The Cavaliersadopted Shaquille O'Neal to serve as a big brother to LeBron James, even as thechampion Lakers were providing Kobe Bryant with a pit bull named Ron Artest.The Magic became more explosive by trading for Vince Carter, and the Celticsgrew more experienced (and versatile, and grouchy) by adding Rasheed Wallace.And don't forget the Spurs—they made off with Richard Jefferson like baronsrobbing from the poor.
Whilebillionaires around the globe have been losing fortunes, multinationals havebeen going under, and the entire world has sought to downsize, the NBA's richhave grown richer. In spite of the larger, gloomier trends, the five leadingtitle contenders all made themselves stronger this summer with expensive movesthat should lead to the strongest title race in two decades. The coming seasonpromises to be a throwback to those glorious days when leading men like Magic,Larry, Dr. J and Isiah were surrounded by talented lineups and deep benches."That's how it should be," says James, the reigning MVP. "You lookback in the '80s, you not only had three or four All-Stars on the same team,you had three or four Hall of Famers on the same team. So it's good to see thecompetition is getting back up there."
In this otherwisetroubled recessionary era, with NBA referees sidelined by a preseason lockoutand a possible leaguewide shutdown on the horizon when the players' collectivebargaining agreement expires as early as 2011, it seems absurd to be recallingthe happiest of basketball times. After all, we can never expect to see anotherlineup like that of the champion 1985--86 Celtics, who should wind up with fiveplayers in the Hall of Fame when the late Dennis Johnson is eventually voted inand joins Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and sixth man BillWalton.
But themodern-day Celtics have crept up on their '80s forebears, with likely Hallelectees in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and a strong supportingcast that includes point guard Rajon Rondo and now Wallace, their second-unitleader, who remains among the league's most talented big men. Likewise, in SanAntonio defenses can't zero in on the Spurs' murderers' row of Tim Duncan, TonyParker and Manu Ginobili—another trio headed for Springfield—now that thosethree have been joined by Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, who provides Duncanwith his best frontcourt complement since David Robinson.
So deep isCleveland that two-time All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will come off thebench behind O'Neal, the dominant big man of his generation. Orlando will starta prolific scoring trio of Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Carter in additionto a fourth All-Star, point guard Jameer Nelson. But the Magic's opponent inlast year's Finals might have done even better: Los Angeles strengthened itselfdefensively with the intimidating Artest, who also averaged 17.1 points for theRockets in 2008--09 while scoring from the three-point line as well as the lowpost.
Then consider theimprovements of second-tier playoff teams like the Trail Blazers (who addedpoint guard Andre Miller) and the Hawks (combo guard Jamal Crawford). Even theWizards, a 63-loss team, could slingshot to 50 or more wins this season withthe return of All-NBA point guard Gilbert Arenas and the acquisitions of MikeMiller, Randy Foye and coach Flip Saunders. Says an excited Garnett, "I'venever seen it like this since I've been in the league, with so many teams thatare stacked with a lot of talent."
It's been a longtime coming. The success of Magic and Bird led to the Michael Jordan era; then,rosters became thinner as even top teams made do with limited role players andsecond units stocked with castoffs. It was popular to blame this on theleague's expansion from 23 franchises in 1988 to 30 by 2004, even though thedemand for more players has been offset by the emergence of internationaltalent. (Of the 15 players on last season's All-NBA teams, four—Dirk Nowitzki,Yao Ming, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker—were imported from countries that weren'tsupplying talent to the league two decades ago.) More damaging than expansionhave been changes made to successive collective bargaining agreements thatbrought the emergence of "maximum contracts," which enable a singleplayer to siphon off anywhere from 25% to 35% of a team's salary cap, limitingmost franchises to two elite players with top salaries. Then there's just plainbad judgment, which has led to outlandish investment in players such asJermaine O'Neal (who is guaranteed $23 million this season), Zach Randolph ($16million) and Larry Hughes ($13.7 million).
Now, because ofdeclining revenue around the NBA, the salary rules have yielded an unexpectedbenefit for the best teams: They have been able to hoard talent becausefranchises that are not in the championship hunt are trying to slash theirpayrolls. Take Richard Jefferson, please, said the struggling Bucks thissummer, because they couldn't afford to retain their dynamic small forwardwithout facing a luxury tax on his $14.2 million salary this season. Milwaukeewill save about $10 million this year on the three-team deal with Detroit andSan Antonio, while the Spurs gave up a trio of older role players (Bruce Bowen,Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas) for the 29-year-old Jefferson, a 17.7-pointcareer scorer who should be able to defend the best wings, run in transitionwith Parker and share the perimeter burdens with Ginobili. "They're goingto have one of the more potent starting lineups in basketball," says theCeltics' Pierce.
