The NBA and its players do many things well. Like dunking. And dressing. And spreading basketball gospel to a global audience.
Pro basketball, however, really needs to work on its timing.
As we inch closer to Nov. 1, the date when the 2011-12 NBA season was supposed to tip off, the threat of a shortened season — or no season at all, for that matter — looms large. The current labor impasse, which began on July 1, has already cost the NBA its preseason. If no agreement is reached by Monday, the first two weeks of the regular season will most likely be canceled. When I asked one All-Star player to assess the odds of the entire season being called off, he put that disaster scenario at 50-50.
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So it’s really come to this? Just as the NBA is enjoying its finest moment in more than a dozen years, it risks jeopardizing all that goodwill. By any measure, the NBA took a significant leap forward in 2010-11. Whether you liked or (more likely) loathed LeBron James and Chris Bosh signing with the Miami Heat last off-season, you watched them. You also watched a transcendent rookie, Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, dunk all over the league, and Kevin Durant sizzle in sleepy Oklahoma City and Derrick Rose win an MVP in Chicago. None of those three players, not so incidentally, are older than 23. Last season, the NBA’s regular-season viewership rose 13%. NBA.com attracted a record 5.9 billion page views, an increase of more than 35% over the prior season. Global merchandise sales rose 20%. During the playoffs, TNT set ratings records.
In many respects, last season was the culmination of a league resurgence from the hangover left by Michael Jordan’s last game with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, when the NBA ruled American sports. By the fall of that year, the league was embroiled in a lockout, which chopped 32 games off the regular-season schedule and alienated fans. During that labor disagreement, multimillionaire players made egregious statements — for example Patrick Ewing, the president of the players’ union, stressed that his colleagues “have to put food on the table.”
Plus, when the NBA resumed, the product on the floor was pretty putrid. Scoring suffered. One team that reached the ’99 NBA finals — the San Antonio Spurs — was solid but uninspiring. (Quick: aside from Tim Duncan and David Robinson, name San Antonio’s starting five that year.) The Eastern Conference rep — the eighth-seeded, injury-riddled New York Knicks — had notorious shot-misser Chris Dudley starting at center and 41-year-old Herb Williams backing him up for a few minutes.
In the early 2000s, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal engineered their three-peat in Los Angeles. A wave of skilled international players, like a young Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, and Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu in Sacramento, helped those formerly dormant franchises reach the playoffs. But by the middle of the decade, the NBA had staggered again. In 2003, the Spurs and New Jersey Nets reached the finals, and ratings sank. In the fall of 2004, the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest rushed into the stands to fight Detroit Pistons fans. The infamous Palace brawl was a huge black eye for the league. All the while, the NFL, aided by the Internet’s fascination with fantasy football, boomed.
However, a promising crop of basketball players — particularly James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, who were all drafted in 2003 — helped increase the NBA’s relevance, especially among younger fans. In Los Angeles, Bryant’s exploits reminded many fans of Jordan. He won two more titles, sans Shaq. In 2008 and ’10, the Lakers and the Boston Celtics reached the finals, which rekindled memories of the league’s glorious past and sparked promise for its future.