MIAMI -- The blueprint has been set forth for the next era in the NBA, only as forces conspire to tear it apart.
In the '80s, it was the Lakers and Celtics dominating the star power and championships, with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson presiding over a golden age of basketball that looks a lot like the league does now -- powerful, glamorous teams in major markets and plenty of slow cars for them to pass on the track.
Then came Hakeem in Houston, and the Bad Boy Pistons, who set the standard for the Bulls' dynasty built around Michael Jordan. It was an incredible confluence of good fortune for the league to have one era of transcendent stars blend into a new era -- with the player who raised the sport's profile to unprecedented global heights.
The Spurs got David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and they got theirs -- four titles in nine years -- and Kobe Bryant teamed with Shaquille O'Neal for three and got two more without him. The Celtics engineered their own Big Three, reprising the Lakers-Celtics rivalry with two trips to the Finals and one title. But the current wave began in 2003, when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted LeBron James -- the "Chosen One" -- and put into motion an incredible series of events carrying the NBA where it is today: on the cusp of another era of greatness and on the brink of destruction, all at the same time.
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Are superteams like Miami's -- with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh -- good or bad for the sport? On one hand, they're incredibly bad if you're not one of them. At the same time, the TV ratings and response from basketball fans across the globe is indisputable.
"Look at the numbers in the playoffs," said Magic Johnson, the smiling face of that glamorous Lakers dynasty and now a talking head for ABC during the Finals. "That Bulls-Miami series was breaking all the records. That's what it's all about. I think we're going to have incredible numbers for this series. Fans, look: Michael Jordan won three in a row and went in a lapse came back and won three again. Did anybody say anything? No. The numbers were incredible. Nobody cared that they dominated. They just wanted to watch great basketball, and the greatest basketball player that's ever played.
"It's the same thing here," Magic said. "They just want to see great basketball. And LeBron and D-Wade and Chris Bosh can provide that for them. And now they want to see Dirk because he's been tearing it up."
Yet there are those among NBA ownership that are threatening to tear up the very model that made Miami's superteam possible. The tug of war among high-revenue and low-revenue owners, among superstar players and the rank-and-file has never been at this dramatic a tipping point.
"Hey, back in the day, Boston and the Lakers, we set the trend," Magic said. "We set the way and then we had our run. Chicago had their run, Detroit had their run, Houston had their run. It's a game of runs, and so this is their time now and they're going to have their run. What you have to do is, go to work and try to compete against them. And so you get your own big two or big three and that's what it's all about. It's not going to ruin the game, it's just going to bring more fans to see it. This is a great Finals that we're seeing. It's great for the fans."
But for which fans? Fans in Sacramento, New Orleans, Charlotte, Atlanta, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis, where the deck is stacked so heavily against them that they'll never be able to compete with the superteams under the current system?
"You've got Oklahoma City that's good," Magic said. "Memphis is good. If they make moves, they could be the next ones in the Finals. So we can't minimize where Oklahoma City is, where Memphis is, because there are some small-market teams that are pretty good."
And some glamour-market teams that are becoming untouchable.
"Also, we have great teams in cities that we needed them to be good in," Magic said. "Chicago will make moves; they're going to get better. New York made moves; they're going to be better. So when you've got Boston, Chicago, L.A., and now you have Miami and Dallas, it's better for the league. It's not bad that [Miami's Big Three] are all together, no."
On Wednesday, a day after the Heat took a 1-0 lead over Dallas in the Finals, owners and players hunkered down in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Miami to try to sort out all of these issues. Does the NBA want to embark on this next era with the same formula that has worked time and time again -- dominant teams in glamour cities, with star power trumping parity? This is the dilemma for commissioner David Stern to solve among his clashing factions of owners. The ones with the market advantages and multiple superstars want the status quo, and don't want to subsidize the have-nots. They can't have it both ways -- and they can't ask the players, especially the stars who people pay to see, to foot the bill.
At the same time, do you really believe the NBA's top negotiator, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, when he says repeatedly that he wants a league where all 30 teams can compete for a championship? That would mean no more than one star per team, a breakup of the Heat's dynasty-in-the-making, and a watered down product that has just as good a chance of giving us the Kings and Bucks in the Finals as the Heat and Lakers. That faction of owners can't have it both ways, either: You can't kill the goose that laid the golden egg and then wonder why your sport has become irrelevant. (Witness: the NHL.)
So how does this all get solved? Magic says everybody else has to "go to work" and follow the Heat's blueprint. In other words, let stars be stars and let them attract each other until there are five or six superteams and the rest of the league can live off the scraps. Is that a sustainable model? Any model can be sustained; it's a matter of how you want the model to look.
It's an important moment for the NBA, one that leaves us wondering what's better: a level playing field or a handful of All-Star teams? Magic is right when he says, "Look at the numbers." Look at history, too, and tell me this isn't what people really want.