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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Stern Might Consider Planting Seeds of Change

June 22, 2003|Mark Heisler

Phil Jackson, Coach

Los Angeles Lakers

El Segundo, Calif.

Dear Phil,

Don't do that to me again.


David Stern, Commissioner

National Basketball Assn.


As David Stern's deputy, Russ Granik, said before the NBA Finals when they were doing their usual reassuring number on the yawning East-West chasm, "Let's see how the Nets do."

If only everyone else had held up their end as well as the Nets did.

Stern still thinks he has a marquee event but after four years of walkovers, his audience doesn't seem to have much hope invested in the East, so even if it's 2-2, fans still think the West will win, or, worse, don't care.

Perception rides on the TV number, which produced a historic flop, although, for perspective, the rating in Los Angeles, 8.3, still beat the Stanley Cup finals' 7.1, with the Ducks in it and the series going seven games.

Nevertheless, perception counts, making it look as if the NBA is sagging, compared to baseball and hockey. Happily for Stern, his league is in better shape than his Finals, having managed to get the big issues right.

He locked his players out in 1999 but, unlike the NHL and Major League Baseball, got a good deal out of it, making the industry profitable again and bringing back labor peace. He negotiated a TV deal at the depth of the recession in 2002, dodging NBC's huge pay cut by going to a cable-oriented package with ABC and ESPN, a move deemed controversial in the entertainment biz but one other commissioners are sure to follow.

Compared to issues that thorny, what's so hard about putting on a good Finals? Everyone else has those.

With a cap that keeps San Antonio and Sacramento on a par with Los Angeles and New York, geographic balance should take care of itself but this is an extraordinary time in the NBA, with size, talent and flair so concentrated in the West, it has won the last five Finals, 20-6.

Stern no longer dismisses seeding out of hand -- "We look at everything. We don't say we do, but we do." -- but privately scorns the idea. A league official notes it would not only be gimmicky, it would look desperate.

Of course, if they aren't desperate by now, they're not paying attention.

Barring a miracle turnaround, we have seen the future and it had better have seeding in it, in one form or another.

Change is in the air. Golden State broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald is faxing around his idea for a six-division, no-conference scheme for 2004-05 when the Charlotte Bobcats start play, with division winners making the playoffs along with the next 10 best records and the whole postseason seeded.

Of course, this would work for the Warriors, who are bottled up under the West powers. But, it could work for the league too.

Stern also has mentioned a six-division realignment, although with no details, and he surely hopes to preserve the East-West configuration.

On the other hand, if these Finals didn't do it, one more debacle should convince him he'd better do something.

Stern, the smart cookie, also has been a lucky cookie. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who arrived just before he took over, were not only transcendent personalities, they went to glamour teams on opposite coasts and reinvigorated the greatest rivalry of all, giving us the golden age of the '80s.

Five years later, with Magic and Bird in their primes, along came Michael Jordan, who would take the league to a new level in the '90s.

No tinkering was required, just some adroit marketing of what people were keen to buy, which Stern was good at.

Jordan's 1998 departure was supposed to herald a difficult transition to Stern's "stars of tomorrow," but that wasn't how it turned out. The stars are here. What more could he ask than Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, both spectacular and colorful, taking the Lakers to three titles in a row?

One little thing. Stern had better find them someone to play in prime time.

Last spring, Game 7 of the Lakers-Kings West finals got a blowout 19 rating for NBC. Then the Lakers swept the Nets and got a 10.2, the worst Finals number since 1981 ... until this spring's 6.5.

Nor is the end in sight. The Lakers should get another major piece, the Kings were better than they were last season and insiders say the Spurs are still targeting Jason Kidd.

"The West is the stronger conference," said the Nets' Richard Jefferson when it was 2-2. "That's never going to change, even if we're fortunate enough to win the series.

"The West is going to be stronger next year and the year after until LeBron James takes over in Cleveland and makes them an undefeated team."

Since LeBron just turned 18, the commissioner may want to address the interim.

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