Stars align in NBA's new galaxy

LOS ANGELES – On the day before this season’s NBA All-Star Game, the East and West teams ran drills together, creating a convergence of the league’s greatest players, distinguished only by the red and blue of their jerseys. When it was time for the players to separate to their respective conferences and practice on opposite sides of the court, East coach Doc Rivers shouted a reminder to Carmelo Anthony(notes).

You can work out with your West friends for now, but you’ll be coming East soon enough.

Rivers was right, of course. Not even 72 hours later Anthony left the Denver Nuggets to join the New York Knicks in a trade spurred by his own wish to return home and play in the nation’s biggest market – preferably with some of his fellow All-Stars.

This is today’s NBA: The stars not only understand the appeal of playing on a larger stage – a lure that has existed for years – they also now see a benefit in teaming together with players who had been their personal rivals. From the creation of the Big Three in Boston to Pau Gasol’s(notes) trade to the Los Angeles Lakers to LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) joining Dwyane Wade(notes) in Miami to a trade deadline that sent Anthony to New York and Deron Williams(notes) to the New Jersey Nets, the NBA’s superstars are forming their own super teams – a transition that has many questioning whether the league’s small- and mid-market franchises can continue to compete.

“I always thought it was special to be in one place and you could put together a team, especially in a small market like San Antonio’s,” said Hall of Fame center David Robinson, who won two championships and spent his entire 14-season career with the San Antonio Spurs. “But it’s real tough because the small-market teams don’t have the money to do what a New York can do and the Lakers can do. It’s going to be hard for a lot of small-market teams.”

The transition began in the summer of 2007 when the Boston Celtics engineered a pair of trades to acquire Ray Allen(notes) and Kevin Garnett(notes). Unlike four years earlier when the Lakers brought in an aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton to join Kobe Bryant(notes) and Shaquille O’Neal(notes), Allen and Garnett were still close enough to the prime of their careers to help Paul Pierce(notes) turn Boston into a championship team. Spurred by Bryant’s trade-me-or-get-me-some-help demand that same season, the Lakers plucked Gasol away from the Memphis Grizzlies in a steal of a deal that has since delivered L.A. two championships and three straight trips to the NBA Finals – in two of which they met the Celtics.

“The Celtics laid the blueprint for everything, and it showed that you can be successful with three superstar guys,” Bosh said. “I know a lot of people were kind of skeptical when they first came together on how it would work out. Was the ball big enough for them? They proved they can they can play together and put the ego aside as a team.”

After the Heat went from NBA champions in 2006 to first-round fodder in three straight seasons, franchise president Pat Riley brought in the biggest free-agent haul in NBA history by luring James and Bosh to play with Wade. After a slow start to this season, the Heat trail only the Celtics in the East and look like legitimate title contenders. Meanwhile, the former teams of James and Bosh – the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors – own the league’s worst and fifth-worst records.

Miami wasn’t the only major-market franchise to benefit from free agency. The Chicago Bills signed former Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer(notes) to play with All-Star point guard Derrick Rose(notes) and also brought in one of Boozer’s Jazz teammates, shooter Kyle Korver(notes). The Knicks gave Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) a $100 million contract after Stoudemire’s previous team, the Phoenix Suns, didn’t want to guarantee him that much because of concern about the long-term health of his knees. New York then landed Anthony and Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups(notes) – a former All-Star himself – at the trade deadline. And the Knicks might not be finished: Depending on how much flexibility they have under the league’s new labor agreement, they could try to sign New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul(notes), Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard(notes) or Williams, who hasn’t committed to a contract extension with the Nets, in the summer of 2012.

“I think this is what’s really happening: After a team wins a championship, the teams that want to get there build like a championship team,” the Celtics’ Pierce said. “The Lakers did what they did with Pau Gasol. We did what we did with our ‘Big Three’ and know you see what Miami did in free agency. Now you are seeing teams and players around the league trying to build to get to that [level]. They’re saying, ‘What better way to do it than bring superstars together.’

“What LeBron, Wade and Bosh did was a start of a new era in basketball, and it changed where superstars will go for the next five or six years.”

Anthony left Denver after refusing to sign a three-year, $65 million extension with the Nuggets – the same deal he signed with the Knicks upon being traded. Williams’ impending free agency in the summer of 2012 had already begun to take its toll on the Jazz. One of the league’s model stars who rarely complained publicly, Williams had begun to express some frustration at losing key teammates in free agency and trades. The resignation of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan in early February, and the subsequent criticism Williams endured when it was revealed his relationship with Sloan had deteriorated, heightened fears in Utah that Williams wasn’t long to stay.

“A lot of players want to go to those [big] markets to play in those cities,” Williams said during All-Star weekend, four days before his own stunning trade to New Jersey. “They’re fortunate enough to do that. With teams stacking up three or four All-Stars, it’s kind of hard to compete when you don’t have three or four All-Stars. You have to think about that.”

