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Nobody knows what the NBA will look like on the other side of the COVID-19-fueled suspension of play. But as governments around the world take measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, there’s some small consolation in knowing that the last time the NBA disappeared for an extended stretch, it emerged a better league.
Less than a decade ago, a 161-day lockout wiped away nearly two months of the 2011-12 season.
When play resumed on Dec. 25, 2011, the most immediate changes pertained to the new collective bargaining agreement. The amnesty provision, the so-called Rose rule, the mid-level exception and a new split in basketball-related income altered the way teams did businessimportant but ultimately boring stuff.
The changes to the way the game was actually played? Now that’s more interesting.
Here Comes Small-Ball!
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The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat squared off on the first day of the 66-game post-lockout campaign in a rematch of the 2011 Finals. That game offered faint, subtle hints of the changes to come. The Mavs, having lost six key members of their 2011 title-winning team, met a version of the Heat they’d never seen before.
Miami was probably motivated after losing to Dallas in the Finals, and that may have explained some part of the energetic way it attacked a weakened Mavs team, flying around to force 17 turnovers and leveraging superior athleticism to nearly double Dallas up on the offensive boards, 15-8.
The Heat weren’t just messing around with the occasional smaller lineup or supercharged, skill-over-size looks. They were on the forefront of a trend that’d go on to sweep the league in the coming seasons.
Chris Bosh played more center than power forward in 2011-12, flipping the script on his first season with the Heat, in which he played 86 percent of his minutes at the 4. And as Miami reached higher-leverage situations, it leaned even harder on downsized, spaced-out units. The 2010-11 postseason, which ended with the Mavs hoisting a trophy at the stunned Heat’s expense, saw Bosh play 33 percent of his minutes at the 5.
He played center for 95 percent of his 2011-12 postseason minutes.
In a poetic coincidence, the 2011 lockout began exactly one month after Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement. It was as if the exit of the game’s last great giant symbolically ushered in an era better suited to the spindly and skilled.
By 2013-14, the last season of Miami’s four-year Finals run, Bosh was exclusively a center. And he averaged 2.8 three-point shots per game, a far cry from the 0.3 per contest he attempted in 2010-11. He didn’t start the three-point revolution, but he was on its vanguard.
His response to a question about handling the league’s remaining heavies underneath, relayed after Miami’s 2012 championship, was telling. Just before the dawn of a 2012-13 season that’d see him play 100 percent of his minutes at center, Bosh verbalized an attitude the entire league would embrace in the coming years.
Per Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report, Bosh said: “You know, if teams feel they have an advantage, tell them to dump it down there if they can. That’s my answer to everything. They say Bosh can’t play the 5, we have an advantage, and people think that, tell them to dump it down there. I’ll play defense, and we’ll get the rebound and go.”
The death of the post-up? Stretch centers? Increasing pace and higher offensive efficiencies? It’s all right there in that quote. And it all started after the lockout.
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Bosh was one of several players who broke down physically in the 2012 postseason. Though that might have been attributable to bad luck (or having to endure wrestling matches with larger conventional centers), it was part of a pattern that drew attention across the league.
To make up for time lost to the lockout, the NBA condensed its 66-game season into 124 days.
A few teams, like the Los Angeles Clippers, knew the wear and tear would be worse than usual.
“We identified with the condensed schedule,” Clippers general manager Neil Olshey told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. “The cumulative nature of guys wearing down by them playing too many minutes, too many games  in 31 days in March. That the bench was going to be really important.”
Everyone remembers Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first round against the Detroit Pistons, but the list of those who suffered injuries during the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs is remarkable to revisit:
- Dwight Howard, who’d never missed more than four games in a season, sat out a dozen before undergoing back surgery. He was never the same.
- LaMarcus Aldridge had hip surgery.
- Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles tendon.
- Iman Shumpert tore his ACL in the first round of the playoffs.
- Baron Davis tore his patella tendon, ACL and MCL in the same series during which Shumpert went down.
Jerry Colangelo got three extra weeks to choose his roster for the 2012 London Olympics because of all the uncertainty created by injured stars.
He explained the situation as diplomatically as he could, per Zillgitt: “As a result of what’s happened in this unusual NBA seasonnot pointing fingers or laying fault that it was a shortened seasonthe reality is there’s been a lot of injuries. As a result of that, we are going to take every moment we can before we select the team.”
The link between overuse and injury became a hotter topic than ever before, sometimes in funnier ways than you’d expect. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich even rested Tim Duncan for a game on March 25, 2012, listing the Hall of Famer as a “DNPOld.”
When we look backward for the predecessor to load management, that DNP might be where we should start.
And even if the league is still somewhat uncertain about the exact relationship between workload and health, the 2011-12 season firmly established that extended time off followed by a condensed schedule produces ugly basketball.
The league has been getting progressively faster for the last several seasons, but 2010-11 to 2011-12 was the last time pace actually declined year over year. Even more jarring: The decline in the league’s average offensive rating between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was the largest in NBA history.
The dip in performance and uptick in high-profile injuries spurred the league toward a “work smarter, not harder” approach.
That wasn’t the only positive to arise out of the strange circumstances of several months without basketball.
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After undergoing surgery on his right ankle in May 2011, Stephen Curry sprained that same ankle five times and played only 26 games in 2011-12. That led to a four-year, $44 million risk-mitigating contract with the Golden State Warriors.
That deal, which will go down as perhaps the most consequential bargain in league history, freed Golden State up to spend elsewhere as it constructed a dynasty.
Nobody is saying there’s a causal link between a work stoppage and a fundamental change in the way a sport is played and managed. But it’s still worth appreciating how something familiar can look so different after returning from an unwanted interruption.