Hey, you know what's popular right now? The National Basketball Association. After antagonizing basketball fans for five solid months (the lockout), barely avoiding a potential catastrophe (a nearly canceled season) and suffering a public relations semicatastrophe (the voided Chris Paul trade), the NBA weathered the storm, regrouped and delivered a uniquely entertaining first month. That's right, there's hope for you yet, Lana Del Rey.
The ratings support what we think we're seeing: ESPN's first 14 games averaged a 1.7 rating, rising a whopping 31 percent from last season's Christmas-to-now stretch. TNT's Christmas season opener (Knicks-Celtics) notched a 5.9, becoming the fourth-most-watched regular-season NBA game ever on cable. Meanwhile, TNT's NBA ratings are up 70 percent (with help from that Christmas game, but still), NBA TV's ratings are up 68 percent and an estimated 6.7 million people have uttered the words, "I can't understand Shaq."
Here's the weird part: The product itself hasn't been good. Blame the owners for this one: Instead of playing 60 games over 120 days (fairly reasonable), they crammed 66 games into those 120 days (unreasonable). Why do it that way? Hold on, I'll give you a second to think about it.
(Twiddling my thumbs.)
(Humming to myself.)
The answer: Money!!!!!!
You were expecting another reason? Players were paid for six extra games, owners received three extra home games apiece, and fans were treated to a slew of, "We know you paid to see Derrick Rose tonight, but playing in his place, here's John Lucas III!!!!" moments because nicked-up players have no time to heal. Screw the fans, right? We're just in the way. Throw in a missing training camp (deadly for teams with new coaches or too many new players) and the lack of practice time and I mean, how did these first five weeks have a chance?
Which teams struggled the most? Let's see painfully untalented teams (Charlotte, Washington), rosters that experienced too much turnover (Sacramento, New Orleans), teams handpicked by Joe Dumars or Bryan Colangelo (Detroit, Toronto), teams brazenly gutting their roster for a 12.65 percent chance at Dwight Howard (New Jersey), and teams that sabotaged their rosters while refusing to do the dignified thing and trade their signature player even though he's a good guy and would rather sink with the Sarvertanic over selling out his teammates by asking out (Phoenix) all morphed into something between "an unequivocal mess" and a "first-class shitshow." Older contenders (Dallas, San Antonio, Boston) and top-heavy rosters (New York, the Lakers) struggled to get going, while young legs (Philly, Denver, Oklahoma City), roster depth (Indiana, Minnesota, Chicago) and even altitude (Utah, Denver again) mattered a little too much. I haven't decided whether this year's title winner will come with a permanent asterisk — like the 1999 Spurs, for example — but we could be headed that way.
"Hold on a second," you're saying. "This doesn't make sense. You're crapping on the same season that everyone seems to be enjoying including you! Explain yourself."
The easy answer: We haven't had this much top-shelf talent and this many storylines in nearly 20 years (since the iconic 1992-93 season). Here, check this out
1993: Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing (superstars); Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Mark Price, Larry Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal (franchise guys); Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Drazen Petrovic, Chris Mullin, Dominique Wilkins (entertaining All-Stars); Joe Dumars, Dan Majerle, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, Danny Manning, Larry Nance, Derrick Coleman, Dennis Rodman, Brad Daugherty (All-Stars); Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, James Worthy (tenured All-Stars); Kenny Anderson, Shawn Kemp (entertainment X-factors); Gary Payton, Latrell Sprewell, Christian Laettner, Tom Gugliotta, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning (up-and-comers); Horace Grant, Detlef Schrempf, Sean Elliott, Glen Rice, Terry Porter (have to be mentioned).
2012: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant (superstars); Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge (franchise guys); Rajon Rondo, Blake Griffin, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili (entertaining All-Stars); Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Rudy Gay, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum (All-Stars); Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan (tenured All-Stars); Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry (entertainment X-factors); John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Ty Lawson, Eric Gordon, DeMarcus Cousins, Andrea Bargnani1 (up-and-comers); Kyle Lowry, Monta Ellis, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Tyson Chandler (have to be mentioned).
Look, I'd still take the 42 signature names from 1993 over the 42 signature names from 2012. But it was closer than I expected, and the 2012 list skews younger and hungrier (a good omen for these next few seasons, especially with a monster draft class arriving in June). It's like anything else — throw enough talent at any problem and you won't notice the warts as much.2 We already witnessed dozens of games like the ones I attended on Wednesday and Thursday night, when the Clippers split hard-fought, overly physical and undeniably sloppy games against the Lakers (loss) and Grizzlies (win). Did I enjoy those games? Absolutely. Would you have called it "good" basketball? Hell, no. But each night, both teams fought off fatigue and slugged it out. They gave a crap. It was refreshing to watch.