The Jeffersondeal amounted to a sea change for the small-market Spurs, who had set thestandard for fiscal restraint throughout their decadelong run to fourchampionships by never straying more than $1 million above the tax threshold.But last summer owner Peter Holt made like Sergei Bubka and vaulted almost $10million over the tax bar, increasing the team's payroll to $79 million,motivated by the belief that his team was close enough to a title to merit theextra spending. "In the past we were able to stay under and bring in roleplayers, whether it was Mario [Elie], Jack [Stephen Jackson] or BruceBowen," says Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich. "But now thetalent level has got to the point on so many teams that you just can't doit."
Teams that makedeep runs into the postseason can of course see some return on theirinvestment, not just in satisfaction but also in the form of added playoff gateand merchandise sales. The Knicks, though, are proof that big spenders haven'talways prospered. In fact, as recently as 2007--08 the five teams with theleast expensive payrolls combined to win seven more games than the five withthe most expensive. But in today's NBA you no longer go far without paying forit. The movement of talent from rebuilding franchises to those trying to winnow—dating to the controversial trades that sent Garnett to Boston fromMinnesota and Gasol to Los Angeles from Memphis two seasons ago—has turned allfive of this year's leading contenders into big luxury-tax payers, from theLakers (with their league-leading $91 million payroll, they'll pay about $22million) to the Celtics ($15 million tax) and the Magic and the Cavaliers (bothabout $10 million). Of the 13 teams positioned above the tax threshold, onlythe rebuilding Knicks and the injury-depleted Rockets are not expected to makethe playoffs.
"There was noway to add talent to the team without going over," says Popovich, almostapologetically. "The way the league is now, to keep up you've got to jumpin the game."
Make no mistake,though, a reckoning is soon to come. The anticipation of a lockout stems fromthe disparity of having a few well-to-do franchises thriving at the expense ofso many that are suffering. But the average fan appears to like havingstar-laden title contenders. The NBA was never more popular than during itsglorious run of 1980 through '98, when six franchises were stockpiling all thechampionships. During those years either Magic, Larry or Michael (or somecombination thereof) was reaching the Finals an outrageous 16 times in 19years. While the NFL thrives on parity, the NBA has turned into the unequalopportunity league. It lives and dies on the popularity of a few charismaticpersonalities, and it desperately needs its biggest stars to survive deep intothe playoffs, just as the PGA Tour needs Tiger Woods to be in contention lateon Sunday afternoons.
Even so, as KobeBryant has proved once and for all, the most talented NBA stars can't play intoJune without a lot of help. That's why the ever-ambitious Lakers responded tothe summer arms race by abruptly breaking off contract talks with small forwardTrevor Ariza—less than three weeks after he helped win the championship—inorder to sign the 29-year-old Artest, who left Houston as a free agent when itbecame clear that the Rockets were out of contention because of a foot injuryto Yao that will sideline him for the coming season. The recessionary market,Artest's incendiary reputation and his desire to win a title combined to makehim available for a mid-level contract worth $34 million over five years, theequivalent of buying a mansion at foreclosure rates. "I never thought wehad the resources to sign Lamar [Odom], Ron and [free agent] ShannonBrown," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, who was able to retain Odom atanother relatively low price of $21 million for three years. "I neverplanned on that."
All theseoff-season moves carry some risk that the newcomer may do more harm than good.Longtime complementary stars like Jefferson and Wallace are expected to fitsnugly with their new teams, but how Artest will adapt to the needs of theLakers, one can only guess. Artest spent the summer training with a boxingregimen that he boasts will lead to a new heavyweight career. ("I hope infour years from now I could land a fight with the Klitchskos," tweetedArtest in September with disregard for his physical well-being as well as theproper spelling of Ukrainian fighters Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko's surname."If not ill just take the title from anyone who has it!!!!)
"You can winwith Artest as long as he isn't who defines you," says an EasternConference G.M. who understands firsthand how contenders are assembled."Kobe is going to be the one who defines them, along with Phil Jackson—andI think coaching Ron is going to be fun for him, actually."
The Magic hastried to keep up not only by adding Carter but also by bringing in free agentBrandon Bass from the Mavericks so that Orlando will at last have a traditionalpower forward. But have those moves made the team less dangerous? Three-pointsniper Rashard Lewis, who is suspended for this season's first 10 games becausehe failed a drug test for a performance-enhancing substance, will now spendfewer minutes creating havoc at the four spot, and Hedo Turkoglu, the 6'10"playmaking small forward who was crucial to Orlando's upset of Cleveland in theconference finals, has moved on to Toronto as a free agent. The Magic enjoyedsome mismatches with its offbeat lineup last season, but as G.M. Otis Smithnotes, that unusual style didn't bring Orlando a championship. "You can'texpect fans to come pay to see us if we're going to be passive," saysSmith, who must fill his team's new downtown arena, which opens in 2010--11."We're going to be aggressive."
