The NBA hasn't been this entertaining in a while.
All of a sudden, hustle is in, the East is no longer the junior varsity, and players from top to bottom are putting on such a good show that most nights you'd swear everyone on the floor is angling for a new contract. That's no coincidence.
Turns out a handful of governors aren't the only people these days looking to score points against unions. With four months to go on the owners' threat to lock them out and kiss off next season, that's exactly what the players are doing: taking their case to the public.
Few people bothered to notice while the NFL was dominating the sports landscape, but the previous weekend's NBA All-Star bash was practically Exhibit A. After the celebrity game and dunk contest generated more buzz than usual, and after Commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter finished sniping at one another behind the scenes, the players went out and made sure the focus was back where it should be — on the court.
The trades that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York and Deron Williams to New Jersey, among others, kept the momentum going. Then a week featuring several entertaining matchups was topped off Sunday night with New York at Miami.
A midseason game that mattered in the standings, brimming with stars and shown in prime time, is exactly what the players and owners both want. So naturally, they're going to spend the next few months — and likely beyond — arguing over who should get the lion's share of both the credit and cash.
Owners point to Anthony's move from Denver to New York, and Williams from Utah to New Jersey as proof the league needs a hard salary cap and-or the flexibility to tag franchise players to stem the exodus of stars from small-market teams to big ones. Stern said the league is projecting losses of $350 million this season, which is why some business practices have to change. The players, though, say they're simply doing what they're supposed to do — anything to win a championship, including forming alliances with old rivals on new teams.
LeBron James got torched, first for his bumbling departure from Cleveland last summer, and more recently for suggesting the league should consider contraction as a way back to its salad days, when most teams boasted more than one star.
But he was onto something if the Knicks-Heat game was any indication. Between James and teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Anthony and teammate Amare Stoudemire, the two clubs have committed nearly $500 million in salary, locked up five All-Stars and practically guaranteed themselves a rivalry for some time to come.
The Heat have become the league's top road draw and its favorite villains. And on this night, between the contingent that came down with director-superfan Spike Lee and those New Yorkers who've taken their retirement to South Beach, they were the villains in their own building on occasion.
The Knicks had plenty of support when they strung together runs of 16-0 to close the first half and 13-2 at the end the game en route to a 91-86 win. Interestingly, the result reinforced the notion that a thrown-together team of superstars isn't the guaranteed way to win, it's only a first step.
"I told y'all when I made this move, I wanted to take on big challenges," Anthony said afterward.
He'd asked Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni to let him guard James down the stretch, but it was a game-sealing block by Stoudemire after he lost his man in the lane that decided the outcome.
"Tonight was a big challenge for me and a big challenge for us defensively," Anthony added, "and we stood up to that."
Bosh, meanwhile, conceded that despite nearly six months trying to mesh their talents, the Heat still haven't figured out how to close out games.
"We'll get up, dust ourselves off and move on to the next one," he said.
The East race may yet come down to Miami and Boston, which collected its own "Big Three" of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007. But with Anthony's move to join Stoudemire in New York, and Carlos Boozer joining Derrick Rose in Chicago, the playoffs in the East should be as interesting as the West has been — and continues to be — over the last half-dozen seasons.
The migration of stars from East to West hasn't touched the Lakers so far, nor affected the smart small-market teams in the West,.either. Aging San Antonio is still reaping the benefits of locking up its stars for the long haul, a lesson that hasn't been lost on Oklahoma City, which did the same with Kevin Durant, the best youngster in the league. The coming labor war will decide what happens to everybody else.
Rich NBA owners — and their NFL counterparts, for that matter — have almost nothing in common with cash-strapped state chief executives, save their determination to wring concessions from the employees in the next contract. Rich NBA stars have only so much in common with working folks, but they, too, aren't in the mood to give back any more than they have to. Increasingly, it's shaping up to be a fight that neither side can win.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak