NEW YORK – The march to an inevitable Finals began 25 blocks west of the Board of Governor's meeting, where the NBA had worked the post-Super Bowl week to bring the masses the season's biggest story line: the collision course of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
The planet's two biggest stars turned Madison Square Garden into a Broadway production for back-to-back games in February, Kobe and LeBron dropping 113 points on the defenseless New York Knicks, and transforming a nice, easy trot into a sprint for a June coronation.
Together, they started this run to June at the Beijing Olympic Games, and turned that into a two-man East-West game across the season, elevating the MVP debate to levels unseen since Michael, Magic and Bird were the rage.
For everything that bubbles uneasily beneath the sport's economic surface, for the issues threatening the sport's prosperity, these playoffs promise to work themselves into a frenzied and fortuitous finish because of this impending reality: Lakers and Cavaliers, Kobe and LeBron, for the NBA championship.
Who would've believed that something short of a Lakers-Celtics Finals rematch could become an even bigger series for the sport?
As the spiraling economy met poorly run franchises in suspect markets, the NBA finds itself with too many teams on too many shaky foundations. It isn't just small-market teams reaching out for credit loans through the league office, but traditionally profitable powers whose owners' businesses are in financial binds. Yes, owners are paying the price for a bad economy, but in too many cases, they're paying for their own foolish management, too.
"We're going to work with our players to come up with a model that makes it more profitable," NBA commissioner David Stern said.
In a second-floor conference room of the St. Regis, Stern ended a two-day Board of Governors meeting with a scaled-down state of the NBA address for four reporters. He had finished the meetings with the owners and management elders for his 30 franchises, and declared that the reopening of discussions with the player's union on the Collective Bargaining Agreement can be done without "saber rattling."
Stern has subtly started to make his case for the union to give back a bigger part of the revenue. Now, the players get 57 percent of basketball-related income, and the owners are coming hard for a more equitable split. As much as ever, the Kobes and LeBrons and Wades are underpaid for what they bring to the NBA. And maybe, too, the interchangeable rank-and-file role players make too much.
"I think every word that's coming out of David's mouth these days is all about setting up take-backs with the next Collective Bargaining Agreement," one NBA team president said Friday.
Nevertheless, the sport's star power promises to be postseason's salvation. These playoffs are packed with flawed, broken-down teams, with All-Stars like Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady and Jameer Nelson out. There are star centers, Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler, playing on hobbled legs and feet.
These are playoffs where the biggest threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference could come from the emboldened young Portland Trail Blazers. The Celtics are simply a shell of themselves in the Eastern Conference with KG's gimpy knee. LeBron and Kobe are thundering down the tracks, threatening to topple those Celtics-Lakers television ratings of a year ago.
An L.A.-Cleveland Finals could be an intriguing test of LeBron's ability to brand himself beyond the bright lights of a big city. As much as anything, the NBA is learning that the information age has made a Cleveland icon accessible to the globe. There were more than 100 million digital downloads of NBA highlights around the world. The game has grown bigger globally, but made everything seem a little smaller, too.
Yes, it is still important to have L.A., Boston and New York in contention, but maybe less so than ever. Truth be told, the lowering of the salary-cap numbers by 2010 could make it more difficult for the NBA to get a superstar – James or Wade – to New York. As competent as Donnie Walsh has been as New York's president, the Knicks' chances are undermined by superstars who want to win championships and understand that Mike D'Antoni's defense-free system is ill-suited for that pursuit. Why average 40 points a night for the Knicks when you can drop 50 on them?
The NBA doesn't need to wait until the summer of 2010 to reshuffle its stars because it sure feels like they're aligned right now. As the commissioner started to make his case for CBA take-backs on the eve of the NBA playoffs, the planet's two biggest players push for a Finals finish that could transcend the sport in a season when its foundation felt suddenly so shaky.