Williams never demanded a trade. But the Jazz – having seen how Anthony’s season-long drama weighed on the Nuggets – thought it best to move their franchise point guard rather than risk being leveraged into a worse deal a year from now. They received point guard Devin Harris(notes), rookie forward Derrick Favors(notes), who was the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft, and two first-round picks from the Nets.

“If I put myself in the [players’] shoes and look at it, what I see is there is a fairly short window of opportunity to earn as much money as I can to the benefit of my family, me and so on,” said Jazz owner Greg Miller. “I respect their right to do that. And my sense was – and this is just my sense, it's not anything I read or anything Deron said to me – Deron probably felt like he could attain those objectives in bigger markets. If that's how he felt, I don't want to hold him against his will. I don't want him to be unhappy while he is here.

“We all want to become all we can be to our full potential. If our franchise could offer Deron the things to help him feel that way, I think it's probably best he goes somewhere where he can get those things."

The question now: What hope do small-market franchises like the Jazz have for the future?

Most of them are seeking significant help once the current collective-bargaining agreement expires on June 30. Already, some of the league’s owners are pushing for increased revenue sharing for small-market franchises, a hard salary cap and possibly even a franchise player tag like the one the NFL uses to allow its teams to keep star players.

“Our goal in these negotiations is to come up with a system where all 30 teams over a period of time have the ability to compete,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “What you’ll also see is that teams that have been competing the hardest in terms of moving along in the playoffs are tax players. And we don’t think that your ability to pay taxes to have a roster should be part of a competitive landscape.”

James himself pitched the idea of contracting some franchises earlier this season. The league, James said, would be better off if a young All-Star like the Minnesota TimberwolvesKevin Love(notes) played on a team with more established stars than trying to grow a young team around him. Stern said during All-Star weekend that the league’s owners will continue to discuss contraction internally.

“Someway, somehow, it needs to be a little bit more spread out so the revenue can pick up in the NBA and the fan bases can pick up in every city,” Love said.

A look at the NBA standings today shows that just one team among the league’s top six record-wise is a small-market franchise: the San Antonio Spurs, who are a league-best 49-10.

The Spurs have ranked as one of their league’s most successful franchises over the past dozen years, winning four championships and reaching the West finals on two other occasions since the start of the lockout-shortened season in 1999. They’re now on pace to finish with a franchise-record 68 victories, a staggering total that would rank as the second-most ever by a Western Conference team. And yet, the Spurs have largely been overlooked – even ignored – this season because of the attention given to the star-driven rosters in Miami, L.A., New York and Boston.

“The big teams getting the best players might be what [people] want to see. It might be the biggest draw,” conceded Spurs forward Tim Duncan(notes). “But obviously, if the league wants to stay competitive all-around, that makes room for much better games on a nightly basis.”

Even now, however, the Spurs’ success is seen as an anomaly as much as a blueprint for other small-market franchises. Duncan praised Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the team’s front-office staff for continuing to draft and find not only stars like Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker(notes), but also top-quality young role players in George Hill(notes), DeJuan Blair(notes) and Gary Neal(notes). “We continue to replenish our team every time we break down,” Duncan said.

But “pure luck,” Duncan admitted has also had a lot to do with the Spurs’ ability to sustain their success. In twice winning the NBA’s draft lottery, the Spurs landed two franchise-defining big men in Robinson and Duncan who were content to play out their careers in a small market.

If a new labor agreement doesn’t put the San Antonios and Utahs of the league on more equal footing with the L.A.’s and New Yorks, then the Spurs will soon face many of the same problems as their small-market peers. With Duncan owning just one more year on his contract, the Hornets’ Paul and Magic’s Howard possibly eyeing moves to bigger stages and the Portland Trail Blazers trying to overcome career-threatening injuries to two of their young cornerstones – Brandon Roy(notes) and Greg Oden(notes) – the Oklahoma City Thunder appear to be the only small-market franchise poised to contend for titles in the future.

The Thunder signed Kevin Durant(notes), the league’s leading scorer and one of its brightest young stars, to a five-year, $85 million contract extension last summer. They also figure to do the same with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook(notes) once the league reaches a new labor agreement.

“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the big city,” Durant said. “I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. I’m used to that. But I love my teammates, my organization and the city so much. I thought that was the only place for me. It’s not that I don’t like the big city, but Oklahoma City fits me well.”

Still, not everyone sees the league’s current climate as cause for concern. In the 1980s, the Lakers won five titles, the Celtics three and the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons each claimed one.

“There were three teams, and that was it,” Rivers said. “There were the Lakers, the Celtics and maybe the Sixers. Other than that, every year you felt like as a kid, ‘When are the Lakers and Celtics going to start the Finals?’

Rivers grinned. “I’m hoping,” he said, “that is true this year as well.”