Friday February 15th, 2008

Also in this column: How big trades changed landscape Upside for Celtics to KG's absence Different way of viewing standings

The NBA will investigate the possibility of expanding into Europe over the next decade, a league source told me this week. The preliminary idea would be to create a European division of five teams, but there is no working plan in place as the league considers all options.

I have a lot of questions about a possible move to Europe, especially when it comes to persuading local fans to buy tickets at NBA prices -- that's going to be a hard sell. And yet my impression is that commissioner David Stern is more serious than ever about placing NBA teams overseas. Here are a few potential reasons for his interest:

5. He can't afford to wait. In previous years when the idea of creating NBA franchises overseas would come up, it was always in a hazy futuristic sort of way, as if Stern was hoping that dialogue itself would lead to opportunity. Now there is a sense of purpose to the mission, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that NBA-ready arenas are starting to appear on the landscape in Europe in London and Berlin, with Rome and Madrid planning to build in the future. If the NBA doesn't move into those buildings, then what is to stop a rival group from creating a European league from scratch to compete against the NBA for audiences and players? The league needs to investigate whether European expansion is a legitimate option -- and if so, to exploit it.

Europe could provide the NBA with an opportunity to grow its business after hitting the ceiling domestically. More than a few team owners would like to see Stern find a way to make big money from his 20-year investment in international basketball. A move into Europe would open the door to new sources of revenue.

4. Stern doesn't need to create five European teams all at once. He could begin with three franchises, providing visiting clubs with enough European stops worthy of the long transatlantic flight. Those three teams could be married into the Eastern Conference, and when it's feasible to add two more teams, then a true European division could be formed.

The big issue is whether European customers will buy expensive tickets to 41 games per year -- especially to watch a losing team, as expansion franchises need years to develop. But TV revenue could be a major component: Imagine showing live NBA games on prime time in Western Europe several nights per week.

As hard as the league will work to get it right the first time, there are bound to be some failures. Say the NBA franchise in Rome can't find an audience; it may move to another market as more NBA-styled arenas are built in Europe. The story of the NBA is that franchises move from city to city, and it won't be any different in Europe than it's been in North America.

3. Nationalism isn't the millstone it used to be. Two decades ago, the league would have felt pressure to stock an NBA franchise in Berlin with a lot of German players and to provide the fans in Rome with a team of Italian stars. But no more: The opening of borders in Europe has created an open-mindedness among fans. The best soccer clubs in Europe field players from all over the world, and supporters are buying tickets in record numbers.

2. All-Star weekend will build interest. Over the next decade, the NBA could send the All-Star Game to Europe on two or even three occasions to help create emerging markets. Playing the All-Star Game in London or Berlin would also provide the tired exhibition with new relevance.

1. European basketball needs the NBA. The arcane federations that run basketball in Europe have been unable to find common ground and grow their sport. European basketball is strictly minor league with little hope of becoming profitable, much less of challenging the popularity of soccer. The presence of the NBA would create new interest in basketball and elevate interest in the local leagues and clubs.

4. The Celtics aren't so scary anymore. The win-now culture sweeping through the league was inspired by Boston director of basketball operations Danny Ainge when he dealt long-term assets last summer in exchange for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen while keeping Paul Pierce. But the Celtics' trio isn't so intimidating now that the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (with Andrew Bynum on his way back next month); the Suns will soon be starting Steve Nash, Amaré Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal (not to mention having Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and others); and the Mavericks are hoping to team Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard with Jason Kidd, if their trade with the Nets can be salvaged.

Consider this a healthy development for Boston. Though Boston doesn't have to worry about any of those teams until the NBA Finals, the improvements will enable the Celtics -- despite their league-leading record -- to view themselves as underdogs, which should renew their motivation heading toward the playoffs.

3. More pressure on rivals. The Nuggets are on a 50-win pace -- and in danger of missing the playoffs in the West. The Cavaliers are Eastern Conference champs and have won 15 of their last 21 games, and yet that still doesn't seem quite good enough. Both teams are among those seeking ways to improve at point guard or in other areas in order to keep up with the trend of Boston, the Lakers, Phoenix and possibly Dallas.

2. The best playoff race in years. The Rockets have won eight in a row and are in a tie with the Nuggets and Warriors for the last two playoff spots. The Hornets have the best record in the West yet stand five games away from missing the playoffs entirely. The fight for the eight playoff spots in that conference -- never mind home-court advantage -- is going to be terrific, especially with so many teams trying to incorporate new stars on the fly. One bad week could doom a contender.

