicago’s won-loss record as the Bulls have the No. 1 seed in the East.
The lack of a proper training camp forced Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of last year’s Finals, to sit out four games in January. Coach Rick Carlisle said Nowitzki needed “an uninterrupted eight days of work to resolve some physical issues and conditioning issues.”
Sort of like what training camp should be, right?
The Mavericks looked like chumps rather than defending champs. A lot of it had to do with Tyson Chandler, a monster defensive presence during Dallas’ title run, signing with the Knicks. Also, the Mavericks are really old.
The NBA leaders in:
Points: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 28.0 points per game
Rebounds: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic, 14.5 rebounds per game
Assists: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics, 11.6 assists per game
Blocks: Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder, 3.65 blocks per game
Steals: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers, 2.53 assists per game
Speaking of old, the Spurs’ Duncan sat numerous games this season just to rest up. In March, Popovich actually turned in a hilarious DNP for arguably the greatest power forward the game has ever seen. Against the 76ers, Duncan got a DNP for being old. Not coach’s decision or sprained ankle or inactive. It said DNP – Old. Popovich rested other veterans such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with great success as San Antonio earned the top seed in the West.
Two other teams are long in the tooth but experienced enough to capture an asterisk championship: the 2010 NBA Finals participants, the Lakers and Celtics.
Kobe Bryant actually sat out eight games this season. No team has the size and skill of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But Kobe has shot terribly this season and the team has been unsteady under Coach Mike Brown.
The Celtics started slow and showed that slow and steady might not win the race, but they’re still running. Boston won the Atlantic Division led by Rajon Rondo and the steady play of aging veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. This team could stumble into the Eastern Conference Finals if the Bulls aren’t healthy.
The favorite in the Western Conference might be the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. This team has made incredible strides since taking the Lakers to Game 6 of the first round in 2010. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the most dynamic perimeter players on one team, the closest thing the NBA has seen since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Durant and Westbrook were the first and fifth highest scoring players in the league. The Thunder has one weakness and that’s turnovers, but with the pace of each game slowing down in the postseason they might take care of the basketball a lot better. They’ll have to if they want to win a title.
A surprise contender in the West comes from the other L.A. team, the Clippers. Chris Paul has changed the culture in Los Angeles and for the first time ever, he has help in the form of Blake Griffin and other talented perimeter players. Chauncey Billups was lost for the season, but Mo Williams and other guards have stepped up. If Paul gets hot, don’t be surprised if this team gets to the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals.
The Knicks return to the playoffs once again with talented players, however, don’t think for one second the Heat are afraid of New York in the first round. Yeah, the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. But both of them need the ball way too much to be effective and please, someone notify me when Stoudemire actually starts rebounding.
Neither a bad back Baron Davis nor two months of Linsanity would be enough to lead this team to a championship. Sorry basketball Mecca, this ain’t ’99, you don’t have a chance.
It’s unlikely that a No. 8 will reach the Finals (sorry Utah and Philly). It’s unknown if Popovich can win back-to-back asterisk titles. It’s questionable whether Miami will win the first of not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven championships.
What’s certain is that whoever comes out on top will have that nagging asterisk next to that championship. Too much has gone wrong in this crazy NBA season. The playoffs will be fun, good luck to the team whose title defense next season will be a legit championship.