That's the biggest reason why the 2011-12 NBA season managed to remain so compelling. You know what else helped? The league shut down for five months, made its staunchest supporters believe the season was getting canceled and then, BOOM! Suddenly we were playing hoops again! The NBA crammed its entire signing period into four whirlwind (and genuinely fun) weeks, launched on Christmas (and owned that day like never before),3 then rolled out seven to 12 games night-after-night-after-night. I don't know anyone who loves the NBA and doesn't secretly (or openly) love this season. It's a quantity-over-quality thing — and remember, the NBA's regular season was never great, anyway. Like six months of halfhearted foreplay. Now? It's four months of furious, energy-sapping foreplay; we're just hoping everyone has enough left for the playoffs; and there's a dangerous edge because it could lead to real disaster. In other words, it's the Eyes Wide Shut sex party of regular seasons.
Two other factors really helped
1. The League Pass/Twitter/Texting/iPhone/iPad Era
These are fairly amazing times for technology. At my cousin Kristin's wedding reception in Boston two Saturdays ago, 10 guests huddled around me watching the fourth quarter of Saints-Niners on my iPhone (via Slingbox). At one point, someone said to me, "Should I walk to my car and get my iPad so we can have a bigger screen?" We debated whether it would be worth the walk outside (in freezing weather), ultimately deciding against it. The following night in our hotel room, my wife decided she wanted to watch the first episode of Downton Abbey on Netflix Streaming (to see if she liked it). We hooked up the iPad to our bedroom TV with a special HDMI cable, and within a few minutes we were watching poor Bates get crapped on by Lord Stanley's staff although really, I was only half watching it, because I was also watching a League Pass replay of Saturday night's Lakers-Clippers game on my iPad.4
Read that last paragraph again. How did we get here? Did you ever think we would be able to do things like watch football games on a phone at a wedding reception or watch our own on-demand shows on a hotel TV while also watching NBA games? The technology boom has been fantastic for NBA fans — with an onslaught of games every night, you can watch two games at once (one on your TV, one on your computer or iPad), catch up on games you missed (through those valuable League Pass replays), sneak peeks on your iPhone (hopefully not while going 75 miles an hour on the highway) or attend one game while watching another on your iPhone (depending on the arena's cell reception).
You always hear about players wanting to play in bigger markets, but here's the reality: Once technology progressed to a certain level, markets stopped mattering as much. Yeah, the Lakers and Knicks will always outspend everyone else because of their ticket/cable revenue, and yeah, players will always gravitate toward big cities, warm weather or tax-free states. But from a visibility standpoint, it doesn't matter where you play in 2012. Our marquee contenders are Miami, Chicago and Oklahoma City. Our marquee superstars are LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Rose, Howard, Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
The best example of things changing: The Minnesota
Timberwolves Rubio Loves improbably morphing into America's Team. This couldn't have happened 15 years ago, 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago, but the League Pass/Twitter/Texting/iPhone/iPad Era has been a phenomenal asset for them. Any time something is brewing with Minnesota — the T-Wolves trying to upset another contender, Rubio approaching a triple-double, Love going for a 30-20, you name it — word spreads quickly enough to catch crunch time. You know, assuming you weren't watching it, anyway. Had this specific Timberwolves season happened 15 years ago, we only could have enjoyed it through Craig Kilborn's 2 a.m. SportsCenter highlights. In our on-demand world of 2012, you can watch any Timberwolves game in any possible situation. Amazing.
2. The Christmas Day Launch
If we learned anything these first five weeks, it's that nobody can provide a reasonable answer for the question, "Everyone loved the NBA season starting on Christmas Day so, um why wouldn't the NBA season always start on Christmas Day?"
Hmmmmmmmmm. You can't answer that one without first answering the question, "Why has the NBA always gone from October to April?"
Here's the answer: Because that's the way we've always done it.
That's right, the eight most dangerous words in sports are back! Our first champions (the Philadelphia Warriors) started their season on November 7, 1946, played 60 regular season games (winning 35), then played another 11 playoff games and won the then-BAA title on April 22, 1947. That paved the way for the league's eventual October-to-April road map, a savvy idea in 1947 because baseball ruled everything back then. The regular season didn't swell to 82 games until 21 years later, when the Celtics opened their season on October 14, 1967, finished five months later (March 20, 1968) and won the title on May 2. (And you thought this year's schedule was brutal.) Not until the 1983-84 season did the schedule really resemble today's schedule: The Celtics started in late October, finished in mid-April, played four playoff rounds and won the title in mid-June (exact date: June 12).5
All right, so let's go back to 1947 you know, when it made sense to mirror college basketball's schedule, avoid America's pastime and position the future NBA as a winter sport. Does that still make sense in 2012, a good 25 years after football replaced baseball as America's most popular sport? Wouldn't you want to avoid as much of the National Football League as you possibly could? By launching around Halloween every year, the NBA gets lost in the shuffle because of the baseball playoffs (running through October), college football (cresting toward the conference championships in mid-November), the NFL (in full swing at this point) and even November sweeps (when networks stack their best programming). Three weeks pass suddenly it's Thanksgiving, then Black Friday weekend, then everyone shifts into Christmas/Hannukah/holiday party/shopping/vacation/final exams/NFL stretch-run mode, then it's Christmas Eve, then most people wake up the next day, open presents, turn on their TVs and say, "Hey look — it's the NBA! Who's good this year?"
