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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

NBA season might be the last of its kind

With salary cap fluctuations, teams are playing for this year and the future.

October 25, 2009|MARK HEISLER

Not many seasons set up the way this one does, with almost everything at stake almost everywhere.

Of course, the Lakers are trying to defend their title in their inimitable style, with Coach Phil Jackson, asked about repeating, noting merrily:

"We have a better chance than anybody."

This season, that's just where it starts.

The Celtics are making a last hurrah with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in contract years.

Boston's ownership, which made little or no money the last two seasons, however glorious, isn't running around trying to lock everyone up, suggesting it's open to backing up the truck.

In Cleveland, it's the Cavaliers' last stand before LeBron James is free. Only James knows what it will take to keep him, but they had better not upset him by falling short of the Finals, or, perhaps, falling anywhere.

It can also be Dwyane Wade's last season in Miami, Chris Bosh's in Toronto, Amare Stoudemire's in Phoenix and Dirk Nowitzki's in Dallas, not to mention Shaquille O'Neal's in Cleveland, Joe Johnson's in Atlanta and David Lee's in New York.

Complicating all this, the economic crisis that came down last fall after NBA teams had sold their season tickets will have greater impact this season.

With last season's $58.7-million cap down to $57.7 million, the league has told teams to prepare for revenue to fall further, projecting the 2010-11 cap as low as $50.4 million.

So much for Plan A for the Cavaliers, trying to keep James, and the Knicks, trying to lure him.

Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry had cleared a maximum slot for next summer, enabling him to woo a star like Bosh to play alongside James.

With Ferry's max slot whittled in half and the Cavaliers' devastating loss to Orlando in the Eastern finals, Ferry pushed all his chips out on the table, acquiring O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, giving James his best supporting cast, by far.

Now, the Cavaliers' last stand just has to get past Boston's last hurrah.

In New York, the Knicks, who thought they would have two maximum slots to offer to James and Bosh, just to name two players, are now looking at 1 3/4 slots. That would oblige them to ask some big guy to take less, not a popular option among big people.

With cap space paramount in his mind, Knicks President Donnie Walsh made no moves, even making Lee, his best player, a free agent next summer by bringing him back on a one-year qualifying offer.

(Adding to the drama, no one will know how much space anyone has until July 1. Confusing as this is, the New York tabloids will beat up Walsh until James actually dons a Knicks jersey, in which case Walsh will then be deemed Red Holzman's linear heir.)

No matter what happens this season, this league is going to look different next season.

Because things rarely turn out as anyone expects, there may be more plot twists than we can imagine.

Take the Clippers, or as Clippers fans would say, please.

With a comeback looming -- how can they miss after winning 19 games? -- they have a talented young roster with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon -- and $20 million worth of cap room, which could make them one of James' most attractive suitors.

So, Mike Dunleavy could wind up as coach of the year and executive of the year, or, if things don't work out, fired.

One way or another, it's going to be something everywhere.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A look at some of the star players in the league who could be on the move after this season. The financial crisis has left players and owners wondering about the future:

Cleveland's LeBron James

Toronto's Chris Bosh

Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki

Boston's Paul Pierce

Miami's Dwyane Wade

Atlanta's Joe Johnson

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NBA calendar

Monday -- Rosters set for opening day.

Tuesday -- Start of regular season.

Feb. 12-15 -- All-Star weekend, Dallas.

Feb. 18 -- Trade deadline, noon PST.

April 14 -- Regular season ends.

April 17 -- Playoffs begin.

April 25 -- Early entry deadline.

May 18 -- Draft lottery.

June 3 -- NBA Finals begin.

June 14 -- Early entry withdrawal deadline.

June 24 -- NBA draft.

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