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NBA’s road to hell: Condensed 66-game slate has led to injuries, subpar product

Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose

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Updated: March 9, 2012 8:20AM

NEW ORLEANS — It’s hard to say if anybody ‘‘won’’ the NBA lockout. But six weeks into the abbreviated 2011-12 season, it’s crystal clear who the losers are:

The players. The coaches. The trainers. And the fans.

The ridiculous pace of the post-lockout season has assured that NBA owners will get 33 of their usual 41 home dates to ease the hit on their precious bottom line. But the rest of us are paying for it.

Too many games. Not enough practice. Too many injuries. Not enough days off. Did NBA owners really think their product wouldn’t suffer by forcing teams to play 25 or more regular-season games in 58 days after training camp opened — after having no organized offseason activities and two preseason games?

It’s bad enough the natural course of events is turning the NBA into one big AAU circuit. Now the owners are contributing to the problem, promoting an element of the game they should be fighting with all their might. And while the money is rolling in again, they’re facing a quality-control issue they don’t want to hear about: The bad teams are getting worse, and the good teams aren’t getting any better.

The Bulls are masking the effect locally because they’re an exception — one of the few teams well-equipped to handle the counter-productive pace: a young team with a defensive-minded coach, a roster made up almost entirely of players who fit Tom Thibodeau’s style, a well-organized second unit and an unselfish superstar.

Nobody seems to want to confront the issue. Even Bucks coach Scott Skiles, always a straight shooter, begged off when asked about it last week.

‘‘The wise thing to do is wait until the end of the season,’’ Skiles said, ‘‘then look at all the numbers, the games missed due to injury, work out the percentages compared to 82 games and then make judgments.’’

With all due respect to the former Bulls coach, the impact is unfolding before our eyes every night. On Monday night, Derrick Rose (back spasms), the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony (strained groin), the Clippers’ Chauncey Billups (torn Achilles tendon) and the Nuggets’ Danilo Gallinari (severely sprained ankle) suffered debilitating injuries. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’m pretty sure there haven’t been too many times in non-lockout seasons in which four key players went down in one night.

The pace of the schedule is compounding the problem. Rose’s back issue is unlikely to heal completely with the Bulls playing a game every other night. And with Rose injured, the Bulls didn’t practice Tuesday in New Orleans. The Nuggets, missing four starters, had a shootaround instead of a full practice.

‘‘It’d have been a mutiny if I’d have asked them to practice,’’ Nuggets coach George Karl told reporters.

And less practice leads to more bad basketball. In the last two weeks, there have been 22 games decided by 20 points or more — including the Trail Blazers’ 44-point annihilation of the Bobcats and the Celtics’ 36-point rout of the Raptors last Wednesday. In the same two-week span last season, there were two games decided by 20 or more.

It’s affecting all aspects of the game, including the officiating. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been on his best behavior since the playoffs but couldn’t help himself after the Mavs lost to the Thunder last week. ‘‘Some of these [officials] are having really bad nights, and it’s having an impact,’’ he said. ‘‘The league’s got to come out and say, ‘OK, look, we understand they’re going through some tough travel or whatever. It’s just the way it is.’ Otherwise, if that’s not an impact, you have to wonder how some of these crews are still on the court.’’

The league isn’t going to deal with it now. But even Thibodeau acknowledged it’s an issue to be evaluated.

‘‘I’m sure they’ll take a hard look at it when it’s over,’’ he said. ‘‘Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe you start off with the regular schedule early on and increase it at the end.’’

Commissioner David Stern’s mistake was rushing into the marketable Christmas Day opening tip. He should’ve insisted on a normal training camp and preseason, followed by a 50- to 54-game season.

The shame is that the owners weren’t willing to pay their share of the price for the lockout. It was their bad deal in the previous collective-bargaining agreement that precipitated the heavy-handed negotiations that led to the lockout.

If they sincerely meant to take responsibility, they would’ve put the fans, players and league first and played a more realistic regular season that emphasized the product instead of the profits.

That’s not the way they operate. But at the rate key players are falling, Stern and the owners might eventually feel our pain.

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