We’ve been doing an awful lot of writing here at SheridanHoops on the Clippers, and you can’t blame us, eh? There are some former Buffalo Braves fans sitting through storms in the snow belt in Western New York who are in their glory, not to mention a bunch of folks down the road in San Diego who recall the powder blue days of yore.
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 …
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks …
Yes, we’re all used seeing to the Lakers and Clippers in separate strata but, aw, you guessed it.
Just over a year since Chris Paul almost became a Laker and turned into a Clipper instead, we’re now also used to those La-La land-themed last-shall-be-first-and-vice-versa stories.
Of course, the Lakers never really stop being the Lakers, and the Clippers never really stop being the Clippers – so far.
The Knicks are for real?
Improbable as their comeback is, unlikely as they are to keep making 41% of the 29 threes they’re launching each game, yes, they’re for real.
This is fabulous for the NBA, which has done as well in recent seasons as a recently scorned league can without a respectable team in New York.
I thought of making the Spurs No. 1 for knocking off Memphis – my fourth team in four weeks to fail its audition at the top – but I was afraid Gregg Popovich could give his whole team a week off.
With the Spurs 5-0 on the nine-day trip ending in Miami, Pop sent home Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green to rest up for the Grizzlies, whom they beat in overtime two nights later.
All it cost was the $250,000 that David Stern fined the Spurs for stiffing a national TV audience.
Popovich has always been the level-headed one who didn’t have to have the basics explained but, no, you can’t do that.
Remember the days when Magic Johnson’s smile supposedly saved the NBA?
It’s as much incumbent on today’s NBA people to promote their golden goose of a game. Wise as it is to preserve the Spurs’ old guys, this wasn’t the dog days of March or a meaningless game in April. Nothing required them to rest all three of their “Big Three” plus another starter for a game in November.
Now there’s a veritable civil war with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski alleging Stern has waged a years-long anti-Spurs campaign, and Chris Bernucca hitting him hard, where it hurts, by making the case that Stern is a mere “casual fan.”
Wojnarowski noted a GM sent him a text, joking that Stern’s next bit of revenge would be sending Joey Crawford, the referee the Spurs hate (every team has at least one) to work the Memphis game.
(In fact, a Crawford did, but it was Dan. And he had one of the worst blown calls of the season.)
Then a Halloween pic surfaced, showing Duncan and Parker aiming toy guns at someone dressed as Joey.
For someone who always admired the Spurs as the model of the way players and teams should handle themselves, this is a disaster.
Popovich was the anti-diva. Four titles later, he never lost his humility, talked trash, made excuses or bothered to respond when Phil Jackson zinged him or whined about league conspiracies.
When the Lakers swept his team in the 2001 West Finals, beating them by 22 a game, Pop’s only comment was, “Custer had no idea.”
In the 2008 West Finals, the Lakers dispatched them, 4-1, helped by a key non-call in the pivotal Game 4 in San Antonio – by Joey Crawford – after Derek Fisher body-blocked a shooting Brent Barry.
While all around him looked for tar and feathers, Pop said, “If I was the official I wouldn’t have called that a foul.”
Even though the Spurs drew two kinds of TV ratings in the Finals – bad and record-low – and if Stern once joked his ideal matchup would be “the Lakers against the Lakers,” the thrust of everything this commissioner has done was to level the playing field.
Ask Stern’s “hometown” Knicks, who led Miami, 3-2, in a 1997 second-round series, before he suspended so many of them for the Charlie Ward-P.J. Brown wrestling match – including Patrick Ewing for going a few steps off the bench – they had to sit out in shifts. Three, including Ewing, missed Game 6 in New York, and two missed Game 7 in Miami, both of which the Knicks lost.
As for hosing the Spurs, ask the Suns, who had just won Game 4 on the road to even their 2007 second-round series when Stern suspended Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table.
Without Stoudemire and Diaw, the Spurs won Game 5 in Phoenix, captured Game 6 at home and went on to their last title.
Ask the Lakers how pro-Laker Stern is, with their new $50 million revenue sharing assessment plus luxury tax. Now the NBA’s most profitable team – just starting its new Time Warner deal that adds $120 million to the annual bottom line – has become budget-conscious, even in key decisions. Witness the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, who agreed to take $4 million – $500,000 less than Mike Brown gets not to coach – instead of Jackson, who would have cost at least $9 million.
Screwing up is one thing. Being unable to see Stern’s point is another.
But letting this devolve into a poor-us cultural battle at this late date in so sterling a career?
Say it ain’t so, Pop.
On to the ranks …