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The National Basketball Association need not spend a minute pondering what Christmas present to give its fans this year: the same thing it gave us last December. We will unwrap an abbreviated season—one that shaved two calendar months and 16 games per team off of the usual October-to-June death march—and squeal with joy.
And the short schedule will be even better this time around, as it will not be preceded by the Hugo Boss--sponsored parade of besuited players, lawyers and league executives trooping into labor negotiations. Last fall strife between the players and the owners delayed the season and produced dire predictions about competitive decline. But the result was in fact the opposite: A product rolled out with all due economy actually increased the drama.
The great crime novelist Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for why his books are so successful: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." That's what this season did. It left out the parts that people skip.
While baseball thrives on two months of spring training (a grand and long-standing scam to get everybody out of the cold), and football seems to need gladiatorial grunting and groaning under the summer sun, pro basketball has never been about early-season rhythms. Those get overshadowed by football anyway. Practices open under the cover of anonymity (no Midnight Madness in the Association); preseason games take place without much notice; the commissioner hands out the championship rings on opening night; and then the NBA-watching populace immediately starts pining for the postseason. This time around, however, the playoffs arrived without a feeling of exhaustion, from either players or fans.
As for the complaints about injuries in a short season jam-packed with games—witness the postseason absence of Dwight Howard and the star-crossed Derrick Rose (page 31)—yes, those should be taken seriously. But remember that this year was an anomaly. As negotiations dragged on glacially, no one knew when the season was actually going to begin, and when the starting gun sounded some players may have jumped in without the correct physical preparation. Commissioner David Stern believes, in fact, that the injury review that the NBA does each year will show that fewer players were hurt this season.
Injuries have always been a factor in this game and always devastating when they strike star players. We recall a young Magic Johnson missing more than half of the 1980--81 season and a young Michael Jordan missing most of the 1985--86 campaign.
How else did the shortened schedule help the sport? Consider how many more hours we spent watching games and how many fewer we spent listening to Story Lines from Hell, such as Howard's back-and-forth about his future in Orlando. Before Magic coach Stan Van Gundy dimed him out, hadn't we heard enough from Stupor Man?
Then, too, our December-to-April romance with the NBA gave birth to that most glorious of happenstances, Linsanity. Over a 25-day stretch the unlikely Knicks hero-by-way-of-Harvard played 13 games and averaged a stupefying 22.3 points, 9.0 assists and 2.3 steals. Every night, it seemed, Jeremy Lin, the Man From Nowhere, gave us something to get excited about. The NBA absolutely owned February, mostly because we were entranced by Lin's oncourt performance—not by what he was saying (and he never said much) after shootarounds.
The NBA world did not spin off its axis because of 16 fewer games. The argument could be made that the major statistical conundrum appeared at the bottom of the standings: Are the 7--59 Bobcats (.106 winning percentage) now the worst team of all time or does that dishonor still belong to the 9--73 (.110) 76ers of 1972--73?
In this shortened season the good teams were still good—the Bulls tied for the league's best record even though potential MVP Rose missed 41% of the season—and the bad teams were still bad. The right players competed for the scoring title (Kevin Durant beat out Kobe Bryant, barely, and LeBron James); James put together one of the best seasons in recent history; and the "old" San Antonio Spurs, who figured to be hurt by a game-heavy schedule, won 50 of 66—same as the Bulls—while avoiding serious injuries in large part because coach Gregg Popovich is a master at judiciously dispensing playing time.