Judging by early results, NBA success isn’t for sale

NBA’s elite pay top dollar for top talents, but league’s parity is still evident in conference standings.

By Youssef Kalad

It was enjoyable to witness another unpopular Yankee squad ascend baseball’s championship mountain this fall, but I could sense that it was almost time that I turned my attention to my first love, professional basketball.

The NBA regular season is in full swing now, even though it’s not quite at its zenith. With more than an eighth of the 2009–2010 campaign gone, it’s time to pore over early season trends and tease out speculative (though not entirely groundless) claims about the next five months of play.

During the off-season, we saw—oddly enough—the NBA’s elite go on Yankee-like spending sprees. The reigning champion Lakers, whose 2008 lineup played below its potential all last season, swapped emerging star Trevor Ariza for defensive punisher Ron Artest, and kept the rest of their cast. That bold move, which was fueled by the “win now” mentality the Lakers have adopted as Kobe Bryant nears the end of his prime, set in motion a league-wide arms race.

After a disappointing loss to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, and with the future of LeBron James in question, the Cavaliers added Shaquille O’Neal—whose days as a prime-time performer are behind him—to the mix.

The Celtics added the versatility and size of the always dangerous and always talkative Rasheed Wallace to their frontcourt.

After dropping the Finals to the Lakers and losing Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto, the Magic added Vince Carter to the cast of shooters that surrounds the NBA’s best center, Dwight Howard.

And those aging Spurs, whose decline has been forecast ad nauseam since their 2003 title, hope they can forget their awful first-round exit in the Western playoffs after signing Richard Jefferson, an athletic perimeter threat.

In short, the NBA’s off-season was a win for the Bourgeoisie. One might expect an uncompetitive and less than compelling 2009 season, headlined by more wins for the “haves” and the further decline of the “have-nots.”

Commissioner David Stern and the league office would love to have a Kobe-LeBron-Shaq showdown in June, but it would much rather have the road to the Finals match up be as exciting and unpredictable as possible, which requires some sort of power balance around the NBA.

Despite the top teams’ blockbuster free-agent acquisitions, the NBA might be approaching that balance. The league’s current standings aren’t as boring and predictable as might have been expected. Parity can be seen in both conferences and in almost every division. Yesterday’s standings had the Hawks, and not the Celtics, Cavs, or Magic, sitting atop the Eastern Conference.

The emergence of Brandon Jennings, the rookie point guard who bypassed college to play in Europe for a season, has the Bucks ahead of the Cavaliers in the Eastern standings. And the Bucks have done this without All-Star Michael Redd, whose injury woes still have him on the sideline. Similarly, big-market squads supposedly lacking in talent, like the Heat and the Bulls, round out the current playoff standings, and the small-market, all-hustle Pacers are in the eighth spot.

The West tells a similar tale. After injuries to All-Stars Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker, the Lakers find themselves in fourth place, and the Spurs wouldn’t even qualify for the playoffs if they started today. Instead, you have the revived run-and-gun Suns in first, followed by the Mavericks and the Nuggets.

You’ll still find familiar faces in the fifth and sixth spots: the Blazers and the Yao-and-McGrady-less Rockets. But it’s odd to see the Kings (5–5) and the Thunder (6–6) holding onto the remaining playoff spots.

A combination of injuries and lackadaisical play have, to some extent, shaken up the NBA in the early going. Ideally, the current standings would experience slight variations by the end of the year, and promising small-market stars like Jennings and Kevin Durant would have the chance to experience, and possibly upend, the playoff scene.

But it’s more likely that the league’s powers get healthy, right their ships in time for the playoff push, and leave the young and inexperienced teams to return to mediocrity, their rightful place in the NBA hierarchy.

But for now, the parity is fun to watch for fans and league officials alike. Well, just as long as the Lakers or Celtics or LeBron are still standing in June.