Things we’ve learned so far this season:
• The Miami Heat has a sense of purpose. Playing without Dwyane Wade (sore left foot) and LeBron James (sore left ankle) Thursday at Atlanta, the Heat showed mental toughness in a 116-109 triple-overtime victory that ran its record to 7-1.
• The aging San Antonio Spurs (5-2) might have one more title run left even though Manu Ginobili is injured again. The veteran guard had surgery on a broken bone in his left hand last week and is expected to miss six weeks.
• When a coach clashes with a big man who’s a rising star the coach isn’t likely to win, and Paul Westphal didn’t. His public feud with DeMarcus Cousins triggered his firing and hurt the Sacramento Kings’ efforts to win local support for a new arena.
• Two weeks of training camp and two exhibition games weren’t enough to produce a decent caliber of play. Haste to begin the season on Christmas Day kept camps short, leading to ragged performances league-wide and players who are pushed to the limit in a compressed schedule.
Let’s stick with that final point, because it’s going to stick with us for a while.
“The regular season, there’s going to be a lot of disappointing nights for a lot of teams and most of it is unavoidable because of the schedule plus lack of preparation in the preseason,” said Jeff Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who analyzes games for ABC/ESPN.
“Only when the season gets to the playoffs will there be any return to normalcy as far as play. Right now, you play five games in six nights and six games in eight nights and the human body can only take so much. Player health and the quality of play was put on the back burner for the only reason that really both sides could come together about, which is maximize money.”
Van Gundy knows ragged when he sees it; he coached the Knicks after the 1998-99 lockout. That season was shortened to 50 games and was — to put it mildly — lacking in artistic merit.
“The quality of play in ’99 was even worse because we were off longer and you didn’t start until February. You had another six weeks out,” Van Gundy said. “So it was bad.”
What’s out there now is bad enough.
The overall league shooting percentage was .441 through the first 109 games, down from .459 for the complete 2010-11 season and .453 through 106 games at the most comparable stage last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Four teams were averaging 90 points or fewer, compared to none all of last season and one at the same point in the schedule. Teams this season were averaging 94.7 points per game, down from 99.6 for 2010-11 and 100.4 at this stage last season.
“I think the teams that have their core together plus their coaches have the best chance for early success,” Van Gundy said. “But I think it’s incredibly hard to predict because the injuries are going to mount rapidly and when they hit you’re missing more games per week and a bigger percentage of the season in a 66-game schedule.
“In Memphis, Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph both go out and what everyone was predicting as a great season for Memphis is very difficult now. So much is going to be predicated on who stays relatively healthy.”
Blame for the hectic schedule goes to everyone.
“They could have eliminated that All-Star break to spread out the schedule a little bit more but again, that’s another money grab,” Van Gundy said. “But the players agreed to it. So you can’t just fault the NBA office or owners. The players agreed to the same thing, to put their own health at risk. . . .
“No one can say they’re being taken advantage of. The only people being taken advantage of are some of the fans having to watch some of the games.”
It’s not all grim. Van Gundy praised the Chicago Bulls for a strong start, Portland for persevering after losing Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, and said the Lakers, though no longer overwhelming, are playing “as well as their talent will allow them to. I don’t think Mike Brown could have done a better job.”
He also sees better things ahead for the quality of play.
“Unfortunately, right now, to me the bad outweighs the good,” he said. “By the time the playoffs come and the schedule gets back to being normal, where players can rest and prepare and practice, the playoffs should be good. It’s just there are going to be a lot of painful, ugly, disappointing nights along the way to get to that point.”