- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Last year, the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic were considered the top contenders for the NBA championship. Since then, we've seen Shaquille O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Hedo Turkoglu have changed teams. We've seen the election of a black president, an economic meltdown, civil uprisings in Iran and the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson.
And after all those changes and some 275 revolutions of the Earth, who are the top contenders for the NBA championship? The Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.
The champ Lakers and runner-up Magic re-signed or replaced their top players (with Lamar Odom still pending for the Lakers). The teams with true championship expectations that came up short, whether by injury or exposure of their flaws, decided to reload. The one thing we haven't seen is a total revamp. No one got in there and joined the fellas at the high-stakes table.
Even a team that enjoyed a breakthrough season, the Denver Nuggets, is afraid to take the next step because of the severe financial penalty if the step doesn't pay off with a championship (and the dozen or so home playoff games that come with it). And the Portland Trail Blazers, whose owner is the wealthy Paul Allen (did you know the dude owns a yacht that carries two helicopters and a submarine?), are as averse as anyone else to taking on players in their 30s who still have multiple years and big dollars left on their contracts.
So the NBA elite is a stagnant circle, while the rest of the league has been taxed into timidity. No one's willing or able to take the bold steps to vault into contention, so we're stuck with the replay. And what can we expect next year? The same faces, just like the casts in Judd Apatow films. If anything, the trend will only get worse if the salary cap and luxury tax levels continue to drop as forecast, with potential low points of a $50 million cap and a $61 million tax threshold.
As one general manager pointed out, the haves will be further separated from the have-nots. The tax doesn't deter the best teams from pursuing more free agents, while teams that fear the tax will have to shed players even more furiously in order to stay tax-free.
Another general manager texted, "If the tax level goes down to $61 million this league is screwed."
Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof said, "Teams that are in the tax are going to be more in the tax. They're going to be giving up players.
"You can always spend in the NBA. It's hard to contract."
Fans don't care about the spreadsheets or ledgers of the teams. What they want to see is competitive balance. They'd be better off hoping for world peace. Owners don't think of their teams as playthings anymore. They value the bottom line more than ever. In the past, they could tolerate their teams' losing money as long as their principal businesses kept raking it in. But now that the real estate, banking, mortgage, automobile and you-name-it industries are tanking, it makes their sports entries look like the dog that's outgrown its cute puppy phase. And most of the old guard of owners who bought their teams at $20 million or $30 million and watched their value increase 10 times are gone. The new wave paid in the low nine figures for their franchises and now can't find buyers who will make worthwhile offers to take the teams off their hands. (Indeed, one league source speculated that almost half the teams in the league could be had if the right numbers appeared on the check). That means they'll seek some drastic changes to the collective bargaining agreement when it reopens in 2011.
Here's the problem: None of the cost-containment measures enacted so far are working now. If anything, the situation has worsened despite more spending brakes. There has yet to be equality, economic and otherwise. And there never will be, as long as some owners are richer and/or care more about winning than others, even though that dream remains.
"I think what you have to look for is more parity," Maloof said. "I think the league has to get to a point where all teams are making money or all teams have a chance to win a championship. More parity. I think that's how you grow as a league. That's where I think football is. You see that a little more in hockey, a little bit of baseball, but baseball you still have the haves and the have-nots."
Only seven NBA franchises have won championships in the past 25 years. Fourteen NFL franchises have won the Super Bowl in that span. Seventeen teams have won the World Series since 1984.
Part of it is the nature of the sport and its postseason format -- generally, the teams with the best talent and coaching will win seven-game basketball series, and a single player staying in the same uniform can have greater impact in basketball than in any other team sport. But the talent and coaches are concentrated among a select few and virtually off-limits to the rest. Ever since the salary cap came into the league, the NBA has tried to emphasize stability, giving "home" teams the advantage when it comes to signing players. The union will fight changes to any mechanism that offers more money to the players, but wouldn't it be more fun if movement were encouraged? Remember how exciting it was to have that flurry of activity before the 2008 trade deadline, when future Hall of Famers such as O'Neal and Jason Kidd didn't just change teams, they switched conferences?
Is there any hope for more transactions that will change the way we look at the league? There's the delayed-gratification scenario. Some of the biggest moves this offseason -- Shaq to Cleveland, Jefferson to San Antonio and Carter to Orlando -- involved players who were available before the trading deadline in February but didn't change teams until this summer. So maybe the same time shift will take place between now and the trading deadline next February. There's already talk in Toronto that a slow start could lead to an abandonment of the Chris Bosh project and send the Raptors' star player into the marketplace. Other disappointing teams surely will give up talent in exchange for tax-friendly contracts.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who pursued every free-agent and trade possibility he could this summer (with mixed results), still believes in the process -- and the promise of the next season.
"It always ends up being more competitive," Cuban said. "[The system] has been working probably the same way the past couple of summers, and we've had the most competitive races, where every game counts. It doesn't change at all. Every time you get a reduction in the salary cap, it actually makes all teams more competitive."
In theory, yes. But at the sports books, the smart money is on the same old teams.
Last season's top contenders are also the favorites for the 2009-10 season.