1. The importance of continuity. Could it be, after so much spectacular upheaval, that the two elder mainstays of each conference will meet in the NBA Finals? San Antonio and Detroit are the deepest contenders as well as the teams likely to play the best team basketball because they've been together so long. While others have traded for the newest thing, the Spurs and Pistons have been minding their own business.

3. Isiah Thomas. "Everybody thinks he's on his way out,'' said a rival GM who deals with the Knicks routinely. "I don't get that impression at all.'' This executive has the clear sense that Thomas remains empowered to make any deal he wishes and that his removal as president of the Knicks is not imminent. "I think that owner [James Dolan] is just digging his heels in.'' If Thomas' enemies want him out of New York, they ought to start a "Save Isiah'' campaign. I'm not joking: The only way Dolan is going to replace his team president/coach is if he's convinced the public wants him to stay.

2. Kevin Garnett. His extended absence is helping the Celtics on two counts, noted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. It's enabling Garnett to freshen up for the crucial second half while bringing the best out of his teammates, who have gone 7-2 (losing by a combined four points) without him.

"He has a lot of mileage, obviously, and in the past his knee's bothered him a little bit,'' Popovich said. "So let these guys go on their own a little while. They're going to face some situations now on their own, be in a lot more close games than they would if Kevin was out on that court right now. It's good for Doc [Rivers] and the coaching staff to see who's going to step up in those situations, who they can depend upon, who's going to execute, who's going to make a decision. And if you're just kicking everybody's butt constantly, so the first time you might face those [questions] is the third game of the first round -- then you don't want that.

"Assuming that Kevin is going to be OK, and I think he will be, it's a good thing. Guys are in situations that maybe they wouldn't be in normally. And in a seven-game series you're doing all sorts of different things, and if those guys have that experience it really is a bonus.''

1. Terry Lyons. The former NBA VP of international communications has landed with Elevate Communications in Boston as senior VP and managing director of global communications. Frankly, I understand very little about the nuances of brand-building and sports marketing, but I know Terry will be very good at it.

2. Do you think the Blazers actually have TOO much young talent and that they'll need to move some pieces before the deadline or in the offseason, especially with Greg Oden due to come back next season? -- Drew T., Oregon

Everything is arranged beautifully for Portland. The Blazers have a winning record with the youngest team in the league, and they'll have major cap space in two summers -- leading to speculation of a run at Chris Paul. There is no need to trade anybody right now because they're waiting for LaMarcus Aldridge and Oden to mature together. Why trade for veterans until those two are ready to contend?

1. Is Stern crazy, or merely unwilling to learn from past mistakes? Only now is the league emerging from a 15-year funk caused by too little talent being spread over 30 teams. Further expansion would destroy that momentum and reestablish crummy teams as the norm and barely above average as championship caliber. -- Aaron, Pittsburgh

That's a fair point. But if the NBA goes in this direction, the residual hope will be that moving to Europe will inspire a new generation of players, thus growing the pool of talent.

There would be a lot of problems, including a drain on the talent pool, as Aaron predicts. The American players would inevitably complain about having to play in Europe, and their demands to be traded back to the United States wouldn't be appreciated by the fans in Europe. All of the teams -- especially those based in Europe -- would complain about the travel, and local supporters would detest the ticket prices. But the bottom line is that Stern has been globalizing the NBA brand for two decades in hopes of pursuing this kind of expansion. If he believes he can ultimately create new revenues while growing his business and his sport by moving to Europe, then I would imagine he is going to give it a try.

Most sports leagues outside the United States operate on a "promotion'' system in which teams are promoted to -- or relegated from -- the first division, with the second and third divisions featuring weaker franchises that dream of working their way up. That kind of approach would work quite nicely in today's lopsided NBA. Just exchange five teams from each conference and you'd have the makings of a first and second division, based on the records of teams entering the All-Star break.

(Eastern conference teams are in bold-face)

First Division

1. Boston .820 2. Detroit .750 3. New Orleans .706 4. Phoenix .698 5. L.A. Lakers .673 6. San Antonio .667 7. Dallas .660 8. Utah .642 T-9. Golden State .615 T-9. Houston .615 T-9. Denver .615 12. Orlando .611 13. Cleveland .558 14. Toronto .549 15. Portland .538

Second Division

1. Washington .481 2. Sacramento .451 T-3. New Jersey .434 T-3. Philadelphia .434 5. Atlanta .429 6. Chicago .404 7. Indiana .396 T-8. Charlotte .358 T-8. Milwaukee .358 10. L.A. Clippers .340 11. New York .288 12. Memphis .269 13. Seattle .255 14. Minnesota .196 15. Miami .176

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