The good news for NBA fans is that no more than six teams -- including the reconstituted Orlando Magic -- are in the running for the championship this year. The bad news for league owners is that 24 of them have little or no chance of playing in June.
Compare the NBA, which spotlights a few superior contenders, to the NFL, which thrives on parity. Who in early September imagined that the New England Patriots would go 14-2? Or that the Minnesota Vikings would free-fall to 6-10? The country's most popular league remains so unpredictable that all but a team or two in each conference can envision reaching the Super Bowl.
The NBA's ratings are up for two reasons: One is that LeBron James did everyone in the league a huge favor by turning his move from Cleveland to Miami into reality TV. People want to know what is going to happen to him and his team. He has created a rooting interest.
The other is that the NBA's salary-cap system is, by its own principles, broken. The goal is for every team to believe it can compete with the richer or more attractive franchises. Without that promise, how can owners be expected to continue paying upward of $400 million for franchises that can neither contend for the championship nor (according to their side of the bargaining table) turn an annual profit?
This creates a paradox for commissioner David Stern. He says he needs to rescue from the ongoing negotiations a plan for revenue sharing among owners as well as salary cuts from players that will create fair opportunity for every franchise regardless of its size in the market. If he succeeds in creating parity, will he damage the product that is thriving today?
The broken system has created a half-dozen teams that are loaded with talent. Four of them -- the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks and Magic -- are big-paying members of the luxury-tax club. The Heat are paying close to three max salaries and would be on track to cross the tax threshold if the current system wasn't about to expire. The Spurs were tax payers last season but nosed under this year by re-signing Richard Jefferson to a smaller salary extended over four years.
Fans continue to demonstrate their preference for a handful of superior teams at the top of the league. They liked it when Michael Jordan dominated year after year, and they liked it in the early 1980s when the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers had their way. They knew the best teams were likely to meet in the playoffs because the lesser opponents lacked the wherewithal to knock them off.
The byproduct of having a few splendid contenders is that it creates event television for the NBA. We saw it Wednesday night when the Spurs lost a highly entertaining game at the buzzer in Boston. We'll see it Saturday when the Magic play at Dallas, and next Friday when the Mavericks visit San Antonio, and Jan. 30 when Boston returns to Los Angeles, and Feb. 13 when the Heat meet the Celtics.
The NFL is a huge success in part because every Sunday is an event, and every playoff game delivers a national audience. But parity isn't so kind to the NBA because all things being equal means the audience doesn't quite know when to pay attention nationally. The long basketball season appears to drone on and on in the absence of superior rivalries.
What should fans want from the negotiations between owners and players? Most fans have to detest the idea of contracts that guarantee eight-figure salaries to players regardless of their performance, and in that sense they're likely to support the owners' pursuit of less money for players. But then the players' union can argue that the current system has created tremendous fan interest, and why ruin a good thing? If the next collective bargaining agreement results in a hard cap that forces the best teams to unload talent, will that formula bring happiness to the national audience?
I'm guessing fans don't want to hear either side of the argument. They're more interested in looking ahead to the March 10 rematch of the Lakers and Heat.
Dirk Nowitzki, you are not yet out of contention. Within another couple of months you should have Rodrigue Beaubois back in the lineup to give you dribble-drive offense that no other player can provide. That could be a big addition, and he'll take on many of Butler's minutes.
Butler's $10.6 million salary is expiring and will have value at the trade deadline. The key in any deal will be to have faith in what you're doing as a team this season. Unless you can bring in Carmelo Anthony -- which is unlikely -- make sure you steer clear of one of those Orlando overhauls. Any trade you make needs to augment your team without revamping it. Get your own knee back in shape and focus on positioning your team to challenge the Lakers in the conference finals, which is all any challenger in the West should be aiming to do this season: Give yourself a chance against the champs and see what happens.
LeBron James, of course you're toying with us. And of course it's working for you. I will admit you are the only established star for whom this silly contest might make sense, because your agenda is unique. If you were to decide you need to be in the news next month, then the nationally televised exposure on a Saturday night could make sense. I'm sure the NBA would make room if you wanted to join in.
The truth is that the All-Star Game itself has supplanted the slam dunk contest, because opponents and teammates alike back off and enable each other to dunk impromptu many times. It's not so much a game anymore as it is an exhibition of skills. Therefore, the dunk contest has been relegated as a gimmicky venue for a young star to create his own name, as Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson have done. Let's hope one of the contestants has a sense of humor. What's the point otherwise?
Tony Allen, someday not so far in the future, a problem like this will be referred to your team's kangaroo court so it can be streamed live online. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. The overwhelming competition for audience is going to eventually push everything into public view. When you have any kind of problem or dispute, you will be encouraged to turn it into a revenue-producing vehicle. In the future there will be no such thing as bad publicity as long as people in large numbers are watching. Why waste the opportunity by punching out O.J. Mayo when instead you can raise your public profile by seeking justice in the public domain? Imagine the audience numbers your I.O.U. might have created, and all you would've needed is a couple of webcams. Reality TV is the future of everything in your business, I assure you.
"It starts with me getting the information to our video guys, who put the opponent's calls together with video of the plays from the games I've been scouting. The video guy gives that information to the assistant coach in charge of putting together the package for our game against that team. Then the assistant coach and I get together and determine the top 10 to 12 plays we're really going to focus on. During the actual game, the assistant will have all of the opponent's calls that I've gathered, and as the game goes on, our team is trying to pick up what the opposing coach is saying. If our coaches see Doc Rivers call 'Fist' -- that's their famous play -- the assistant will be telling our player, '[Paul] Pierce is ducking on you, make sure you get around to the front.'
