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Madness has just begun for 'crazy' NBA season

Published November 29, 2011 9:05 pm

Lockout ending • Crammed training camps, shortened signing period contribute to tumult.
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More chaotic than the NBA work stoppage that technically still has not ended. Loaded with more madness than college basketball in March.

Welcome to the start of the 2011-12 NBA season. Lockout style.

The proposed start for a highly accelerated free-agency period is still 11 days away. But the Dec. 9 green light coincides with the opening of training camps, and just 16 days will separate those two tangled topics from the actual tip-off of a compressed 66-game season if the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is approved.

Factor in a tentative end to the lockout that arrived at about 1 a.m. MST Saturday during a holiday weekend — catching everyone from veteran All-Stars to experienced general managers off guard — and the past two days were all about playing catch-up.

The roller-coaster ride has just begun.

Agents burned up phone lines Monday, alternately getting in touch with clients stuck playing overseas and evaluating free-agency options for athletes suddenly seeking new jobs.

Teams also went into overdrive. While the CBA has yet to be formally approved and about 40 B-list items are still being negotiated, GMs and talent evaluators were already poring over their options. Who to sign? Who to cut? Who to keep? To amnesty or not to amnesty? And the biggest Q: How in the world will the NBA pull it all together and put on a legitimate nationally televised show Christmas Day?

"Crazy" was a term used by many when discussing the NBA's decision to open free agency and start 30 camps on the same day. The dual move is necessary to get the league up and running by Dec. 25. But with the CBA still in its infancy and team officials uncertain about many rules governing player movement, questions easily outnumber answers.

Nowhere is the conflict inherent in the league's hurried schedule more evident than with New Orleans. Fans and analysts spent the immediate period following a tentative agreement for a new CBA wondering how the deal would either help keep Chris Paul in a Hornets uniform or push him toward big-city teams such as New York.

But agents and front-office personnel focused on a more pressing problem: New Orleans has only five players under contract. How can the NBA ask the Hornets to start training camp Dec. 9, when the team can't even run a three-on-three scrimmage?

"To be honest, I don't know how it can kick off at the same time, because there's teams with a lot of free agents that won't have enough players on the 9th when free agency starts," a league source said. "It baffles me that they're talking about starting them the same day."

Agents said an incredibly narrow window to sign players, teach them a new system while running them into shape, and then put a viable product on the court for a season that initially could be defined more by back-to-back-to-back games than All-NBA caliber play will put a premium on proven talent.

GMs normally have at least two weeks starting July 1 to sweet talk and woo top-tier free agents. They often then spend the remainder of that month, August and September piecing together 15-man rosters. Now, even the ability to stall and lowball lesser-known players will appear old-fashioned.

Experiments and projects are suddenly a thing of the past. Extended negotiations will not exist. Hard offers will have to be delivered real-time, with some teams overpaying or signing less-than-ideal talent just to ensure they're able to perform when exhibition games likely start in mid-December.

In 11 days, the emphasis will be on proven commodities who can immediately contribute.

"Some teams will probably say, 'We'll offer you this, but we need to know in the next two hours or we're offering it to somebody else,' " a longtime NBA agent said.

bsmith@sltrib.com Twitter: @tribjazz facebook.com/tribjazz

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