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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

NBA's Christmas feast can't disguise league's turkeys

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LOS ANGELES -- Sounding like a star who's been around longer than it feels like he's been around, LeBron James reflected on what it means to collide with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on Christmas Day.

Or any day, for that matter.

Old news, LeBron said. Doesn't mean as much as it did in what he called his "earlier years. ... Not as exciting as it was back then."

Has it been that long? The time has flown by. As we reach this unofficial Christmas Day mile-marker in a season of monumental change for the NBA, it will be the Heat vs. the Lakers on the national stage -- the undisputed jewel of five games marking the holiday that's always been a showcase day for the sport. And as much as LeBron wanted to downplay it Thursday night in Phoenix, after the Heat won for the 13th time in 14 games, this is undeniably the kind of hype and gripping drama that was intended when James took his talents to South Beach.

LeBron vs. Kobe. LeBron and Wade vs. Kobe and Pau. Also, Lamar and Ron-Ron and Chris Bosh, plus don't forget the Grinch -- Phil Jackson -- and yes, Pat Riley, lurking somewhere in the darkness and marveling at his latest made-for-TV creation.

I asked LeBron in the visiting locker room in Phoenix if this kind of hype and anticipation -- not to mention league-wide TV ratings, which are up 30 percent this season -- provided any validation that the decision for three megastars to team up in Miami was good for the sport. I didn't think it would be; and given the state of decay in so many markets that don't have the talent Miami, L.A., Boston, New York, Chicago and a few others can afford, I'm still not convinced it is.

"How could it be bad for basketball when you have guys that want to win on the same team?" James said.

That is when James, seeming to grow more comfortable with his voice with more distance between himself and the ruinous offseason "Decision," ventured unsolicited into controversial territory. A student of the game's history, if not a master of its nuances, James spoke of the Golden Era of the 1980s, when "probably 10 teams had two or three All-Stars, at least. You go from the Portland team, you go to, of course, the Bulls, the Lakers, Detroit, Boston, Houston. ... They had a huge, huge, huge star power. That's why the league was great."

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Then, he went there -- lending his voice, clout and surprisingly well-considered opinions to the notion that the NBA would be better if it had fewer teams, like the 24 it had in the '80s. That's an interesting debate to have, but it all comes back to the overriding theme of the day: The Heat and Lakers can carry the NBA on Christmas Day, and they'd do the same in June, when the nation turns its attention to the Finals. The Celtics and Lakers also could do it, or the Heat and Mavericks. Of the five or six teams with any realistic chance of winning a championship in the league's broken system of competitive balance, choose your combination. There aren't many.

But can this handful of star-stacked teams in glitzy markets carry the NBA into its next decade of prominence? There are only so many games like this, only so many stars to go around. And whether you think the NBA belongs in Charlotte, New Orleans and Memphis or not, the fact is there are only a handful of cities where the game is thriving.

"It only happens every now and then," James said of the kind of theater that will play out Saturday at Staples Center.

It will be quite a show -- and not just the game at the top of the marquee. The Knicks and Bulls will renew their Christmas Day rivalry at Madison Square Garden, harkening back to a time when Michael Jordan roamed the Earth as a titan of the game instead of an owner of a doomed, small-market speck of lint. Celtics vs. Magic has become one of the better rivalries of the game, seasoned now by bold trades Orlando made in a desperate effort to keep up with the elite.

Then it's on to Denver-Oklahoma City and Portland-Golden State ... well, the schedule-makers should've stopped there. That's when the nation will realize, after hours of the best product and most compelling stars the game has seen in more than a decade, that LeBron was right. There is only so much star power to go around, and too many pointless teams in miserable markets sucking the life out of an otherwise healthy game.

At the end of Thursday's interview session, James was asked an excellent question: Does it bother him that he's perceived to have enlisted the help of Wade and Bosh, while Bryant is viewed as a virtuoso -- even though Bryant long ago patented this tactic, first with Shaquille O'Neal and now with Pau Gasol?

"Nah, not at all," James said. "I understand what this league is all about, and this league is about winning. And you've got to have talent to win and you've got to have a supporting cast to win. And it's not about LeBron James as an individual or Dwyane Wade or Kobe or whatever the case may be. This is a team sport. Individuals get all the accolades and credit and all that stuff. But at the end of the year, nobody says Kobe Bryant is the NBA champion. They say the Los Angeles Lakers. I understand what it's about, man."

Understands it better than we thought.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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