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Steve Aschbruner

Eighty-two games: Desirable goal or pushing it?

Posted Oct 28 2011 11:17AM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- As negotiations toward the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement grind toward some sort of resolution -- with "sooner" already off the table, the choice now is later or much later -- the owners and the players are wrangling for more than just the reality of a 2011-12 season.

They are scrambling hard for the entirety of their paychecks and the sanctity, if it can be called that, of the 82-game schedule.

All without crowning the 2012 champions sometime after baseball's All-Star Game.

At first blush, the notion of still playing a full NBA season seems goofy, maybe even impossible. The lockout already has gobbled up nearly four months -- 120 days as of Friday. It has crowded all sorts of business traditionally conducted in the offseason -- free agency, summer leagues, marketing maneuvers -- into whatever frantic window of time gets carved out between a handshake CBA agreement and a rescheduled Opening Night.

Two weeks of games were "canceled" almost three weeks ago. The turnaround time to get up and running, even if a deal were reached five minutes ago, would likely push everyone past Thanksgiving and possibly into December. Somehow squeezing in a full slate of games -- 1,230 in all for the 30 teams -- without shifting pro basketball into July, bleeding up to prep work for the 2012 London Olympics and taxing everyone's patience and attention span deep into summer already would seem to require more David Copperfield than David Stern.

And yet both sides continue to pursue that 82-game prize.

"If there was any hope of trying to recapture the lost games and be able to complete a full season of 82 games," union director Billy Hunter said after bargaining resumed this week, "then there had to be a way to get back and talk. I assume if a deal can be achieved between now or Sunday or Monday, I think it's possible."

Said NBA commissioner Stern: "We initially wanted to miss none. It's sad that we've missed two weeks. We're trying to apply a tourniquet and go forward. That's always been our goal."

Cynics might say that only the owners and the players are hung up on salvaging a full 82. Those are earning opportunities, plain and simple, dedicated to turnstiles, broadcast rights and paychecks.

Some would even blame the prospect of playing 82 for extending the lockout. As long as a full schedule of paydays remained in play, even backstage in whispers, the urgency to get a deal could not be cranked to 11. Kidnappers don't get leverage if they just keep threatening to hack off a pinky; they actually have to start mailing the parts.

Keep in mind, as some sort of sports cultural touchstone, there isn't anything particularly special about 82 games. Not in the way baseball's vaunted "162" gets cited as the true test of a division winner or football's familiar "16" (which was "14" not that long ago) now seems like the minimum feast for NFL fans.

Some of that has to do with numbers -- the NBA is an averages-and-percentages league rather than a totals league. No one has ever known the record for points scored in a season the way people have obsessed over the single-season home run mark or the gray threshold of 1,000 yards rushing. (For the record, though, it's still Wilt Chamberlain with 4,029 points in 1961-62).

Also, it simply is not true that the shortened 1999 post-lockout season -- so dented that it technically lost its "1998-99" status -- is looked back on in scorn or shame. It ran from early February to early May and, yes, it did require some unsavory three-games-in-three-nights manipulations. But the league ran a full playoff bracket and got the No. 8-seeded Knicks into The Finals.

Only Phil Jackson -- who didn't even work that season -- ever has tried to snidely attach an asterisk to the Spurs' first championship. Heck, a case could be made that the NBA's first year after the Jordan-dynasty Chicago Bulls was mercilessly cut shorter.

But back to the future: Is there time for 82? The short answer presumably is yes. The league's senior vice president of scheduling, Matt Winick, is believed to have run numerous scenarios through his super-computer -- actually, Winick might still go old-school with pencils and paper -- for catch-up seasons of varying lengths. If 82 weren't possible somehow, some way, it wouldn't still be on the table.

A typical NBA season runs about 170 days, roughly from the start of November through the middle of April. If the union and the owners nail down a deal this weekend, four weeks -- for finalizing and ratifying, for fleshing out rosters, introducing new coaches and players to their teams and booking practices and maybe a couple of tune-up games -- would have the 2011-12 season starting about a month late.

How to make up a month? Push into early May again -- that gets them two weeks, maybe 2 weeks back. Tighten up the playoffs' first round for a couple more days of usable time. Target any gaps of three or more consecutive days off in each team's original schedule -- and hope like heck their buildings aren't clogged by concerts, circuses or ice shows.

As a regrettable last resort, create a few back-to-back-to-back scenarios. That used to be common in the old NBA -- back when the entire league operated within one time zone of each other. We assume some of the league's oldsters might have to pace themselves or stay in street clothes for some portion of those but hey, that's the price of failing to avert a lockout.

Then try to sell all the re-scheduled dates to a fan base that might be just as happy with 70 or 62 games, since ticket expenditures mean more on its side of the equation than ticket revenues.

After the 15-hour negotiating session Tuesday stretched into Wednesday, Stern said: "Whether [we get] 82 games or not is really dependent upon so many things that have to be checked. We've got building issues. ... We've got travel schedules. We've got all kinds of things that are difficult for us.

"We have the sheer volume of games that might have to be compressed and the amount of back-to-backs that players could be asked to play. And, really, in terms of the number of games that fans could be asked [in] a given time to attend. These are all considerations that are going to be on the table and we're going to work at it with the union."

Cramming in 82, certainly, would be way better than failing to salvage even one. But know this, too: If they manage to pull it off, and if no one gets badly hurt either on the court or in the wallet, they'll be as emboldened as a slacker who crams for his final and still passes the class. Woe to all of them the next time they turn to the calendar in search of urgency.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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