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Strong NBA title race in store

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."

Teams that make deep runs into the postseason can of course see some return on their investment, not just in satisfaction but also in the form of added playoff gate and merchandise sales. The Knicks, though, are proof that big spenders haven't always prospered. In fact, as recently as 2007-08 the five teams with the least expensive payrolls combined to win seven more games than the five with the most expensive. But in today's NBA you no longer go far without paying for it. The movement of talent from rebuilding franchises to those trying to win now -- dating to the controversial trades that sent Garnett to Boston from Minnesota and Gasol to Los Angeles from Memphis two seasons ago -- has turned all five of this year's leading contenders into big luxury-tax payers, from the Lakers (with their league-leading $91 million payroll, they'll pay about $22 million) to the Celtics ($15 million tax) and the Magic and the Cavaliers (both about $10 million). Of the 13 teams positioned above the tax threshold, only the rebuilding Knicks and the injury-depleted Rockets are not expected to make the playoffs.

"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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