"There was no way to add talent to the team without going over," says Popovich, almost apologetically. "The way the league is now, to keep up you've got to jump in the game."
Make no mistake, though, a reckoning is soon to come. The anticipation of a lockout stems from the disparity of having a few well-to-do franchises thriving at the expense of so many that are suffering. But the average fan appears to like having star-laden title contenders. The NBA was never more popular than during its glorious run of 1980 through '98, when six franchises were stockpiling all the championships. During those years either Magic, Larry or Michael (or some combination thereof) was reaching the Finals an outrageous 16 times in 19 years. While the NFL thrives on parity, the NBA has turned into the unequal opportunity league. It lives and dies on the popularity of a few charismatic personalities, and it desperately needs its biggest stars to survive deep into the playoffs, just as the PGA Tour needs Tiger Woods to be in contention late on Sunday afternoons.
Even so, as Kobe Bryant has proved once and for all, the most talented NBA stars can't play into June without a lot of help. That's why the ever-ambitious Lakers responded to the summer arms race by abruptly breaking off contract talks with small forward Trevor Ariza—less than three weeks after he helped win the championship—in order to sign the 29-year-old Artest, who left Houston as a free agent when it became clear that the Rockets were out of contention because of a foot injury to Yao that will sideline him for the coming season. The recessionary market, Artest's incendiary reputation and his desire to win a title combined to make him available for a mid-level contract worth $34 million over five years, the equivalent of buying a mansion at foreclosure rates. "I never thought we had the resources to sign Lamar [Odom], Ron and [free agent] Shannon Brown," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, who was able to retain Odom at another relatively low price of $21 million for three years. "I never planned on that."
All these off-season moves carry some risk that the newcomer may do more harm than good. Longtime complementary stars like Jefferson and Wallace are expected to fit snugly with their new teams, but how Artest will adapt to the needs of the Lakers, one can only guess. Artest spent the summer training with a boxing regimen that he boasts will lead to a new heavyweight career. ("I hope in four years from now I could land a fight with the Klitchskos," tweeted Artest in September with disregard for his physical well-being as well as the proper spelling of Ukrainian fighters Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko's surname. "If not ill just take the title from anyone who has it!!!!)
"You can win with Artest as long as he isn't who defines you," says an Eastern Conference G.M. who understands firsthand how contenders are assembled. "Kobe is going to be the one who defines them, along with Phil Jackson—and I think coaching Ron is going to be fun for him, actually."
The Magic has tried to keep up not only by adding Carter but also by bringing in free agent Brandon Bass from the Mavericks so that Orlando will at last have a traditional power forward. But have those moves made the team less dangerous? Three-point sniper Rashard Lewis, who is suspended for this season's first 10 games because he failed a drug test for a performance-enhancing substance, will now spend fewer minutes creating havoc at the four spot, and Hedo Turkoglu, the 6'10" playmaking small forward who was crucial to Orlando's upset of Cleveland in the conference finals, has moved on to Toronto as a free agent. The Magic enjoyed some mismatches with its offbeat lineup last season, but as G.M. Otis Smith notes, that unusual style didn't bring Orlando a championship. "You can't expect fans to come pay to see us if we're going to be passive," says Smith, who must fill his team's new downtown arena, which opens in 2010--11. "We're going to be aggressive."
So too do the Cavaliers realize they must keep improving inexorably toward a championship if they hope to re-sign LeBron when he becomes a free agent next summer. Just hours after Howard helped eliminate Cleveland with 40 points in Game 6 in Orlando—the loss so angered James that he refused to shake hands with the Magic or speak to reporters afterward—Cavs G.M. Danny Ferry and his staff were on the team plane hashing out the blockbuster deal that brought Shaq to town 26 days later. Detractors predict that O'Neal will slow down the offense, clog up James's lanes to the basket and ultimately precipitate a Kobe-versus-Shaq-style rift by competing for the spotlight with LeBron. "That's dumb," answers Shaq. "Who does that? I don't do that. I'm 37 years old, I'm not coming here to take 50 shots a game."
These are complicated times, with the anguish of waning revenues, the uncertainty of what will happen with the free-agent class of 2010 and the cloud of a 2011--12 lockout that could conceivably erase the goodwill generated from what promises to be a season for the ages. But at least the coming months should offer some simple pleasures. "Competition—that's what I like, as long as we're getting better too," LeBron says optimistically. "It's going to be crazy, especially when we hit the road. It's going to be fun."
So why worry about the future when there are at least a few live-in-the-moment owners of contending teams who have spent their money on the faith of making more money, hoping that the old sports cliché is true: Winning can, in fact, cure all.
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