West's rock of ages
The Kings, Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs, Wolves could rock the rest of the league with 60-win seasons.
If you've never watched VH1's "Behind the Music," you really should. It's some of the best television out there, although at times it seems to be a bit redundant.
Usually the story goes like this:
Which brings me to the top five teams in the NBA -- the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves -- candidates for a future VH1 special if ever I saw one.
After all, never before in the history of the NBA has there been so much talent concentrated in one place -- the top of the Western Conference -- at one time, providing a dizzying array of possibilities for what this season might become.
Imagine this possibility: five teams with at least 60 wins.
Only once since the league went to an 82-game schedule in the 1967-68 season have four teams won 60 games in the same season. In 1997-98, the Lakers, Sonics, Jazz and eventual champion Bulls won at least 60.
This season conceivably could be the first time in league history that five teams win 60. All they would have to do is split the four head-to-head games with each other, then lose less than 15 games to the other minions for the rest of the season, and the 2003-04 season could be marked as the most competitive ever.
Shouldn't be too difficult, considering that of the 24 players in the All-Star Game last season, 10 are on the rosters of the top five. (Antoine Walker and Brad Miller defected to the West, though only Miller did so of his own volition.)
For fans of those teams, it'll be like watching that trusty old soul Mr. Rogers, God bless his heart: "I see Nene and Skita, and I see Bron Bron and Melo, and, oh yeah, did I forget to mention Mr. Choo Choo, when they play those teams in the West, I see 10 straight losses."
Of course, I have my own looking glass, and I see hundreds of millions of dollars and reputations and fame and legacies up for grabs. And I am a veteran watcher of enough VH1 to know what all that means. My only question is this: When you look at the Lakers, who is the drummer?
That is going to be the real entertainment value of this season, and likely what is going to decide who from among the giants will prevail. It is a foregone conclusion that one of these five teams is going to win the NBA championship. (Yes, Kenyon, we are disrespecting you, but, well, so did the Nets' management team.) But how that team is going to do it, and what roads they travel to get there, and what obstacles they face along the way, is what makes great stories.
Imagine the course history would have taken if it had not snowed so copiously in Russia the winter Napolean decided to invade. Oftentimes it is the uncontrollable that controls the situation.
We would probably be coronating the Lakers right now except for this little legal matter in Eagle, Colo. -- another snowy place in the winters -- that suddenly has Geraldo added to the long list of dubious characters currently associated with the NBA.
As a result of that, Kobe Bryant is extracting all the publicity from Shaquille O'Neal, who has responded as any spoiled child might, acting out in an unseemly manner to regain the spotlight that has strayed.
To that end, O'Neal has, to wit, demanded a contract extension, disassociated himself from coach Phil Jackson, whom he had hired, suffered an injury, excluded Bryant as a teammate -- and the regular season has not yet begun. Bryant, of course, looks, acts and is distracted, which makes me wonder why he would even bother to answer questions regarding his own free agency.
I find it deeply ironic that Bryant says he will opt out of his contract to become a "free" agent this summer, when there is what seems to be a 50-50 likelihood that he could be going to jail. Is there such a thing as a captive agent? Can that term be worked into the next collective bargaining agreement? Moreover, what if Kobe opted out of a contract that is guaranteed to pay him $15 million next year, then is found of guilty of rape and goes to prison before he can sign a new contract? He will have given up guaranteed dollars in an attempt to satiate his own financial greed. Maybe he has not altogether thought this through. Of course, he has a few other things on his mind.
(The other interesting thing will be this scenario: Say Bryant opts out of his contract on July 1, then, for argument's sake, has to go to trial July 15, the same day teams can sign players to contracts. How many teams would be willing to give Bryant a long-term contract with his status as a free man up in the air? How many teams would be willing to sign him even after the gory details emerge and the profoundly negative publicity become part and parcel of his resume?)
All of this does not even take into account the turgid personalities of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who to this point have been as obedient as rookies, to their credit. How long until they grow weary of the season being all Kobe and all Shaq all the time? How long until the off-the-court distractions affect the on-the-court performance and the thing becomes more repugnant than a worldwide Motley Crue sojourn?
At the very least, the Lakers have veteran experience, which may be enough to overcome their adversity. In Dallas, the team has enough young players who want and need the ball for them to feel as if they are contributing. I already got sucked into the dream of the Portland Trail Blazers' 12-deep mentality once, so Dallas is going to have to prove to me that it can work.
The Warriors on paper are not as good without Antawn Jamison, but insiders say the atmosphere around that locker room is exponentially better because of his forced relocation to Dallas. And there was a reason Danny Ainge traded Antoine Walker before he even saw him play one regular-season game under his watch as Celtics GM.
Add TwoTwan to a mix of players who already feels comfortable enough to jack shots at leisure, and it could be a flammable recipe.
At least, though, Jamison and Walker have not experienced the publicized difficulties of Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Michael Olowokandi, who were added to the Timberwolves' roster when Kevin McHale felt the pressure to upgrade the team or lose Kevin Garnett. This too is a combustible mix of strong personalities who like to dominate the ball, and that doesn't even take into account Wally Szczerbiak, who has drawn the ire of coach Flip Saunders for his unwillingness to play hurt this preseason.
How about Sacramento? Chris Webber. Hurt. Again. Vlade Divac. Out of shape. Again. And without those two players to consistently perform, the Kings already have proven they are an afterthought, placed into extinction by a Robert Horry 3-pointer from which they may never recover.
The only team that does not seem to have many issues going into the season is the world champion San Antonio Spurs, who deftly placed Rasho Nesterovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Ron Mercer around Tim Duncan, perhaps giving Gregg Popovich a better team than he won a championship with last season. But will that be enough in a Western Conference that is stocked?
The current state of the West reminds me of the conundrum of punk rock. The essence of that music is to show disdain not only for the establishment, but for the very fans who support the band and the movement. But once bands get a taste of the delicacies of wealth and fame, it is difficult not to wallow in the success, thus becoming the very thing it once parodied. And as soon as the band loses the essence of that which made it successful, it falls apart, redefined as poseurs.
In the NBA, coaches and players routinely preach the inordinate importance of team chemistry. Yet, as soon as one team started signing big-name players, the others felt the pressure to keep up, even knowing that the frail mix might implode. They practiced what they preached only up to the point that they couldn't help themselves because the allure was too great.
If nothing else, it will be entertaining to watch how it plays out.
And if you don't catch it now, you can always watch it recaptured on VH1 in a few years.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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