The question has to be asked: Was all this rigged? Was it all part of a ploy by NBA commissioner/genius David Stern to save his league?
Back in July, the NBA hit rock bottom. When the Tim Donaghy situation blew up, Stern said it was the lowest month of his long tenure in charge of the league. Add to that the lowest-rated NBA Finals in years, and things were looking bleak for Stern & Co.
When Jason Kidd was traded to Dallas Tuesday, apparently completing a hectic few weeks of dealing, someone could have mentioned "Tim Donaghy" and received a "who?" response. Donaghy and 2007 are distant memories. Credit Stern — and a group of risk-taking GMs — for making this NBA season as intriguing as any my 24-year-old brain can recall.
Tonight's Los Angeles Lakers-Phoenix game will be meaningless come playoffs time, but don't tell ESPN. The network has been hyping the game for three days now, and how perfect is it that Shaquille O'Neal's return to the Western Conference begins with a game against his former teammate-nemesis Kobe Bryant?
That's the way things are going for Stern these days. Just fine, thanks.
A few months ago, nobody thought Bryant would survive the season in L.A. A Bryant trade would have almost certainly made the Lakers — located in one of the league's largest markets — meaningless and faceless. They would have been a footnote in the always-strong West.
A nightmare for Stern.
But that's far from what happened. Not only did Andrew Bynum's development encourage arguably the league's best player about his team; when Bynum went down, the Lakers quickly moved to acquire Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies — a team the casual NBA fan doesn't know exists.
There couldn't have been a better move from Stern's vantage point. (The cynical person will say Stern's cronies coerced Memphis into making the deal for underachieving players such as Kwame Brown.)
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference had become relevant again, thanks to the rebirth of the Celtics. As good as Detroit has been the past six seasons, close to nobody outside of Michigan cares about the ball-sharing, no-superstar Pistons.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are one of the franchises that could help rejuvinate the league. They have the history, the large fan base, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons. When they do well, highlights are shown of the 1980s, reminding NBA fans that, yes, the league can be exciting and riveting.
So as bad as the East is — and as ugly as the first two rounds of the playoffs likely will be — if the Pistons and Celtics meet in the conference finals, millions of fans will tune in. Replays of Bird's steal of Isiah's pass will be shown over and over again. And, most important, the series will be drama-filled and good T.V.
But back to the West. L.A. acquisition of Gasol was just the beginning of high-profile teams trading for big names. Since Steve Nash arrived in the desert, Phoenix has consistently been the team most fun to watch in the league. (Golden State fans would argue that now, but not two years ago.) Now, the Suns will not only be a fast-breaking bunch, but a bunch with a "Diesel" in the middle.
No one knows what the addition of O'Neal will do for the Suns, but I know what it will do for Stern: make him smoke another victory cigar. The Suns rescued one of the league's biggest names — not to mention, biggest players — from near retirement. If O'Neal had stayed in Miami, he might have decided to call it quits and focus on his law enforcement career. Instead, he'll be in the center of the playoff picture.
The more big-name guys are in the playoffs, the better for the NBA. Stern knows that the casual fan doesn't begin paying much attention to the league until the playoffs, so it's vital that the well-known players are still playing. They will be this season.
The only big star who won't be active come mid-April is Miami's Dwyane Wade. And almost all the stars will be in big markets.
That's right. Kobe in L.A. Shaq in Phoenix. K.G. in Boston. And Jason Kidd in Dallas.
What a huge move — maybe for the Mavericks and definitely for Stern.
The last several years, Kidd was stuck in the mud hole that's New Jersey, throwing alley-oops and nifty dimes to teammates in front of sparse crowds. When the Nets made the finals back-to-back years, nobody noticed or cared. Nobody wanted to see the Nets play. On the East Coast, it's always been about the Knicks and Celtics. Not some former ABA team.
Now, Kidd is in a city crazy about its professional basketball. Despite the fines, Mark Cuban is the best owner in the NBA because of the way he immerses himself in his team's doings. (On a side note, the Cubs should pray he's their next owner.) The Mavericks were a fun team to watch with Devin Harris running the point. They upgraded with the acquisition of Kidd. Yes, in five years, the Nets will be reaping the benefits of the deal, but for now, Dallas has improved and added even more intrigue to the West's race toward the finals.
Forget the trades for a moment. How perfect of a rebound was it for the NBA to hold the All-Star Game in New Orleans after the debacle/arrest party in Las Vegas a year ago? What the players did for a full day in New Orleans painted a very positive picture of a league that gets an unfair rap as thug-infiltrated.
Instead of simply partying during the recess, the NBA's stars spent a good chunk of the weekend helping to rebuild the struggling city. Then nobody got into trouble, Dwight Howard and Gerald Green put on a show to save the dunk contest, and the actual game was very competitive at the end.
It was the ultimate weekend for the league — just another sign that the NBA is back on the upswing. No, it probably will never be as popular again as the NFL. Football has taken over this country.
But compared to seven months ago, the NBA is in as good shape as it was during the glorious '80s.
And things will only get better during the rest of the season.