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Shaun Powell

Phil Jackson wasn't shy about sharing his thoughts about the Spurs' championship in 1999.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

Shortening season would put asterisk back in NBA lexicon

Posted Sep 16 2011 10:16AM

A concerned ownership group and an anxious players union are doing their best to save the entire NBA season which would, if nothing else, spare us the noise about an asterisk champion.

You know, like the 1999 Spurs -- according to Phil Jackson.

We are trudging forward, ever so skeptically, to the next few checkpoints of the labor negotiation. If there isn't a deal in place in a few weeks, then training camps will be affected. If there's nothing in place in a month, then the start of the season is in jeopardy. And so on.

The longer the stalemate lasts, the better chance we'll get a repeat of the 1998-99 season, which ended with all sorts of legitimacy questions about the eventual champion.

The Spurs have three more championships now, so we don't hear much about how their group in '99 was supposedly tainted by a shortened season. But, in the event of an abbreviated season, you can expect that engine to churn here in the social media age. Especially if the trophy-lifting is being done by the Miami Heat, a team that people love to loathe and would be thrilled to discredit.

Where were you 12 years ago, when the owners and players pushed their labor negotiation into winter? Watching football, perhaps? Or were you worrying if there'd ever be an NBA season? Because of the '98-99 lockout, the plug was pulled on All-Star Weekend, but that was the only serious casualty. The league did salvage a 50-game schedule and the playoffs began in earnest.

The Spurs dodged the normal 82-game grind and in five games knocked out a Knicks team that was gritty enough to overcome a No. 8 seed but tremendously overmatched inside. It wasn't exactly a shock that the Spurs won the championship. They won 37 of 50 games during the season, had an imposing front line and with Michael Jordan retired, there wasn't a major obstacle for arguably the league's deepest and most talented team.

But the champagne wasn't yet dry when Jackson -- who had retired as the Bulls' coach before the season -- went all asterisk on the Spurs. He said their title, while earned, could never be equally compared to a championship won in a normal season.

"Anybody who was around basketball in '99 knows it was entirely an aberration," Jackson said. "Not that (the Spurs) didn't deserve it ... but that's an asterisk."

Was this yet another tweak from a coach who loved to stick it to his opponents (Jackson was fond of calling Jeff Van Gundy "Van Gumby.")? Or did Jackson have a point?

Every team played the same number of games that season, so it's not as if the Spurs had an advantage. Maybe there was less wear on David Robinson, who was well into his twilight, although he always kept himself in terrific shape and wouldn't retire for a few more years.

Perhaps the point Jackson meant to make: The regular season wasn't whole, and therefore, neither was the championship, no matter who won it. Didn't matter if the champ was the Spurs or Lakers or Knicks or Heat. Jackson thought there was something hollow, something missing from the season, that took the shine away from the crowning moment. If the season was indeed forgettable because of the lockout, then why should the champion escape the dreaded asterisk?

If anything, the big advantage for the Spurs is they didn't have to go through Jordan. Also, the Lakers didn't start their mini-dynasty in the 2000s (which was ultimately led by Jackson) until the following season. Therefore, the timing was right for San Antonio to seize the moment, sort of how it was for the Rockets to win in '94 and '95 while Jordan was in the minors shagging fly balls.

Then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr, while admiring the jewels in his bling, did notice: "There's no asterisk on the ring."

Which teams today would benefit from a shortened season? The aging contenders, for one, would welcome it. The Celtics and their Big Three, still dangerous but also graying, immediately come to mind. Throw the Lakers in the group as well.

Should we have another shortened-season champion, the questions will certainly follow. And to a degree, they would be legitimate. A shortened season and perhaps a best-of-five first round would make it easier for some teams to avoid injuries and the drain and remain fresh for spring. It wouldn't be such an advantage that an asterisk would be necessary. But there would be an edge nonetheless -- depending on the team.

Let's hope it never comes to this, for the NBA's sake. A full season would halt any debate. And a partial season? Well, the champion would deserve its due, no matter who wins it.

Yes, even Miami.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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