— Amid the chaos of this unconventional NBA season, Shane Battier has settled into a rather bland routine.
“I mean, literally, it feels like all I do is get in at 3 o’clock, wake up, eat chicken for lunch — because we usually have brunch on walkthrough days when we don’t have shootaround — take a nap, wake up and play basketball, and do the same thing the next day,” the veteran Heat swingman said. “It literally feels like Groundhog’s Day. I’m so sick of chicken. I swear. Because it’s all they have on the buffet every day.”
The NBA’s buffet has been bountiful with basketball the past three months, and there’s no sign that fans are sick of it as the All-Star break approaches. Television ratings have continued to soar even after a bitter lockout that delayed the start of the season seven weeks and shaved the schedule from 82 to 66 games. Fans have taken a heaping helping of several tasty storylines, from Jeremy Lin’s emergence to the Heat’s excellence to the Bulls’ resilience to the Clippers’ gravity-defiance.
The games themselves?
Some of those should have been spit out.
Turns out it’s tough for teams to turn in four or five quality performances per week, after no training camp and with few practices.
“I do think it’s affected the quality of basketball,” Battier said. “I’m having the worst-career shooting year of my life, and I take solace that I’m not the only one.”
The statistics certainly reflect that.
TNT analyst Hubie Brown is among those who expected those numbers, citing several factors, starting with training camp, which hardly started before it stopped. Normally, teams would have a month to prepare for the grind of the season. This time, they had two weeks.
“You don’t have time for players to get into the physical shape that NBA basketball requires, not only the 48 minutes, but the travel with the games,” Brown said.
Nor did it help that many players didn’t enter camp in optimum condition.
“The layoff is the biggest factor,” Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said. “Starting the season in December instead of October, you probably had a lot of guys, their bodies and minds are so used to working up into training camp. And when that date is not there, you got another two months, a lot of guys probably took another couple of weeks off.”
As Battier admitted: “It was a crazy summer. You couldn’t really prepare for training camp. Usually, I come into training camp in pretty good shape. But you really couldn’t put the pedal to the metal, in terms of your workouts, because we didn’t know if we would have a season at all.”
After it was announced, it was time for exhibition games. Players don’t like the normal slate of eight; Heat guard Dwyane Wade, for instance, thinks four “would be perfect.” But the league trimmed it even more than that.
Down to two.
“Obviously that short period of time and getting right into the season was hard on the body, as in getting to where you needed to be,” Wade said.
Although it was hard physically on the players, it was even more challenging tactically for the coaches. In late January, Bucks coach Scott Skiles was still in the preliminary stage of experimenting with lineups — such as playing point guards Brandon Jennings and Beno Udrih together — that he would have tested long before. In games that didn’t count.
“We’re just doing it on the fly,” Skiles bemoaned.
So it has diminished the overall level of play?
“Now, who would I be blaming if I said yes?” Skiles said, smiling. “I’ll stay away from that one.”
Brown, a head coach in the NBA for 17 seasons, sympathized.
“We don’t need eight exhibition games,” Brown said. “But if you play six, it’s a good number for everybody.”
Brown used to use at least two of the games to get a good look at roster longshots, who might have a chance to contribute.
“This year, you couldn’t do any of that,” Brown said. “Never mind now if you had four or five key draft or free agent guys who are new to your team and you are a team that runs a lot of plays. Brutal.”
So Brown sees a lot of broken offense, and plenty of bad shots.
Yes, even now, three months into the season.
That’s because of the second factor contributing to the sometimes-sloppy play: the schedule.
Each team must play 66 games in a span of 120 days, not including All-Star weekend. Last season, each team played 82 games in 170 days, not including All-Star weekend. Players are getting into cities just before dawn after playing the night before. So some are sneaking in their rest on the floor, especially on the back ends of back-to-backs or back-to-back-to-backs, often against seemingly weaker opponents.
“Every week, a great team loses by 20,” Brown said. “You’re like, how the heck does that happen?”
Simple, as he knows.
Battier calls those games “scheduled losses.”
“You just look at the schedule, you just know a team has had a crazy week, and you know that last game is going to be a loss,” Battier said. “A couple of losses have been under those funky circumstances.”
Which is why everyone in the Heat organization, from coach Erik Spoelstra on down, expressed such pride in the Heat’s back-to-back-to-back road wins this month, all by double digits, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 42 years. A feat made even more remarkable by the fact that the last victim, Indiana, was coming off two days of precious rest.
Steve Kerr, a TNT analyst, blames the schedule for the inconsistency in effort and performance.
“I think we are seeing some games that are spectacular, and then we’re seeing some duds where teams just have nothing in the tank,” said Kerr, a former NBA general manager. “We did a game (three) weeks ago in L.A., the Nuggets and the Clippers. The Clippers came out and scored 31 points in the first quarter, they looked great. But it was their fourth in five nights, they were exhausted, and they completely hit the wall. And Denver just blew them out. There was no question that was a so-called lockout loss."
The nature of that schedule has coaches reluctant to push, even on the rare days without a game. They are relying more on video, less on physical court work.
“The lack of practice time, I think that’s huge,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Especially with a young team, new coach, new situation, it’s been more difficult. With a veteran team, maybe like Miami, San Antonio, maybe not as much, but for us and probably other teams, it’s been a challenge. Coming in, catching things up on the fly. I think you’re probably seeing some (issues with) offensive execution, things coaches want to add in, you can’t do as much.”
And here’s what players are doing, after entering the season in suspect shape and then enduring all this stress:
They are straining, spraining, tearing, breaking ... and sitting.
Just about every NBA contender has lost a premium player for at least eight contests, some for much longer. That’s Miami with Wade, Chicago with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, Boston with Rajon Rondo, Memphis with Zach Randolph, the Clippers with Chauncey Billups, the Hawks with Al Horford, the Spurs with Manu Ginobili. And so on. Some injuries have been serious, and would have kept players out for long stretches even in a normal season; some injuries have been nursed to avoid re-injury and an even more extended absence.
“I don’t think that it’s unexpected with the way they have crowded things,” Brown said.
So will things get better?
Will the product improve?
Many coaches and players think so. Spoelstra said “I think you are starting to see basketball that is very close in terms of competitiveness, efficiency, all that, to a normal NBA season at this time of the year.” Battier expects averages to continue to come up. Wade predicts, with “a lot of teams really getting into shape,” that “it is going to be a very exciting end to the season coming out of the All-Star break.” Their teammate, LeBron James, even called the uneven first half “a success,” due to the excitement of the fans and the efforts of the players.
That’s easy for them to say.
The Heat enters the break in first place in the East, no worse for this strange season’s wear.
Must be something in that chicken.
Ethan J. Skolnick is a sports columnist for the Palm Beach Post. Follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick.