With baselines meant to look like New York subway tile, the NBA stylized the basketball court in Madison Square Garden nicely for Sunday’s All-Star Game.
Anything is better, of course, than a reminder that one of the league’s flagship teams, which plays in “the world’s greatest arena,” no less, has quit trying to win games this season. The subterranean Knicks might be first in the hearts of many New Yorkers this Valentine’s Day weekend, but they’re last in the standings at the All-Star break. With 10 victories and a winning percentage of .189, the Knicks are, officially, the worst team in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Lakers, another of the league’s cornerstone franchises, aren’t much better. The Lakers have a record of 13-40 as the NBA pauses to celebrate itself. The Boston Celtics, historically the league’s best franchise, are 10th in a watered-down Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat, which featured in the past four NBA Finals, is struggling to find itself after the league’s best player moved to Cleveland.
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With the NBA’s most recognizable brands mostly irrelevant this season, some unlikely teams have risen from obscurity to populate the top of the standings, and their best players will be showcased Sunday in the All-Star Game. The West Coast’s best guard now plays for the Golden State Warriors rather than the Lakers, a guard for the Toronto Raptors bumped Dwyane Wade out of the East’s starting lineup, and members of the Atlanta Hawks make up one-third of the East All-Star team.
Injuries and age have shaped this All-Star Game as much market influences, but it’s little coincidence, of course, that the league’s historical hierarchy is inverted this season. This was former commissioner David Stern’s last influence on the NBA before his retirement. Small-market owners went to the bargaining table in 2011 wanting a more balanced playing field, and that day is now here, for good or ill.
Heat owner Micky Arison was fined $500,000 by Stern in 2011 for publicly raising his concerns for the league’s new collective bargaining agreement (or at least making fun of it on Twitter), so it’s no big secret where the Heat stands on the league’s great debate, balance or Brahmans. Arison watched LeBron James leave Miami for Cleveland in part because of the CBA’s new punitive tax structure.
On Friday in New York, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver indicated that James’ move back to Cleveland — and breaking up the Heat’s super-team — was good for the league.
“One of the effects of LeBron being back in Cleveland is that we’re demonstrating we have a 30-team league, and while I’m a fan of every team and I’d like to see both New York teams do well and I’d like to see both L.A. teams do well, increasingly, every team in this league based on our current collective bargaining agreement has a chance to compete,” Silver said. “So we see that in Cleveland. We’ve been seeing that for a long time in San Antonio. We see that in Oklahoma City.
“Ultimately what we sell is competition, so what we want fans in every one of these markets to see is that they have an equal shot of getting great players and they have an equal shot at competing. I think that’s what we’re beginning to see with LeBron.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, James told the Miami Herald on Saturday at Madison Square Garden that he thought the CBA has proved to be healthy for the NBA.
“It’s an important time for our league,” James said, referring to the players association and NBA owners. “Our game is bigger than ever, and both sides want to continue to grow.”
James is a special case, of course. In leaving Miami for Cleveland, he signed what amounted to a one-year, maximum contract, and plans to leverage his power each season for a series of new, increasingly lucrative short-term max deals. That strategy could keep the Cavaliers competitive for a long time, but that’s also not reality for many teams, and this season the franchises with the largest fan bases are watching the standings not for the playoffs, but for better odds in the NBA lottery.
Buying championships just isn’t going to work anymore.
“The way the league is structured now, it might be a little more difficult for a team like the Lakers to rebound quickly just because of the salary cap and the CBA the way they tried to level the playing field, but those teams will be back and it goes in cycles,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who is coaching the West All-Stars this weekend. “It will turn around.”
Maybe, but that’s no guarantee. After all, the size of an owner’s war chest doesn’t matter as much anymore. Good management and scouting are more important than everand coaching makes a difference, but blind chance is growing in importance.
“There is a lot of luck involved,” Kerr said. “If you’re lucky enough to draft Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant, then you’re probably going to be good for a long time regardless of what the rules are, and you might be in the lottery and pick second and that particular year you don’t get Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant, and that was your chance.
“So, you need good management, and you need good coaching and all that, but you need a lot of luck, too.”
So the Lakers will be counting the draft lottery’s ping-pong balls this spring rather than counting on a contending team in what could be Kobe Bryant’s last season, and what Wade, Chris Bosh, James, Arison and Pat Riley accomplished from 2010 to 2014 seems impractical now. Everyone is always hopeful for the future, though — even the Knicks.
“Everyone will eventually turn it around at some point,” Wade said. “A franchise goes through its highs, and then goes through the lows. Think about the Lakers. When I came in, they were it, and now they’re going through a few lulls the last couple of years and you never thought you’d see that. But it’s all going to come back around, man, even for New York.
“It’s just some are longer than others.”