MIAMI – Doc Rivers knows his Boston Celtics aren't the NBA's biggest story right now.
Take a back seat, Celtics, despite being on the cusp of another trip to the NBA finals. Same for you, defending champ Lakers. The Magic and Suns, well, they're basketball afterthoughts right now as well.
Unless you're in Los Angeles, Boston, Orlando or Phoenix, the NBA's final four might almost be like a forgotten four.
Welcome to LeBron Watch 2010, simultaneously going on alongside D-Wade Watch, Bosh Watch ... oh, yeah, and sweeps month in NBA playoffs. The calendar still says May, the finals start in June, yet with the Celtics and Lakers up 2-0 in the conference finals and three of the previous four series ending in sweeps, there seems to be more interest in waiting for the free-agency window to open.
"It's the biggest story I can remember since I've been in the league," said Rivers, the Celtics' coach.
Indeed, it overshadows all right now, and even NBA commissioner David Stern isn't downplaying the significance of what looms at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, when some of the game's biggest stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will have their cell phones ringing like mad with potential suitors on the other end of the line.
"It actually shows the importance, I guess, to the culture that that's a subject of some discussion that will continue to be heated as we head to July 1 and beyond," Stern said. "That just shows what a fixture the NBA has become, and that the comings and goings of our players have become stories unto themselves."
Not just stories.
They're the story.
"It's overshadowing world hunger and the oil spill and everything else," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said sarcastically. "It's the biggest story in the United States right now — where LeBron is going to play. You know, health care? Oil spill? But LeBron, we gotta know where he's going to play.
"I guess a lot of people must be very interested in it."
Face it, many of the playoff series so far haven't exactly been scintillating battles — half of the 12 series completed so far have ended in either four or five games. There's been only one Game 7, and the way things look right now, the conference finals could end fairly quickly on both coasts. If both end in sweeps, there will be nine off days before the finals open June 3.
And that's another problem: Fast-ending series have given some teams long breaks between rounds, lulls that just let all the storylines surrounding free agency pick up even more steam.
Celtics guard Ray Allen acknowledged free agency is a big story, adding "but we're here. This is what we're talking about now."
For his part, the commissioner also insists he's still fixated on the Lakers-Suns and Celtics-Magic series.
He and Allen might be in the minority.
In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland was part of a song written in James' honor and sung to the tune of "We Are the World," the lyrics begging the two-time MVP to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Miami, a website the Heat put up about how to keep Wade in South Florida crashed hours after launch because it was getting 300 hits per second. In New York, it's almost like a LeBron-or-bust campaign is going on, with both the Knicks and Nets hoping.
"Come July 1, just about everything goes. Before July 1, nothing goes," Stern said. "I suppose if the governor wants to sing a song to the tune of 'We Are the World' or New York Magazine wants to do a cover with LeBron in a Knick uniform, the last time I looked, my jurisdiction had its limitations and it doesn't include those two instances. So it's kind of interesting and some fun. "
Two years ago, all the rage at this point in the conference final round was the potential for another Lakers-Celtics matchup in the finals, East vs. West, storied franchise vs. storied franchise.
It could happen again next month.
No buzz this year, at least, not yet.
No, the rage is all about James, who won't play another game that matters to the NBA for about 5 1/2 months. It's all about Wade, too, and whether he'll leave the Heat. And then there's Bosh, whose decision whether or not to stay with the Toronto Raptors may influence what James and Wade choose to do with their next contracts.
"Sports in general is politics, especially at the professional level," said Jared Dudley of the Phoenix Suns. "Brett Favre, is he playing or not? I think it's good for the NBA, them talking about that."
James is the biggest domino out there, of course.
"That guy is a franchise changer," Rivers said. "And if he decides to leave, it's going to change two franchises. If he decides to stay, it changes one or it continues one, so it's a huge story. ... It would be like if Michael Jordan had become a free agent and decided that he was going to leave. That story would have been just as crazy, so it deserves what it gets."
It's only going to get better — or worse, depending on perspective — in the coming days.
"I am seriously sick of talking about LeBron James — every little whim, dissecting everything he says," NBA legend and analyst Charles Barkley said on ESPN radio.
Get used to it, Chuck.
"The only thing that is worse," Van Gundy groaned, "is the lead-up to the NFL draft."
Some players who are still playing this season don't seem all that interested, either.
"We've got our hands full with what we're trying to do," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "And anything else would be a distraction for us."
James is dominating headlines almost everywhere, even with both conference finals going on without him. Wade, who has been in court in Miami for the past week because two ex-partners are suing him for $25 million in a failed restaurant deal, gets about as many questions at that courthouse about free agency than his legal issues. Bosh has surely picked up more Twitter followers in recent days, especially after he used his feed to ask the world if he should stay in Toronto or leave.
All attention is good attention, Rivers thinks.
"I've got to think it's good for our league overall," Rivers said. "When they're leading off talking about the NBA over the NFL on most nights, that's pretty good. And so I think it's probably good for us."
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in Secaucus, N.J., AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham in Los Angeles, Associated Press Writer Antonio Gonzalez in Orlando, Fla. and AP freelance writer Victoria Sun in Los Angeles contributed to this report.