"Basically we're trying to tell our guys on the court as quickly as possible what to expect. The goal is for them to be able to react to what's coming after we practiced for it and saw it on tape. But it's not like football where you get a half-minute in between plays. In our game it's bang, bang, bang. Even so, this information can really help your team focus on defense.
"You might be better prepared for a team that likes to shoot the gaps and steal the ball, like Chicago is doing this season. The better prepared you are, the more you might be ready to deal with a certain tendency, like knowing when Ray Allen curls off a screen he likes to pass it to Kevin Garnett popping back out -- you might try to steal that pass to KG if that's the way your team likes to play defense.
"The advantage I have as a scout today is that I can get video up immediately on the computer. The old guys like to say that you had to be a better scout back in the day because you had to draw up the play as you saw it live on the court. Now I can go back to the hotel room and watch video and make sure every diagram I send back to my coaches is perfect. The coaches are going to be looking at the plays on video and you don't want them telling you that your angles were wrong on the plays you drew up for them.
"When I'm scouting a game I'm trying to get all of the calls, and then during the game I'm trying to draw up any new play I'm not familiar with. Usually that means I'm drawing up an after-timeout play. Those tend to be the plays that are improvised. The bottom line is that the assistant coach wants to have everything in his hands when I get my report to him late that night or the next morning. So the more you can do during the game, the better -- write it up freehand and then type it up during timeouts.
"Some scouts are only asked to supply the times and calls and what we call frequencies -- how often the plays are run. Some guys account for how efficient the team is with those play calls. Other guys have to do diagrams, and other guys also have to do full reports with analysis of the team and each player. When I get to the arena, I'll spend the time before the game putting stats and lineups into my report, because those are things that don't change. The more information you can get to your coaches, the better prepared they're going to be. Every team is different in what they ask of their scouts -- some teams may have a video guy or intern draw up each play based on what they see on tape so that the diagram will be perfect.
"There are probably 10 teams that employ a single advance scout who covers the entire league. Then you've got a couple of teams that have two full-time guys. Then the other teams use regional guys who scout games that come through their area of the country. Every team relies on this kind of information -- this year even the Knicks are sending out a guy full time, and they were the only team last year that didn't do it."
"Hopefully I have the same (impact] that Wilt Chamberlain had. A lot of guys worry about their title of being the best and all of that. I'm comfortable with my title, which is one of the most dominant ever to play the game. And I'll let you guys decide on which one is most dominant."
"That's why you don't see it. It's the physical conditioning, but it's also the emotional, the mental, the spiritual conditioning. You have to believe in it because you're body is saying, 'I'm tired.' And what do you do when you're tired? You slow down, and if you slow down, then you're just like any other team. If you want to be committed to the speed game, it requires incredible mental toughness to get through. For most people, you will reach a point where you'll back off, and you can say you're a running team but really you're not."
"Talk about yourself," said his Russian teammate, Andrei Kirilenko, standing at his locker a few feet away. "Don't talk about other people."
"I'm trying to give you some media attention," said Fesenko, a Ukrainian. "You need it."
"I'm old, I don't need attention," Kirilenko said. "I need to stay out of it."
"You know what [stinks]," Fesenko said, turning back around to face me but speaking loudly for everyone to hear, "is that I always like to bring the full bag of heavy books from home, like 12 or 13 books every year, and he will always bring nothing. He keeps stealing them from me."
"He is always reading mine," Kirilenko shouted back.
The point of this is that Fesenko and Kirilenko are both readers. They read Russian novels in order to relax.
"I like to calm down rather than to get hyped," Kirilenko said. "With me, if I'm worried about the game too much, I kind of get burned out a little bit before it happened. So to me, it's easier to read and just not think about it. Some guys, like [Carlos Boozer] last year, he likes to listen to loud music to get hyped, to get going before the game. I'm a different way -- I need to calm down."
Fesenko picks up new reading material each summer when he visits home.
"There is a really huge book market in Kiev, our capital, and I have a guy that I've been working with for six or seven years,'' Fesenko said. "I come to him and he knows what I like in new books, in the series that are coming out. He's like, 'Dude, you have to try this book.'' '
Both players prefer to not read in English. "I understand English, I can read the scouting report, I can browse the Internet," Fesenko said. "But I want to relax, so I don't want to translate."
Neither do they wish to download books electronically. "Reading the book, folding the papers, it's so cool," Fesenko said. "It's like a ritual. Nothing electronic can replace it."
"I don't like to read on the screen," said Kirilenko, waving his fingers at his eyes. "We're spending too much time with the computer already."
Kirilenko keeps a library of Russian books -- perhaps 1,000 -- in his Salt Lake City home. He reads all genres, whereas the 7-foot-1 Fesenko is particular in his likes. "I'm reading only science fiction and fantasy," he said. "Magic, dragons, elves. I am geek."
Is Kirilenko a geek as well?
"His books are boring," said Fesenko, nodding down toward his teammate's locker. "He has the bad taste, that's why he keeps stealing mine. I have the great taste."
Kirilenko gave no reply. His long crossed legs were extended out from his locker stall. Reading.
This shows where each of the last 10 champions stood through Jan. 7 during its run to the title. Half of these teams were playing to a worse winning percentage than the current Lakers, which is to point out that the two-time defending champs are operating from a position of strength at 25-11.
More important than the start is the finish: After Jan. 7, nine of these champions would win at a 65 percent rate going into the playoffs -- the lone exception being last year's Lakers, who went 29-18 (.617) while managing injuries to Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. As ugly as they've looked in recent weeks, the reigning champions shouldn't be written off too soon.