With the possible exception of the NL West, baseball's division races have nothing on the NBA in the dwindling days of September in terms of urgency, suspense and unresolved issues. Here are some biggies looming over the pro hoops landscape as players and coaches prepare for their close-ups on media day:
We never have experienced an NBA season when so many of the game's brightest stars will be on the verge of relocating. This season could feel like the second semester of senior year -- a lot of yearbook signing and locker cleanings -- if the futures of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Manu Ginobili and on and on overshadow what transpires on the court.
Wade gave a glimpse into what the next 10 months might hold when he was asked on a Chicago radio show about possibly playing for his hometown Bulls in 2010-11. "If I disclose that kind of information, the articles this season aren't as exciting anymore," he said playfully. "Speculation is not the same. You guys ain't going to have nothing to talk about me." Well, at least he didn't go all Carlos Boozer; in fact, Wade then lauded and talked about his loyalty to the Miami Heat organization.
Still, we've seen this stuff play out with isolated free agents, with fans made to feel like the kids in a household of impending divorce. Problem with the NBA, there's no such thing as a trial separation.
President Barack Obama warned Wall Street honchos this week about returning to their "reckless behavior," lest they cripple the entire financial system and alienate a disgusted public. Well, Nobody Aschburner is telling the NBA and its many talented employees the same thing: Don't be greedy, understand the public and tread very lightly. In its simplest terms, that spells N-O L-O-C-K-O-U-T-S.
Any pro sports league that even flirts with the verbiage is risking a grave mistake. Fans are, first and foremost, wage earners and consumers, and they know that hard economic times is the new sheriff in town. It would be felonious, on top of stupid, for the NBA and all its privileged members to threaten their already precarious well-being by fighting over pie slices in public. Let's not get bogged down in the definitions of "strike" vs. "lockout" and where responsibility would lie; they'd all be guilty if they damaged the sport and themselves again or even crept within hours or days of any big, ugly deadlines.
Replacement referees? Commissioner David Stern "shutting down" further talks last week, with the phrase "replacement refs" creeping into conversations for this autumn? That Dec. 15, 2010, cutoff for the owners to extend the collective bargaining agreement through 2011-12 or face a nuclear winter in July 2011? Please. If the owners don't like the red ink on their financial statements now, just try offering up another ruptured, 50-game, asterisk season of the sort that turned 1998-99 in NBA history books into, well, '99.
Fact for the players and refs: An alarming number of teams have been losing money. Fact for the owners: Ticket prices, lavish player contracts and capricious coach firings generate zero sympathy for your side. Likely fact for them all: Some of the screws being tightened this summer on scouts, staffs and the refs have been warning shots, a clear message to the players' union that "next time, it's your turn" to sacrifice. That pay cut taken by Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the Heat coaches in Miami is both a savings and a statement.
Fortunately, unlike Congress these days, there is a plan to fix things: Everyone who makes his or her living from the NBA needs to dwell long and hard -- let's say, a locked room for one full week -- on their next-best employment alternative. How easy it would be to land in this economy, how much fun it would be and how much it would pay, relative to their current gigs. Then and only then are they allowed back at the bargaining table. Presumably pens in hand.
Portland's Greg Oden spotted Kevin Durant 80 pages last fall. That was the difference from where Oden would have appeared in the official NBA Register (pg. 159, between O'Bryant and Okur) and where his entry actually ran (pg. 239), back there in the "Promising Newcomers" section. Oden was a rookie again because he missed all of 2007-08 because knee surgery. Now he's back after a second straight injury-hampered season -- a season in which Durant put even more distance between them as a budding NBA star. The Oklahoma City swingman boosted his numbers pretty much across the board (from 20.3 points to 25.3, 4.4 rebounds to 6.5, 43 percent shooting to 47.6, 28.8 percent from three-point range to 42.2). He got to the line more than all but nine others (524 attempts). He'll be an All-Star once the Thunder start winning about half their games, and some suggest he might crash that James-Bryant-Wade party in talks of NBA supremacy.
In other words, Durant fast is making the 2007 draft look like a bad coin flip on Portland's part. Unlike some critics, I'm not going to invoke the name Sam Bowie (oops, too late). But Oden is two years behind in development and impact and, while that's no biggie at age 21, it is getting late kind of early in this assessment.
It started impishly enough, with Charlie Villanueva tweeting out of a halftime locker room to put technology and all emerging social media right up in Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles', and the NBA's, grill. Then Shaquille O'Neal barged in as The Big Tweeter -- which, come to think of it, might be the new standard for cultural tipping points: Once Shaq climbs aboard, whatever the gimmick or trend, it's more back nine than front nine. More recently, we have had Minnesota's Kevin Love breaking the news of coach Kevin McHale's firing from his Blackberry and Miami's Michael Beasley putting out there for the whole WiFi world personal thoughts and demons that belonged in a locked diary somewhere.
I know the marketing whizzes of pro sports might find this hard to believe, but sometimes there can be too much information. As eager as the NBA is to get its messages out, especially with a glut of new media hastening the irrelevance of mainstream channels, there is a downside to each and every player behaving as if he is a one-man ad agency/public-relations firm. These guys already are mini-corporations, at a time when lots of fans would rather see more "us" than "me" from the teams they follow. No one has to go all NFL-head-coach (i.e., Big Brother) on these guys. But a little discretion, a little common sense already is overdue, and my hunch is players will be learning in training camp about various new team policies regarding their tweeting.
If for this reason alone: It might not be a swell idea to let the whole world, thugs included, know where you, your jewelry and your fat wallet are going to be at midnight on South Beach.
For now, we know Boozer is in Salt Lake City. But that's not where he wants to be and that's not where we expect the Jazz power forward to be for long, given the positional redundancy with Paul Millsap and Boozer's chronic me-first attitude. When it suited Boozer -- who gave Utah basically a half-season of production (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg) in an injury-marred 2008-09 -- to openly ponder opting out of his $12.7 million contract, he did that. When it behooved him to instead cling to that money for this year, he did that. Yet when he gave several interviews this summer, he speculated about playing in Chicago or Miami, solidifying his image as an individual disconnected from his team -- or even good form.
Next to Boozer these days, Zach Randolph looks like the consummate chemistry guy. Jazz teammate Kyle Korver recently told the Salt Lake Tribune: "We expect him to come back and play really well and try to be healthy and earn back the respect that whoever people think that he needs to earn it back to." We'll say this much: Boozer's consistency has to be applauded in Cleveland, which learned in losing his talented but self-absorbed act to Utah what Jazz fans now are fully wise to.
Financial traumas and past failures have left an unhealthy number of franchises in disarray or just hanging on for an economic or talent recovery. You won't see the likes of Minnesota, Milwaukee, Indiana and Sacramento adorning any red, blue and cream "Hope" posters anytime soon. Some of the have-nots can dress up their struggles as rebuilding and, in truth, the league always has had its dregs. But the CBA makes salary dumping and "expiring contracts" a very public practice now, and the gap between those focused on May and those who will be shutting down by early March rarely has seemed bigger.
Seriously, how many teams could be described as serious contenders, with legitimate shots at reaching the Finals? Six? How many already can reserve rooms in Secaucus for the lottery? In a league that relies more than ever on selling the visiting teams and their stars, that's a troubling trend. Too many 41-41 clubs is not a good thing, but neither is a bunch of 24-58 finishes either.