Weekly Countdown: NBA's flashy midseason showcase not reality
All-Star weekend is less relevant than ever and creates false impressions
The NBA should be concerned about labor issues on the horizon
More topics: thoughts on looming trade deadline; revisiting the MVP race
5 Stories that put All-Star weekend in perspective
This weekend in Phoenix is bound to create all sorts of false impressions. It is a three-day statement of excess and glitz, yet it arrives at a time when most NBA teams are losing money. It emphasizes a me-first, individualistic approach to basketball, when in fact the best players -- to their credit -- are trending the opposite way. Here are five reasons why All-Star weekend is less relevant than ever.
5. Summer is more important than midseason. The experience of winning an Olympic gold medal has helped turn a generation of young stars into NBA team leaders. "That whole thing was really good for basketball,'' Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry said. "And really good for the NBA.''
Look at Orlando's Dwight Howard, who at 23 is suddenly aiming to overtake Kevin Garnett as the league's dominant defender. Look at Dwyane Wade, who is single-handedly driving Miami back to the playoffs with a nightly effort last seen by Michael Jordan. Look at Carmelo Anthony, who is working to rebound and defend for his newly respected Nuggets. Look at Kobe Bryant, who has turned the corner as captain of the Lakers after leading USA Basketball through the final minutes of the gold-medal game against Spain. Look at LeBron James.
"We reap the rewards here in Cleveland because LeBron's come back and continues to grow from the experience,'' Ferry said. "You can go through a lot of the [NBA] teams and see it was a great thing for basketball.
"Because it was a program,'' Ferry added of the USA Basketball experience. "It wasn't just a team. They were together and they got to know each other, and the peer pressure within at some level had to be really, really strong. It wasn't just who won or how many points I scored. It was the process. They were together the last couple of years and they all shared -- this is what I do to get better, this is how hard I work. They shared it without saying it, just by doing it. And at some level it pushed them, and they had to have grown from that.''
When they arrive at All-Star weekend, the league's young stars are conked over the head with a drumbeat telling them that it's all about you and your first name, that's it's a league of individual stars, that it's me-me-me first and foremost. And yet this past summer they embraced a better point of view.
"What was emphasized was team and the sum is greater than the parts and playing together and being a good teammate and appreciating the opportunity,'' Ferry said of the Olympic experience. "They had a great mix of younger guys and experienced guys, and you didn't realize how positive it was for the NBA until you see these guys now and the way they're playing.''
4. The prospect of another lockout. This All-Star weekend is the equivalent of Wall Street throwing a lavish party despite the plunging markets and dearth of capital. While players who can't fill their own buildings are being trumpeted in with over-the-top introductions, NBA owners will be discussing among themselves the measures they want in the new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated with the players' union after the 2010-11 season. Ticket revenues are plunging this season, with next year expected to be worse, which means the owners will want shortened contracts, smaller raises and other give-backs by the players. The union is unlikely to cooperate.
3. The new post-Jordan era. (Finally.) On the one hand, after a long decade spent at the mercy of teenaged draft picks who required years to mature on the NBA's dime, the league at last has the makings of a rivalry network last seen in the golden 1980s. The Celtics and Lakers are back on top. Wade is one star teammate away from getting back into contention, and Howard is on the verge of dominating Hakeem-style around the basket. The Blazers are building toward something good and the Spurs are the NBA's enduring equivalent of Nolan Ryan's ever-lively fastball.
An extended lockout would ruin this era. In order to win the labor war, the owners would destroy the players, and by the end the fans would hate everybody. Will both sides be smart enough to view a lockout as something that must be avoided at all costs? Doubtful.
2. Changes to the salary cap. To save what it has going, the league needs some new ideas. The salary cap introduced in 1984 was based on an accounting of the previous season's revenues. It worked during an optimistic time when the income from television grew each season.
Now the league has to develop a system that looks forward, rather than backward. The small-market teams need help from the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls, who draw from outlandish TV contracts that aren't available in Salt Lake City or Memphis. But those smaller markets can't be subsidized in a simple way, because many of those owners will pocket the money instead of investing it in their rosters.
As always, the NBA is a reflection of what is going on in a bigger way throughout the country. The NBA needs a new model (in place of the old salary cap) that lessens the widening gulf between rich and poor, because the league isn't healthy unless all 30 teams are healthy. But it also needs the infusion of cash to circulate through the payrolls and into the hands of players, rather than into the owners' pockets. And that just might be the crucial dynamic in getting the players to sign on to a more austere bargaining agreement -- provisions that guarantee they'll benefit equally to the owners.
If you're asking me for specifics, I have no idea how to create those kinds of safeguards. All I know is that the league has to make comprehensive changes to its business model, and that simply choking the players to take less money isn't going to save anyone.
1. The LeBron-Kobe rivalry. The hope of NBA fans should be that the owners and players are inspired while watching Kobe and LeBron oppose each other during this All-Star Game. They are the closest thing this era will know to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, in the sense that they are the two best players and that both committed to the success of their teams. Let's face it, they have enough talent and bargaining power that they could do whatever they wish. They could be entirely selfish, they could try to outduel each other for the scoring title each season. But each chooses to judge himself based on the success of his team, and that's what made the public love Magic and Larry and the NBA itself. If the two best players can strive for something bigger than themselves, then why can't the owners and the players' union do the same?