That's why the NBA smartly turned Christmas into its first signature day of the season. So why not own it? If the NBA launched every Christmas and played a 75-game season over the next 160 days, that takes us to Memorial Day weekend and pushes the playoffs far enough away from baseball's first month (and that "new car smell" baseball always has), the NFL draft (always the lead story for that last week in April), the heart of May sweeps (the other time networks stack their shows), the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs (always frenetic), that crazy first sports weekend in May (which features the Kentucky Derby and a marquee boxing match) and even college exams. Conceivably, the NBA could own those next nine weeks (say May 29 through July 31), bang out its draft and free agency signing period in August (remember, those first three weeks in August are deadly boring from a sports/entertainment standpoint), then take the next 10 weeks off right as college and pro football are taking off.
So why wouldn't that make sense? I keep asking People in the Know this question and get the following rebuttals:
"People go on vacation in July; our season-ticket holders don't want to be worried about planning a vacation if their team might be in the Finals."
(News flash: I'm pretty sure they can plan a different time to vacation and/or sell their seats. And by the way, only four of the 30 teams would even be playing in July.)
"You can't do it because of the Summer Olympics."
(News flash: The 2016 Summer Olympics happen from August 5 to August 21. We could easily get creative that year and end the NBA season in mid-July so there's enough time to regroup.)
"That would suck for NBA employees — they wouldn't get a summer vacation basically."
(News flash: Neither do Major League Baseball employees. Also, can't you just take the last two weeks of August off stretching into Labor Day? You'll be fine.)
"We can't chop seven games from the regular season — it would cost teams too much money."
(News flash: Every player says, "I wish the season was shorter. It would be better for us." Why not listen to them? Don't you care about your product?)
"Because that's the way we've always done it."
(News flash: Those are the eight worst words in sports.)
You're not going to believe this, but I spent waaaaaaaaaaay too much time trying to figure out something that will never actually happen. And here's the reality: It would be too radical for the NBA to launch on Christmas every year. At least right away. Which is why I'm offering the following plan
• Starting next season, the NBA launches six days after Black Friday (this year: November 30, 2012) with a Thursday-night doubleheader on TNT. That way, the NBA avoids the baseball playoffs, college football's regular season and 75 percent of the NFL's regular season, drawing maximum eyeballs for opening week and using that next month to build up the storylines for Christmas Day.
• We play a 78-game regular season over the next 24 weeks, ending in mid-May (for 2012-13: Tuesday, May 14).6
• To make up the revenue from those lost games, we launch my Entertaining as Hell Tournament — the top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then the other 16 teams play a single-elimination tournament to "win" the no. 8 seeds. This would discourage tanking for lottery picks, reward late-bloomer teams and generate extra interest because, again, this tournament would be entertaining as hell. All 14 games would be televised — eight in Round 1, four in Round 2, then a doubleheader final at Madison Square Garden to decide the no. 8 seeds — over a week as the other 14 playoff teams regrouped and rested up.
• The EAH tournament runs for eight days (for 2012-13: May 16 through May 22), with the actual NBA playoffs starting on Saturday like always only this time, it launches on Memorial Day weekend (for 2012-13: May 26).
• The playoffs run for eight-plus weeks through June and July, allowing the NBA to own the second half of June, July Fourth weekend and that super-dead sports week during baseball's All-Star break. Its only competition over that time: midseason baseball, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Stanley Cup finals and summer movies.
• The Finals finishes one week after mid-July (for 2012-13: Game 7 of the Finals would be Tuesday, July 24); the NBA draft happens the following Tuesday (for 2012-13: July 31); then the free agent signing period kicks off one week later (for 2012-13: August 7).
Would the NBA — yes, the same league that's been notoriously afraid to take ANY chances over the past decade or so — ever shake things up that drastically? Probably not, although I wouldn't be shocked if they moved 2012's opening night to mid-November, then stretched the 2013 Finals through June — if only to give the league's superstars two extra weeks of rest after subjecting them to a shortened schedule and the Olympics just a month later. Regardless, that Christmas launch gave the 2011-12 season a little extra juice; it shouldn't be considered a fluke.
Of course, that wasn't the only reason this season has been so compelling. What are some of the other factors? You'll have to wait until Part 2 (coming Tuesday).