Lockout Basketball: How Bad Is It Really?

‘Tis time. We have enough games under our belt to see how the season is stacking up statistically compared to a non-compressed season of ball. Is the drop-off in quality and production really bad, not bad at all, or barely noticeable? Let’s find out, comparing each of the last two lockout seasons and the season immediately before it as a control.

All numbers are courtesy BasketballReference.com and are through February 5 for the current season.

PPG: Self explanatory, Points Per Game

Pace: An estimate of team possessions per 48 minutes

D-Rtg: An estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions.

Note: The difference between O-Rtg (offensive rating) and D-Rtg (defensive rating) can be misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The league average O-Rtg and D-Rtg is always the same number — a higher number than the average is a better O-Rtg, lower is a better D-Rtg. So the D-Rtg in this exercise is also the league average O-Rtg, but as offense is already represented in PPG I opted to present it as the defensive measure. That is, of course, a simplified explanation, but serves for these purposes

The 1998-99 regular season didn’t actually start until 1999 and consisted of 50 games per team starting on February 5 and ending on May 5, 1999

The 2011-12 regular season started on December 25, 2011 and is scheduled to consist of 66 games per team and end on April 26, 2012

The results were not what I expected when I started down this road. This is one of those times the eyeball test deceived me. Sure there’s been some eggs laid, as there are every year, but all-in-all I’ve had no complaints about the action night to night.

Observations

• PPG is off 5.1 this year compared to last while it fell of only 4.0 PPG in the last lockout cycle. However, since it was so low in ’99 it feels a lot less worse this time around. The difference between pre-’99 lockout and the current season is barely more than a single made free throw. The league average PPG has hovered around 100 for the last several seasons. The lowest-scoring non-lockout season in the David Stern era (1984-present) was 2003-04, at 93.4 PPG

• Pace is least affected by lockout seasons, comparatively, although this is the one measure more affected in the previous lockout compared to this one, a difference of 1.4 possessions from ’98 to ’99 compared to only 0.7 from last to this. Maybe readers can help unlock this mystery

• D-Rtg  has also risen dramatically in lockout years (remember, lower is better for D-rating), a difference of 2.8 from ’98 to ’99 and a difference of 4.5 from last to this. This is obviously due more to worse offense than better defense, as the following numbers will bear out, but we’re in far better shape overall when PPG are concerned with similar D-Rtg’s in both lockout years. This is largely due to the league as whole experiencing a high water mark for 3-point field goals both made and attempted in recent years

• From ’98 to ’99 FG% dropped from .450 to .437, a difference of .013, while from last year to this it fell from .459 to .443, a difference of .016 — pretty comparable. What makes the difference here is, .437 is pretty close to bad while .443 is almost respectable

• David Stern’s ’99 lockout beard > Any Spaniard-in-the-NBA’s neckbeard. Golden opportunity Gillette. Get on it

• 3-point percentage from ’98 to ’99 barely fell, from .346 to .339, a difference of less than one percentage point, .007,  while from last to this it’s off by .013, from .358 to .345. Thing is, .346 in pre-lockout ’98 isn’t too good or bad to begin with for a league-wide average so this lockout’s .345 feels a lot more acceptable even if it’s off a fair bit from the previous non-lockout year

• The extremely low 88.9 pace of play of the ’99 lockout season is the lowest in the Stern era. The 2003-04 non-lockout NBA season featured the next-lowest pace of play, 90.1, and a mere 93.4 PPG, a catalyst for the continued changes to the perimeter hand-check rules (for more on that odd era and what ultimately ended it, read this)

• David Stern has tremendous earlobes. He should totally pierce ‘em. Like, with half a Hope Diamond in each

• The highest PPG in the Stern era happened in 1984-85, an astounding 110.8. It wouldn’t drop below 100 PPG until 1995-96, the year the Chicago Bulls set an all-time NBA record going 72-10. Pace in ’84-’85 was 102.1 while D-Rtg was not that far off of last season’s at, 107.9

While we’re only one-third of the way through the current season, and numbers could drop more yet as players tire under a relentless schedule (that isn’t as grueling as it was in ’99, even, which featured far more back-to-back-to-backs per-team. Tip o’ the hat to Matt Winick here), overall it’s not a bad brand of basketball we’ve gotten thus far by the eyeball test. Even with numbers off farther from this season to last in comparison to the last lockout, they were so low, and falling, to begin with at the conclusion of the last century that the quality, pace, and scoring of the game was in jeopardy already. David Stern recognized this at the time and set about tweaking rules to rectify it.

Throw in the fact that guys never really take time off in the offseason anymore as they used to, and came back after the current labor outage ready to go, as opposed to so many last time around, plus ever-rising talent levels, and even if the numbers took a bigger dip this time than last, the quality of the basketball presented us is simply a better all-around brand and product making any fall-off less glaring. This unusual season aside, the number of players shooting at least 50% from the field has steadily risen.

Be sure to thank your players, organizations, and the commish for this. They’ve worked awfully hard to continue to raise the bar, a testament to how many hours of preparation are put into the end product, a product that leaps off of the shelf and into your living room, daily conversation, and memories.

Seth Carstens