Strong NBA title race in store
The five leading title contenders all made themselves stronger this summer
The salary rules have yielded an unexpected benefit for the best teams
This article appears in the October 26, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated
The Cavaliers adopted Shaquille O'Neal to serve as a big brother to LeBron James, even as the champion Lakers were providing Kobe Bryant with a pit bull named Ron Artest. The Magic became more explosive by trading for Vince Carter, and the Celtics grew more experienced (and versatile, and grouchy) by adding Rasheed Wallace. And don't forget the Spurs -- they made off with Richard Jefferson like barons robbing from the poor.
While billionaires around the globe have been losing fortunes, multinationals have been going under, and the entire world has sought to downsize, the NBA's rich have grown richer. In spite of the larger, gloomier trends, the five leading title contenders all made themselves stronger this summer with expensive moves that should lead to the strongest title race in two decades. The coming season promises to be a throwback to those glorious days when leading men like Magic, Larry, Dr. J and Isiah were surrounded by talented lineups and deep benches. "That's how it should be," says James, the reigning MVP. "You look back in the '80s, you not only had three or four All-Stars on the same team, you had three or four Hall of Famers on the same team. So it's good to see the competition is getting back up there."
In this otherwise troubled recessionary era, with NBA referees sidelined by a preseason lockout and a possible leaguewide shutdown on the horizon when the players' collective bargaining agreement expires as early as 2011, it seems absurd to be recalling the happiest of basketball times. After all, we can never expect to see another lineup like that of the champion 1985-86 Celtics, who should wind up with five players in the Hall of Fame when the late Dennis Johnson is eventually voted in and joins Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and sixth man Bill Walton.
But the modern-day Celtics have crept up on their '80s forebears, with likely Hall electees in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and a strong supporting cast that includes point guard Rajon Rondo and now Wallace, their second-unit leader, who remains among the league's most talented big men. Likewise, in San Antonio defenses can't zero in on the Spurs' murderers' row of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- another trio headed for Springfield -- now that those three have been joined by Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, who provides Duncan with his best frontcourt complement since David Robinson.
So deep is Cleveland that two-time All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will come off the bench behind O'Neal, the dominant big man of his generation. Orlando will start a prolific scoring trio of Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Carter in addition to a fourth All-Star, point guard Jameer Nelson. But the Magic's opponent in last year's Finals might have done even better: Los Angeles strengthened itself defensively with the intimidating Artest, who also averaged 17.1 points for the Rockets in 2008-09 while scoring from the three-point line as well as the low post.
Then consider the improvements of second-tier playoff teams like the Trail Blazers (who added point guard Andre Miller) and the Hawks (combo guard Jamal Crawford). Even the Wizards, a 63-loss team, could slingshot to 50 or more wins this season with the return of All-NBA point guard Gilbert Arenas and the acquisitions of Mike Miller, Randy Foye and coach Flip Saunders. Says an excited Garnett, "I've never seen it like this since I've been in the league, with so many teams that are stacked with a lot of talent."
It's been a long time coming. The success of Magic and Bird led to the Michael Jordan era; then, rosters became thinner as even top teams made do with limited role players and second units stocked with castoffs. It was popular to blame this on the league's expansion from 23 franchises in 1988 to 30 by 2004, even though the demand for more players has been offset by the emergence of international talent. (Of the 15 players on last season's All-NBA teams, four -- Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker -- were imported from countries that weren't supplying talent to the league two decades ago.) More damaging than expansion have been changes made to successive collective bargaining agreements that brought the emergence of "maximum contracts," which enable a single player to siphon off anywhere from 25% to 35% of a team's salary cap, limiting most franchises to two elite players with top salaries. Then there's just plain bad judgment, which has led to outlandish investment in players such as Jermaine O'Neal (who is guaranteed $23 million this season), Zach Randolph ($16 million) and Larry Hughes ($13.7 million).
Now, because of declining revenue around the NBA, the salary rules have yielded an unexpected benefit for the best teams: They have been able to hoard talent because franchises that are not in the championship hunt are trying to slash their payrolls. Take Richard Jefferson, please, said the struggling Bucks this summer, because they couldn't afford to retain their dynamic small forward without facing a luxury tax on his $14.2 million salary this season. Milwaukee will save about $10 million this year on the three-team deal with Detroit and San Antonio, while the Spurs gave up a trio of older role players (Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas) for the 29-year-old Jefferson, a 17.7-point career scorer who should be able to defend the best wings, run in transition with Parker and share the perimeter burdens with Ginobili. "They're going to have one of the more potent starting lineups in basketball," says the Celtics' Pierce.
The Jefferson deal amounted to a sea change for the small-market Spurs, who had set the standard for fiscal restraint throughout their decadelong run to four championships by never straying more than $1 million above the tax threshold. But last summer owner Peter Holt made like Sergei Bubka and vaulted almost $10 million over the tax bar, increasing the team's payroll to $79 million, motivated by the belief that his team was close enough to a title to merit the extra spending. "In the past we were able to stay under and bring in role players, whether it was Mario [Elie], Jack [Stephen Jackson] or Bruce Bowen," says Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich. "But now the talent level has got to the point on so many teams that you just can't do it."
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