LOS ANGELES – At the risk of looking ahead before the party at Ron Artest’s house is over, it’s time to consider how different the NBA landscape will look the next time someone hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Everyone but Gregg Doyel seemed to enjoy the epic, seven-game series given to us by the Lakers and Celtics. In fact, the series was ABC's most-viewed Finals and Game 7 was the most-watched NBA game since Michael Jordan's last championship shot in 1998 against the Jazz. At a time when owners and executives are understandably nervous about what the future will hold under a new collective bargaining agreement, it didn’t hurt for the sport to put its best foot forward for two weeks in June.
The momentum will carry right into the draft next week, when the NBA welcomes its next potential superstar, John Wall. Then, the main event: free agency, beginning July 1. The decisions and alliances that will be made during the first week of July could shift the balance of power and change the sport for the next decade.
Will LeBron James stay in Cleveland, to be joined by Chris Bosh or another high-profile free agent in a sign-and-trade? Will he form an alliance with Dwyane Wade in Miami, Derrick Rose in Chicago, or a superstar-to-be-named-later in New York? Will Kobe Bryant, fresh off his fifth title, push for a sign-and-trade scenario that would add Bosh to the Lakers’ embarrassment of riches?
The possibilities are endless, though Bryant was in no mood to contemplate all of this after celebrating his second straight title Thursday night. Asked by an enterprising reporter about the daunting possibility of facing a team with, say, LeBron and Wade in next year’s Finals, Bryant shot back, “What is it with you? You want to just emotionally drain me? I don’t want to think about that. Those guys, I’ve seen those guys up close and personal. I don’t want to think about playing against both of them at the same time. I want to enjoy this for a little bit.”
Not for long.
Once the free agency dust settles, the focus will shift from the Summer of LeBron to an army of lawyers, actuaries and accountants who are wrestling with the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the collective bargaining agreement. As thrilling as the Lakers-Celtics series was, it only underscored how concentrated the power – and titles – are among the big-market, high-revenue teams. Despite the fact that the players will include a plan for changing the league’s revenue-sharing model when they submit a proposal to the league in the next two weeks, sources indicate that NBA negotiators remain adamant that revenue sharing will not be part of the bargaining process. Months after getting an early start on negotiations, the owners and players still disagree on the validity of $400 million in losses stated by commissioner David Stern. Any way you slice it, it’s going to be a long, ugly fight with the goal of preventing a work stoppage when the current agreement expires on June 30, 2011.
Which brings us back to how things will look the next time the confetti is falling as Stern hands over the championship trophy 12 months from now. Stern’s NBA could be embarking on the most impactful era of basketball since Jordan retired, with big stars in big markets and world-wide interest in the sport perhaps even surpassing the Jordan era. And this could also be true next June: The NBA could be days away from a lockout that would kill all the momentum.
These are important times with a lot at stake, and with no time to do what Bryant pleaded with reporters to let him do: Enjoy it for a little bit.