David Stern and the NBA appear to be rushing into the 2011-12 season, as proven by the ongoing Chris Paul trade saga. Will fans pay the price for it?
We're less than two weeks away from the start of the NBA season and it's fair to wonder if the league is really ready to open for business.
Most people, myself included, applauded the league for announcing that they would begin the season on Christmas Day, long one of the league's time honored traditions. However, what most people didn't realize was that the schedule for free agency and training camps was so closely blended together that many teams simply wouldn't be ready to play on opening day.
As expected, the pace of free agency has been dizzying since the league officially opened its doors last week, but with training camps also now underway, there are a number of teams scrambling just to put enough bodies on the court to hold a five on five scrimmage. The New Orleans Hornets, for example, currently only have six healthy bodies while they try and sort out a trade for franchise guard Chris Paul. Until a decision is made on his future, the team can't go about the process of filling in the blank spaces on the roster.
In a normal off-season, this situation and others like it (ahem, Orlando) would be settled over the course of the summer free-agency period. It would have given the Hornets a couple of months to solicit offers, re-build the roster, and then prepare for the upcoming season. In it's rush to get the teams onto the court, the NBA is effectively asking teams like the Hornets to do all of this at the same time.
This process isn't just affecting the Hornets though, who are not being asked to play at a high level on that most sacred of NBA regular season days. The reverberations are also being felt in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, New York, Orlando, Dallas, Golden State, New Jersey and a few others in a lesser way.
The Lakers were essentially forced into trading the perpetually sensitive Lamar Odom after he was nearly dealt to New Orleans before the trade was nixed. Odom, not feeling wanted, then went to the Lakers and actually asked to be traded. The Lakers were forced to comply, shipping Odom to Dallas for the equivalent of a cotton candy machine (ie nothing) rather than risking him pouting his way through the season. So, a team with legitimate championship aspirations was forced to part with a piece of its core with little time to find a replacement.
The Clippers meanwhile, are being asked to part with essentially every attractive asset they possess short of Blake Griffin in order to get a deal done. If they were to successfully execute the proposed deal, the would be swapping four players for one, leaving them with just nine active players on the roster. That would give them less than two weeks to find replacements, integrate them into the new system, and then have them ready to play on opening night.
The Celtics are also waist deep in this mess. They've been actively shopping moody but talented point man Rajon Rondo to every team that will listen in order to try and pick up enough pieces to make one final run with a team that has been held together by little more than gum, string, and duct tape the last 12 months. Instead, they were rebuffed in their two attempts at an on the fly rebuilding, and are left with largely the same team that was running on fumes when it reached the second round of the playoffs last season.
Christmas Day in the NBA is supposed to be a showcase for the best teams that the league has to offer. The quality of play is supposed to exceptionally high and provide casual fans, who otherwise wouldn't be watching the NBA, a chance to see what it's best players and teams are all about.
When they tune in this year though, there's a real chance that they'll see a number of disjointed teams that are still trying to sort out the new pieces that were acquired during the condensed free agency/training camp period. The NBA is expected to showcase the Lakers, who will be without a starting center and have no bench, the Knicks, who are kicking around the idea of starting Mike Bibby at point guard, and the Clippers, who might be integrating as many as five or six new players into the roster in the next few days. Not exactly a recipe for quality basketball.
Players and the quality of play are not the only aspects of the league that are suffering though. The league has yet to announce a plan for its wildly popular "League Pass" service. Many fans are clamoring for the service to be offered free to fans who have had suffer through the lengthy lockout, but the league is still negotiating the price with cable and satellite providers.
In addition, sales offices are only just now beginning to get around to selling ticket packages and sponsorships to businesses and individuals. For teams like the Lakers, who sell out their games anyway, this isn't a big deal, but for teams like the Bobcats or Bucks that need the full summer to find creative ways to fill their arenas, it is a very big deal.
I understand the leagues position on this. After an ugly lockout that tried the fans patience and saw a number of them swear off the sport, they needed to act. By agreeing to concede some minor points in the final version of the collective bargaining agreement and scheduling the start of the season for Christmas Day, the league is hoping to make-up for missing the first seven weeks of the season.
Unfortunately, the league officials never truly considered the consequences of jamming together free agency and training camps to make the timetable work. The reality is that It's all about getting back to business as usual. Get the fans through the turnstiles, get the merchandise out the doors, and get the gravy train rolling again. Teams may not be able to put enough bodies on the floor for a real practice, the quality of play might be awful, but the league is hoping that the fans will just be happy to see the ball go up in the air and then open up their wallets.