The Cavaliers adopted
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
But the modern-day Celtics have crept up on their '80s forebears, with likely Hall electees in
So deep is Cleveland that two-time All-Star center
Then consider the improvements of second-tier playoff teams like the Trail Blazers (who added point guard
It's been a long time coming. The success of Magic and Bird led to the
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
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
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
Even so, as
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
"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
The Magic has tried to keep up not only by adding Carter but also by bringing in free agent
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.
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.