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OKC Thunder: Should NBA consider a split season?

The NBA season continues in suspension; we’re past the two-month mark.

It’s been 62 days since the Rudy Gobert news hit. The Utah Jazz center tested positive for the coronavirus, information that reached NBA authorities just as the Thunder and Jazz were sauntering to midcourt for the opening tipoff of a rather meaningful game, and the league slammed on the brakes.

And 62 days has zoomed past the magic number of 50. That was the length of baseball’s player strike in 1981.

That 1981 strike was not the most notable labor stoppage in American sports history. Baseball stopped in 1994 and never re-started – no World Series. Hockey never even started in 2004 – no season, no playoffs, no Stanley Cup in 2005.

But baseball 1981 was the most striking stop-and-start. Play ended on June 12 and resumed on August 9.

Baseball 1981 is remembered most for its split-season playoffs. The first-half standings were frozen; the second-half standings started at 0-0. The winners of each half met in league semifinal series, a forerunner of the divisional series we now know well.

And it begs a question, should the NBA consider some kind of split-season format if and when pro basketball resumes?

The answer is, only in a limited format.

Thirty-nine years ago, the baseball scheduling was crazy. When play stopped, the Pirates had played 48 games. The Athletics and Angels had played 60 games.

In the second half, after play resumed, the Pirates played 54 games. The Blue Jays played 48.

Combined, the Giants played 111 games. The Royals, Indians, Cardinals and Pirates each played 103.

The result was the height of injustice.

The Reds finished the first half a half-game behind the Dodgers in the National League West. LA was 36-21; Cincinnati was 35-21. The Reds finished the second half a game-and-a-half behind the Astros. Houston was 33-20, Cincinnati was 31-21.

So the Reds, with the best record in baseball, 66-42, a winning percentage of .611 that was a 99-win pace in a normal season, missed the playoffs.

So did the Cardinals, who had the NL East’s best record, 59-43. But St. Louis finished a game-and-a-half behind Philadelphia in the first half and a half-game behind Montreal in the second half.

The American League was not quite so draconian, though it had its quirks. The teams with the best records (Oakland in the West, 64-45; Milwaukee in the East, 62-47) made the playoffs. But so did the Yankees, who won the first half at 34-22 but slipped to 25-26 in the second half. New York’s overall record of 59-48 was fourth-best in the American League East, but the Yankees went all the way to the World Series. And Kansas City, with an overall losing record, 50-53, made the playoffs courtesy of a 30-23 second-half record that was one game better than Oakland’s.

A split season in the NBA could be less paramount, since so many more teams make the playoffs.

No way should, would or could the NBA make some of equitable split season, since roughly 80 percent of the season has been played.

But could the NBA pull a page from NASCAR and stage a sprint to the finish line. Go ahead and count on the overall standings whatever regular-season games are played. But stipulate that the seventh and eighth seeds will be determined by the best records, post-suspension.

Teams that are far down the standings, out of the playoff chase, could mount a charge to the postseason. As it stands now, the playoff races are quite blah.

In the Eastern Conference, there is no chase. The eighth-seeded Magic is 5-1/2 games above the ninth-seeded Wizards. Making up that ground over 17 or 18 games in improbable. The East basically is playing for positioning.

In the West, eighth-seeded Memphis has a 3-1/2-game lead over Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento, with San Antonio a half game behind that trio. The Grizzlies could be caught, but still, 3-1/2 games is a sizable lead.

But if you start over with either the seventh and eighth seeds or simply the eighth seed. Suddenly it’s a track meet, and those Minnesota-Phoenix and Detroit-Chicago games that would be played without fans suddenly would have much more television appeal.

Of course, some teams don’t want to make the playoffs. Finishing eighth so that you miss the lottery and get pummeled by the Lakers or Bucks in the first round of the playoffs is bad strategy.

That’s one of the NBA’s foremost problems, the incentive to lose. Heck, a split-season format probably would shine a light on that plague. Might help bring about lottery reform.

The NBA might decide to forego the rest of the regular season. With so little playoff drama apparent, the league might decide that going straight to the postseason is better. That would cut the NBA’s logistical headaches by more than 50 percent and eliminate some of the most meaningless games.

But that’s a lot of content that could fill up televisions during the pandemic and could recoup millions of lost revenue.

A split season would be a lark, a way to generate some interest in games that otherwise have little meaning.

Just don’t expect the split season to be a blessing.

Jeff Katz, the mayor of Cooperstown, New York, and a baseball historian, though he’s not affiliated with the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote a book, Split Season: 1981. Katz’s conclusion on the split-season format? He said a few years ago that “it was kind of a quickly cobbled-together solution that was really an artistic failure. And from a ratings and attendance point of view really didn't help either.”

But the NBA doesn’t need attendance help. There isn’t going to be any. And the NBA might not need any television ratings help; we might be so hungry for live sports that we would watch Knickerbockers-Hawks at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. Still, the split season is something to at least think about on a sportsless day in May.

Related Photos
Oklahoma City Thunder fans leave lafter an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma City Thunder fans leave lafter an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-22c43b83de72bd4eb858a8bbcb3f731e.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder fans leave lafter an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]" title="Oklahoma City Thunder fans leave lafter an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder fans leave lafter an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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