|Dwight Howard and the Magic failed to break 70 points in this Jan. 30 game at Philly. (Getty Images)|
As you sit in one NBA arena or another, or in front of your League Pass, the scores that flash before your eyes on any given night can be horrifying. And that's just the scores; some of the actual play is even worse than statistics suggest.
Welcome to Lockout Ball, an unnecessary phenomenon born out of a marriage of stubborn, short-sighted hijinks among men in suits. They spent months staring at each other across various conference room tables, ignored various pleas to just compromise already and wound up with the same deal on Nov. 26 that could've been reached Oct. 4.
Or, dare I say, Sept. 27, when this clever suggestion was registered and ignored.
The result is a harried, 66-game schedule with back-to-back-to-backs, four games in five nights, six in eight nights and any other permutations you can imagine. However you slice it, it all comes down to this: The NBA and its players' association chose to compromise just in time to have a season but too late to have a good one.
Sometimes, it's so bad you just have to laugh to keep from expiring from a new threat to national security and public health known as Bad Ball. The scores. Oh, the humanity. The Magic failed to break 70 twice in a span of four days last month, capped off by a 69-point performance in a loss at Philadelphia on Jan. 30. It was Orlando's sixth game in eight nights, an absurdly bad idea. Dwight Howard & Co. didn't break the 50-point barrier until there were 3 1/2 minutes left.
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The Raptors have thrice produced fewer than 70 points, yet somehow have managed to win eight games and aren't even in the conversation about the worst teams in the league. Those are the Bobcats (3-22), Hornets (4-22) and Wizards (5-21), with the Pistons (7-20) in hot pursuit. The Bobcats lost at Portland 112-68 on Feb. 1. Must have been homecoming.
All tangible measurements of basketball acuity are down this season compared to last. Field-goal percentage is down 3.5 percent, from .459 to .443. Points per game have dropped 5 percent, from 99.6 to 94.7. Assists are down (from 21.5 per game to 20.4), turnovers are up (from 14.3 to 15) and antacid purchases among coaches are through the roof.
Around the association Monday night, the symptoms of the shortened season went from mildly amusing to serious. The players' health is now suffering as a result, with Chauncey Billups (out for the season, torn Achilles’ tendon), Danilo Gallinari (out 4-6 weeks, high ankle sprain) and Carmelo Anthony (out 1-2 weeks, strained groin) going down. Sadly, this will continue as players' bodies break down under the crushing weight of too many games, too little rest and all those pointless bargaining sessions that resulted in nothing happening until it was too late.
Even when two of the supposedly elite teams confront each other -- as the Lakers and defending champion Mavericks did Jan. 16 -- the results can be hideous. All in attendance will remember Derek Fisher's dramatic, tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left. The final score, 73-70 Lakers, was the stuff of George Mason vs. Hofstra.
And predictably, here come the inane comparisons of the NBA product to the college game. Here was skilled colleague Jeff Goodman asserting on Feb. 2, after watching the Celtics beat the Raptors 100-64, that Kentucky's starting five might be better than Toronto's. If we take his argument seriously, the only true test will be to see how many of Kentucky's starting five wind up having serviceable NBA careers. But let's not wait that long to put this notion to rest.
The narrow argument that one of the best college lineups is superior to one of the worst in the NBA isn't the point. The point is, by willingly putting forth a compromised product this season as a result of factors that were fully in the owners' and players' control, the NBA has invited this kind of misguided comparison. With March Madness almost upon us, the NBA has breathed life into false stereotypes about its product and given credence to the notion that college basketball is so much better than NBA basketball even though it is obviously so much worse. Just because bands play and people jump up and down and shout things in unison doesn't mean the product is any good.
A league of 420 professionals against hundreds of schools that collectively produce, on average, two All-Stars a year? A grown man's game compared to a sport where the best players stop by for one season and then bolt to the pros?
It's not even worth discussing, except for the fact that by taxing its greatest assets -- the players -- with unnecessarily harsh conditions that are hurting the product and beginning to endanger the players' health, the NBA has left itself vulnerable. Put teams out there that occasionally appear as unskilled as most college players, and eventually someone will put two and two together and get one-and-a-half.
The NBA has done itself a disservice with this quasi-season, a detour in the league's rise in popularity that was completely preventable. The owners and players decided that some season was better than no season, and the TV ratings (which continue to break records) and cherished revenue calculations will bear them out.
But at what cost?
You hope that the recent spate of injuries is the exception, not the rule. But you know better. More players will go down, the grind of the schedule will continue to damage the product and you wonder why someone didn't have the foresight to prevent this. You wonder why the parties involved weren't willing to deal with the real problem -- too many teams, and teams in cities that can't support them. Instead, they applied Band-Aids like the mini-mid-level, more taxes and endless divisions of the BRI split when all that was needed was a cake, a knife and a sharp eye for equity.
I was hoping that the powers that be would've addressed some of these underlying issues like the need for contraction and other enhancements to the game having nothing to do with money when they had the chance last summer. I still hope they do. But you know what? Here's something about the NBA that everybody needs to remember: It's fun because it's entertaining and imperfect.
It's a circus, but it's our circus.
One night, we get to watch Kobe Bryant rise to fifth on the NBA's career scoring list, etching his name in history behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. On nights like these -- and, nights like Tuesday, when Paul Pierce passed Larry Bird on the Celtics' career scoring list -- the game connects us to the past.
Then, there are nights when you get to watch Bismack Biyombo clumsily backpedal onto his rear end. You get to see Jan Vesely airball a free throw. Best of all, you get to see JaVale McGee jog confidently back on defense when his team still has the ball.
And you get to watch him turn around and come back as point guard John Wall can only shake his head.
Kentucky? Please. Give me the beauty of the NBA game, and give me all its imperfections, too. Give me Doc Rivers drawing up a perfect inbounds play for Ray Allen out of a timeout, and give me Tony Allen pretending to be leveled by an elbow from Gordon Haywood that never actually made contact.
Give me Anderson Varejao flailing and flopping, and give me LeBron James making fun of his receding hairline -- and Charles Barkley making fun of it, too.
Give me @netw3rk. Give me Hubie Brown.
Give me Madison Square Garden chanting, "Jer-e-my!" during the amazing emergence of Jeremy Lin. Give me nights like that, and give me all the weird stuff with it. And you know what? I'll even take Lockout Ball, as long as nobody gets hurt.
And as long as nobody ever compares the NBA to college basketball in my presence again.