NBA

Schedule provides little rest for vets

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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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Say what you want about Phil Jackson, but the man understands the importance of timing. He showed up in Chicago in time for Michael Jordan to learn how to win, and arrived in Los Angeles just when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were figuring out each other — on the court, anyway. Jackson also had the good sense to get out of town when Jordan and O’Neal did.

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GAMES TO WATCH

The NBA released its compressed 2011-12 schedule, and we've circled these 10 games.

So, when Jackson retired — again — as the coach of the Lakers at the end of last season, it is not surprising to see how smart he is looking now.

Jackson said on the eve of the playoffs that he expected a long lockout — for which he was fined $50,000 on his way out the door — and he clearly knew the ramifications of that.

The Lakers are an old team — Andrew Bynum the only player of consequence under the age of 31 — that had little flexibility under a salary cap that was only going to get tighter under the new labor deal.

And the condensed schedule of a lockout-shortened season would be no fun — for Jackson and his artificial hips and bad knees, or a veteran team.

Just how little fun was apparent Tuesday, when the NBA released its schedule. The upshot: The NBA this season is no country for old men.

To cram 66 games into a season that is starting eight weeks late, every team will have to play three games in three nights at least once, and there are fewer days off that might be used for either practice or rest.

This is particularly bad news for veteran contenders. Defending champion Dallas, with Dirk Nowitzki (33), Jason Terry (34), Jason Kidd (38) and Shawn Marion (33), has the league’s most geriatric core. Not far behind is Boston with Paul Pierce (34), Ray Allen (36) and Kevin Garnett (35).

The Spurs have quietly been getting younger around the fringes, but Tim Duncan (35) and Manu Ginobili (34) are still two of their cornerstones.

But the Lakers, who start the season with three games in three nights in three cities, might be hit particularly hard because they have so many aged players who also have a lot of playoff wear and tear — Kobe Bryant (33), Pau Gasol (31), Lamar Odom (32), Derek Fisher (37) and the former Ron Artest (32). And they’ll have to start the season with Bynum suspended for five games, the result of his body slam of J.J. Barea as the Lakers were being eliminated by Dallas last spring.

But where the Lakers’ dilemma is unique is this: They’re an older team that will need plenty of rest, but with a new coach, Mike Brown, they’ll also need plenty of practice.

If Kobe rarely practiced last season to rest his knees, then how often will he be given a day off this season with the familiar triangle offense being scrapped?

A sign of what may await these teams might be seen in the last lockout season, 1999. The Jazz were coming off back-to-back NBA Finals losses to the Bulls, but with Chicago being disassembled, it was expected to finally be Utah’s year.

The Jazz got off to a sizzling start, 32-8 with four of the losses in overtime. But the legs of their best players — Karl Malone (35) and John Stockton (36) — were shot by April and Utah faded down the stretch. After squeaking past Sacramento in overtime of Game 5, the Jazz were bounced out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals by younger, deeper Portland.

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MAKE YOUR MOVES

Once lockout lifts, NBA teams should pull the trigger on these 10 moves.

In this truncated season, that could be good news for young, talented and deep teams that have also been together. Oklahoma City, coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals, shouldn’t be hindered by a heavy schedule. Memphis, if it can retain restricted free agent Marc Gasol, also seems well positioned to prove its playoff upset of San Antonio wasn’t a fluke.

In the Eastern Conference, the 76ers might be ready to take a leap into the top tier, and the Bulls, though they won’t be catching anyone by surprise, shouldn’t be the least bit bothered by a heavier load. Chicago also seems to be the darling of the schedule maker. The Bulls begin the season by opening against the Lakers on Christmas Day and spending the first week in California. The only Western Conference teams the Bulls have to play twice are Sacramento, New Orleans and Memphis.

The Lakers, by contrast, play Miami, New York and Boston twice. That might be a gift to basketball fans (and the networks) for enduring the lockout, but they might be morsels that have to be savored.

The chances of seeing the Lakers play again in June?

Well, timing is everything.

Tagged: Celtics, Bulls, Mavericks, Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol

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