FOR MUCH of the sports-watching population, the following assertion will inspire outrage, scorn and an avalanche of dissenting letters. But here it is: At the midpoint of the 2004--05 season the NBA appears to be well on its way to rehabilitating its product on the court and its image off it.
For a few crazy moments let's assume that an entire sport should not be defined by a single Friday night fight (as ghastly as the Malice at the Palace was) and that the NBA will not commit labor suicide this summer when the collective bargaining agreement expires (as its ice-skating counterpart has done). Let's take a look at all that's going right.
? Style points. After years of subscribing to the belief that 100 is, like 666, a figure to be avoided, teams have discovered that piling up points can yield stunning results--that a winner can be built around the fast break, rapid ball movement and, in the case of the resurgent Suns and Sonics, three-point shooting. At week's end seven teams were averaging triple figures, five more teams than last season. Part of that increase comes from the foul line; referees have been told to cut down on physical play. But in most arenas on most nights the game just looks better--more fluid, more graceful--than it has in two decades.
Even Larry Brown, whose Pistons won last season with stingy defense and a sharp half-court offense, believes these quick-trigger offenses are more than a passing fancy. "The only way it's not going to work in the playoffs is if they don't make shots," says Brown. "Then, we'll all be geniuses defensively."
? Basketball's Patriots. If you're a running team, the Spurs will shut down your break. If you play deliberately, they'll push the tempo. If you don't like it rough, they'll body up on you. If you do like it rough, they'll play rougher.
Though they are defined by the peerless efficiency of Tim Duncan, San Antonio is far from boring. It has two of the league's most exciting players in swingman Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker, both of whom have tempered freelance tendencies to work within coach Gregg Popovich's controlled offense. Yet like New England's adaptable Super Bowl champs, the Spurs seem just vulnerable enough to make a title less than a foregone conclusion, with eight of their 12 losses through Sunday coming by six or fewer points. The feeling in the West is that San Antonio's the team to beat, but it can be beaten.
? Stars out of rehab. No, not that rehab--injury rehab and image rehab. One hesitates to mention Magic forward Grant Hill's recovery from left ankle surgeries, for fear it will jinx him. "It's like Ali [losing his boxing license] for three years of his prime and then coming back," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. That's a bit strong, but if there's one player everyone can root for, it's Hill.
And if there is one athlete whom almost everyone wants to bury, it's Allen Iverson. Line him up against anyone--steroid-abusing Jason Giambi, cocaine convict Jamal Lewis, headhunting Todd Bertuzzi--and many would rank the 6-foot Iverson public enemy No. 1. Yet no player in any sport competes harder and through more pain. After back-to-back 50-point games in December against the Bucks and the Jazz, Iverson laid 60 points on Orlando last Saturday night. And during an up-and-down 76ers season, he's been a model teammate.
? Young guns. Enough yammering about players entering the NBA too early. Youth movements have overtaken golf, tennis, figure skating and, for that matter, the business world. People: The ship has sailed. Live with it.
And what youth hath wrought is not merely LeBron James. The Bulls, irrelevant since Michael Jordan's last retirement, have risen in the East behind rookies Luol Deng, 19, and Ben Gordon, 21, whose spirited play has rejuvenated a couple of creaky 22-year-olds, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. "No team plays harder than the Bulls," says Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Anybody who doesn't think they can be a huge factor in the playoffs isn't watching the games."