David Stern, soon to be remembered as the NBA’s greatest commissioner – once he’s retired and everyone stops moaning about everything he does – once joked his ideal matchup was “the Lakers vs. the Lakers.”
Actually, a league is best served when both conferences are balanced; when there are glamour teams involved at the end, but also when all teams have a fair chance.
To see what glamour teams are worth, look at what the New York Yankees’ long run has done for baseball, which never got the scorn visited upon the NBA in the Post-Jordan Era, roughly 1999-2007 – as World Series TV ratings fell below the NBA Finals in four of the last five years.
To see what parity means, look at baseball, which has no salary cap, with the Yankees slipping and no young powers like the Thunder coming up, so the World Series audience falls below the NBA Finals in all four of the years the Yanks aren’t involved since 2007.
Not coincidentally, the NBA eclipse of 1999-2007 (no, Michael Jordan’s return with the Wizards doesn’t count) came at a time the conferences were wildly unbalanced.
Of those nine finals, the West won seven by a combined 31-17.
(Were it not for Miami’s 2006 comeback, or Dallas’ choke with a 2-0 lead and a 13-point lead in the last 6:30 of Game 3, it might be 8-1 by a combined 33-13.)
The revival of the East in general in the 2007-08 season, and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in particular, pulled the NBA out of its doldrums.
The East has had the winningest team in every season since 2006-07 (Boston in 2008, LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2009 and 2010, the Bulls in 2011 and 2012, the last by tiebreaker).
By last season, the top two teams were in the East – LeBron’s Heat (even as they were upended by Dallas in the 2011 Finals) and Derrick Rose’s Bulls (until they lost Rose.)
After eight weeks of the 2012-13 season, we’re looking at another shift back toward the West, home of four (Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers) of the consensus top five teams.
On the other hand, Miami’s Christmas win over Oklahoma City shows the bored Heat can still turn it up. And the Bulls, who are still thorny without Rose, may go back to being to what they were when he returns circa February/March.
In other words, the conferences look balanced, with as many glamour teams like the Heat and Thunder in mid-markets or smaller, and contenders of one sort or another in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and even a revival in New York!
For Stern, who deserves a nice sendoff after Auburn Hills, Tim Donaghy et al, it’s just in the nick of time.
On to the rankings …