So too do theCavaliers realize they must keep improving inexorably toward a championship ifthey hope to re-sign LeBron when he becomes a free agent next summer. Justhours after Howard helped eliminate Cleveland with 40 points in Game 6 inOrlando—the loss so angered James that he refused to shake hands with the Magicor speak to reporters afterward—Cavs G.M. Danny Ferry and his staff were on theteam plane hashing out the blockbuster deal that brought Shaq to town 26 dayslater. Detractors predict that O'Neal will slow down the offense, clog upJames's lanes to the basket and ultimately precipitate a Kobe-versus-Shaq-stylerift by competing for the spotlight with LeBron. "That's dumb," answersShaq. "Who does that? I don't do that. I'm 37 years old, I'm not cominghere to take 50 shots a game."
These arecomplicated times, with the anguish of waning revenues, the uncertainty of whatwill happen with the free-agent class of 2010 and the cloud of a 2011--12lockout that could conceivably erase the goodwill generated from what promisesto be a season for the ages. But at least the coming months should offer somesimple pleasures. "Competition—that's what I like, as long as we're gettingbetter too," LeBron says optimistically. "It's going to be crazy,especially when we hit the road. It's going to be fun."
So why worryabout the future when there are at least a few live-in-the-moment owners ofcontending teams who have spent their money on the faith of making more money,hoping that the old sports cliché is true: Winning can, in fact, cure all.
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"I've never seen it like this since I've been inthe league," Garnett says, "with so many teams that are so stacked withtalent."
All these off-season moves carry some risk that thenewcomer may do more harm than good.
AND THE AWARDS GO TO ...
SI's picks for league honors include some notablerepeats but also anticipate that one team will stage a major turnaround
MVP: LeBron James, Cavaliers
He'll incorporate Shaq into the offense to gain theedge over Kobe in the balloting and earn the honor for the second straightyear—and there will be many more to come for the 24-year-old.
ROOKIE: Blake Griffin, Clippers
The No. 1 pick will become an instant leader byexample for the Clippers' frontcourt; Warriors guard Stephen Curry will alsomake a run at this award.
COACH: Flip Saunders, Wizards
Washington will win at least 30 more games than it didlast year (19) as Saunders galvanizes the offensive talent around point guardGilbert Arenas.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Dwight Howard, Magic
The defending champ in this category, Howard shouldagain lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots—but Boston's KevinGarnett will give him a run for this trophy.
MOST IMPROVED: Derrick Rose, Bulls
You can count on a big leap in point-guard leadershipfrom last season's top rookie.
SIXTH MAN: Manu Ginóbili, Spurs
Recovered from two years of injuries, he'll fend offincumbent Jason Terry of Dallas to regain his status as the league's best benchplayer.
EXECUTIVE: Ernie Grunfeld, Wizards
He'll be recognized for rejecting a fire-salementality after last year's losing season and instead bringing in Saunders andguards Mike Miller and Randy Foye to complement the stars on Washington'sroster.
F LEBRON JAMES, Cavaliers
F KEVIN GARNETT, Celtics
C DWIGHT HOWARD, Magic
G KOBE BRYANT, Lakers
G DWYANE WADE, Heat
F TIM DUNCAN, Spurs
F DIRK NOWITZKI, Mavericks
C SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Cavaliers
G CHRIS PAUL, Hornets
G DERON WILLIAMS, Jazz
F PAU GASOL, Lakers
F PAUL PIERCE, Celtics
C AL JEFFERSON, Timberwolves
G BRANDON ROY, Trail Blazers
G GILBERT ARENAS, Wizards
Photograph by CHRIS COVATTA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES;
BACKGROUND BY SI IMAGING
BUDDY SYSTEM With all of the contenders seeking to top one another's off-season moves, Cleveland made the biggest splash by bringing in Shaq to join LeBron.
GREG NELSON (SPURS)
WELCOME ABOARD Potent new pairings include Duncan (far left) and Jefferson in San Antonio, Garnett and Wallace (above, right) in Boston, and Artest (opposite, left) and Bryant, with Odom (far right) in L.A.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (CELTICS)
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LAKERS)
[See caption above]
LEVEL BEST With Turkoglu gone, the Eastern Conference champs brought in Carter (right) to stand by Howard.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH