Despite Tim Donaghy's entrepreneurial spirit, the absence of a filter on Shaquille O'Neal's pie hole and whatever might be nesting inside Gregg Popovich's beard, the NBA remains fantastic.
It's especially compelling for followers like me who might sit through a 79-77 tractor pull and croon hosannas to the virtues of help-side defense. But David Stern and his marketing elves continue attempting to expand the fan base. And that's why the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers seem crucial to the league's ability to evolve.
Thanks to the renewal of this legendary rivalry in last year's Finals, the NBA enjoyed its highest TV ratings since the Lakers were spanked by the Detroit Pistons in 2004. This sort of suggests that a rematch is essential to the league's struggle to at least see the tail lights of the NFL and Texas Hold 'Em.
Well, yes and no.
Before exploring this qualifier, it's obvious that the NBA should hope for as many Celtics-Lakers, Nielsen-promised-land showdowns as those franchises can muster. Unfortunately, the Celtics' window may tighten as its three superstars continue the march toward their mid-'30s. While Boston could be good to go this year and probably next, the Cs may not be as perky in five years.
Let's get back to the yes and no. The no is attached to the Celtics, whose rise to glory provided a nice boost to the league. But the true needle-movers are the Lakers, who — thanks to the relative youthfulness of their roster — could be around a while (it should be noted that any quick departure by master psychologist Phil Jackson could drastically alter the forecast).
Anyway, in the last 10 years, the Lakers have appeared in five of the top-six-rated NBA Finals. Four occurred with O'Neal in uniform, a seemingly important variable that was diminished by Shaq's inability to generate much TV interest when he co-starred in the Finals with the Miami Heat.
While it's also obvious that Kobe Bryant provokes a nice chunk of viewers, he's no marketing match for Michael Jordan, who — in his last year as a Chicago Bull — engineered the highest NBA Finals rating in history.
This means that while the soap operas fomented by Shaq and Phil and Kobe were interesting, an even more important ratings character may be L.A. itself. Los Angeles gives potential viewers in any major sport (including USC's Trojans in college football) a built-in antagonist. Don't sell the hate variable short.
No city in America inspires anywhere near the comprehensive dislike associated with Los Angeles, with "Beat L.A.!" checking in as one of the most popular chants in sports.
(For the record, Bill Belichick and Red Sox Nation have teamed up to make Boston quite formidable in the sports-hate rankings.)
If Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol make high-low music and Bryant's perimeter buddies progress as expected, the Lakers should win enough to dial up the collective disgust outside SoCal to amazing levels.
That pretty much underscores the Lakers' importance as Stern searches for opportunities to galvanize his sport in the post-cable, post-Internet, post-MMA explosion. Having the Celtics along for the ride is a nice bonus.
But what if the Cs and Lakers fall apart? What if Kobe hyper-extends his former personality and KG has a gruesome injury while chewing glass as pregame motivation?
With that double-whammy, Stern and his star-driven enterprise may need a boost from the young hotshots. Two lead suspects are LeBron James and Chris Paul.
Paul, gifted and exciting, is someone we should keep our peepers on.
Even though he's an amazing player whose brand has been forced upon the populace, LeBron hasn't quite caught on as much as the NBA and Nike had hoped. As the alpha and omega of the Cleveland Cavaliers, his co-starring Finals role with the San Antonio Spurs produced the lowest Finals ratings in history. To be fair, the Spurs' greatness always has been stupidly undervalued by casual observers.
This reluctance to embrace meat-and-potatoes basketball brings us to Mike D'Antoni.
For the sake of making basketball fun for those of you who wouldn't watch a 79-77 struggle, then croon hosannas to the virtues of help-side defense, it's a shame Mike failed to make that Finals breakthrough while coaching the Phoenix Suns. Although his scorched-wood philosophy has created a replication attempt here and there, a Suns championship would have created a seven-seconds-or-less epidemic.
Well, at least until a more structured approach prevailed again.
But as D'Antoni begins his first season as coach of the frightful New York Knicks, the league has to be (should be) hoping Madison Square Garden becomes a revival tent of up-tempo basketball.
If the haphazardly constructed Knicks can adapt to D'Antoni's style and flourish (in relative terms), another wave of copycat coaches just might notice the efficacy in spreading the floor and sharing the ball.
A golden age of fan-buzzing, scoreboard-melting basketball could erupt, with attendance and TV ratings to match. Will it be better basketball? Well, not necessarily, but while nasty defense can entertain some of us, the league might be served if the last vestiges of isolation offense are escorted to the door.
Last year's renewal of the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry was a boon for the NBA, spiking fan interest and TV ratings. Now the question is, will it continue? This week we'll look at whether those two franchises are positioned to meet in the Finals again, which contenders could trip them up, and whether the league needs another season dominated by Kobe and KG. Run-and-stun basketball may not follow the championship blueprint, but — for example — it certainly made friends and influenced observers of the Golden State Warriors. The Suns rebounded from the Stephon Marbury era to be redefined as one of the league's big tickets.
Team USA demonstrated how quickness and a commitment to defense can yield big-time offense. Despite having a 24-second clock to aid in such tactics, NBA coaches lack the nerve to attempt ball-pressure maneuvers against the league's one-on-one magicians.
But D'Antoni has helped plant a few seeds of offensive prosperity.
Go ahead and exhale now.
Mike, despite his genius for creating easy scoring opportunities, and his Knicks still wear the considerable burden of proof.
What else does the NBA have in its stable to withstand a Lakers or Celtics slippage?
Well, the Portland Trail Blazers are young, talented and should develop into keen rivals for the Lakers. Paul and the New Orleans Hornets like to wing it and should enjoy success for several years.
The star search has landed some interesting newcomers, with Derrick Rose looking capable of creating a desperately needed uprising in Chicago and Michael Beasley prepared to make life alternately lovely and perplexing for Pat Riley in Miami.
To the bad, the loaded high school class of 2007 has been followed with two classes that seemingly lack any transcendent talent. Amazing that even with an emphasis on structure at what passes as the grassroots level in America, so few overall great talents are emerging on a consistent basis.
Maybe lower-level coaches should step back and allow their players to evolve, such as D'Antoni has done (on offense, at least) at the highest level.
The NBA's future may require it. Well, at least until Stern is able to get things crackin' in China.
Lakers-Celtics would be nice, but not necessary
Posted October 27, 2008 - 09:45 PM
Posted October 28, 2008 - 03:21 PM
United we stand. Divided we fall.
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