Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Rebirth of the Rivalry

I hope he knows his importance

By Anthony Peretore

In my last article Just How Important is New York to the NBA?, I explored a few of the league’s more intense and captivating rivalries of the 90s—essential to the game’s popularity back then, but severely lacking today. Now somewhere along the way perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about where I was going with my opinions. I hinted that the NBA is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the 90s, but I never meant that from a financial standpoint because in reality, the league is pumping in more money than ever before. Here are a few of the main explanations behind that success:
  • Fans of organizations in smaller markets such as Sacramento, Memphis, and Phoenix are enjoying the sport more due to their teams’ recent success, and lack of other thriving pro teams in those areas.

  • More fans are purchasing jerseys of their favorite players, a popular fad in the urban communities that has spread throughout the world.

  • The accomplishments of Europeans like Dirk Nowitzki, Asians such as Yao Ming , and South Americans like Manu Ginobili have caught the attention of fans and players throughout these continents.

While these factors have certainly assisted in the globalization of the game, that does not necessarily entail the league capturing the attention of the majority of American fans as it did in the 90s. Back then, the sport was popular no matter where you went. Right now you're saying, if the league is making more money than ever before, how the hell can it not be considered popular?!?! Well, that of course depends on your definition of popularity. Mine for this particular topic can be best explained through the following example.

The NBA needs a rivalry like this

Look back to last season’s MLB Playoffs, almost everyone (non-sports fans included) was curious to know what was going in the ALCS. And why was everyone tuning in? Because the Yankees and Red Sox have evolved into the most heated rivalry in all of sports. Just to be clear, by everyone I don’t just mean Vinny from the Bronx, or Mahk O’Malley from Beantown. I mean like 15 year-old girls electing to miss 7th Heaven to watch Game 2, or people in the midwest flipping between some guy wolfing down goat scrotum on Fear Factor and Derek Jeter at-bats. I’m telling you this series had everyone’s attention--even my Mother's! Now none of you know my ma dukes(God forbid, I hope not) but let me tell you, she’d rather give herself open-heart surgery with plastic cutlery than watch sports, but even she was curious to know who was winning. Now sure, I live in Connecticut and maybe she was just interested because I’m a Yankee fanatic, but still, she had never given a crap before, so why start now? But that’s the thing—it was an unavoidable buzz that caught the attention of fans everywhere. It was sort of like the same buzz that existed after Ron Artest made that dork shit his pants by charging into the stands. The whole nation tuned in then, right? But how come no one cared nearly as much during this year’s Playoffs? And how do I know no one really cared? Because when you go to a bar and find a pretty diverse group of people paying more attention to a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond (that no one can even hear mind you) rather than Game 7 of the NBA Finals, you know there has to be a problem. Now sure, maybe I’m taking my opinions on how the NBA appears to me here in the northeast and turning it into a national consensus, but I honestly feel the game has dropped off since the 90s. That buzz that surrounded the ALCS reminded me a lot of when the Knicks used to battle with Chicago and Indiana in the 90s. Those hard-nosed rivalries got the attention of fans everywhere because the game was being played at its highest level by teams with the largest fanbase. Now the question is, will we ever see anything close to resembling those rivalries we enjoyed in the 90s, or will the game only be interesting when ‘Malice in the Palace’ type incidents occur? In my opinion, if the NBA wants to start making teenage girls miss their weekly dose of Laguna Beach to tune into Ernie, Kenny, and Charles, we need to see the rebirth of big city rivalries. If that’s ever going to happen, these teams need to step it up and here’s how they will.

New York Knicks

Could it be?

It's no secret that when LeBron James becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2007, he could be on his way out of Cleveland. News of this hit the streets when articles began pouring out discussing King James eventual departure to the Big Apple to cash in on a Nike bonus (whether this is true is speculative-Chad Ford says it is, Darren Rovell says it is not). While this may seem a bit far-fetched right now, it would be even more foolish to think LBJ would pass up the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in the world and potentially achieve the icon status of Michael Jordan. What would be even crazier than that is to think the Knicks aren’t already counting their pennies in anticipation of James rocking their #23 jersey come ’07 or ’08. Looking at the big picture, this is just what New York (and the League) needs—an iconic hero to grace the billboards of Time Square and in turn, provide the first step in bringing the NBA back to the popularity level it owned in the 90s. Now while this all sounds great in our minds, can the Knicks actually make this happen financially? Right now, our senses tell us absolutely not with Isiah spending money more freely than Courtney Love in Colombia. But with Larry Brown on the sidelines, perhaps Thomas will start thinking about the future and construct a manageable plan to work towards winning while also providing financial leverage for the future. Let’s take a look at what a 2007-08 Knicks roster could look like and the necessary steps in getting it to look that way.

1) After next season, the gargantuan contracts of both Allan Houston and Penny Hardaway will both be off the books (Penny after this year). These salaries alone will give the Knicks more than $55.6 million in cap relief (not space, relief). So in theory, if New York holds onto the majority of that money freed up then they would be approximately halfway towards paying LeBron’s max deal.

2) In addition to clearing the salaries of both Houston and Hardaway, Maurice Taylor and Tim Thomas will also be off the books by the time LJ is ready to sign. This equates to another $33+ million in contracts. It also rids the team of four under-achieving players that in no way make up the chemistry necessary in building a championship-caliber team.

3) If Isiah can eliminate the $42 million owed to Stephon Marbury from 2007-09 (in addition to the aforementioned salaries) that should equate to just enough money necessary to get LeBron to MSG.

4) So whom would that leave to play alongside King James? Let’s make some educated guesses as to what could and should happen:

  • Jamal Crawford and Michael Sweetney evolve into solid players at their respective positions and become the cornerstones of the team before LJ arrives.

  • Rookie Nate Robinson turns into an excellent team-first PG, providing a steady compliment to JC in the Knicks’ backcourt.

  • Channing Frye absolutely shits the bed and becomes a career-long backup, whether in New York or not.

  • If Frye is indeed a bust (we know Jerome James will be), Isiah will have to go out and get a center. Among those becoming free agents during the next two summers: Ben Wallace, Eddy Curry (assuming), Yao Ming (unrealistic), Lorenzen Wright, and Jamaal Magliore.

  • Either Trevor Ariza or Quentin Richardson will be manning LeBron’s ‘3’ slot and eventually move into the role of 6th man to accommodate him.

If the majority of these assumptions can turn into reality (of course the LeBron signing being the biggest), we can expect the Knicks to once again be serious contenders come 2007 or 2008. Putting LeBron’s talent in 2-3 years alongside developing youth such as Crawford, Sweetney, Robinson, and Ariza/Q might be just what the Big Apple needs to get over the Patrick Ewing era. Now for New York’s opponents…

Chicago Bulls

Mark my words, within the next two seasons Kevin Garnett will request a trade. With the lineup (or lack thereof) Kevin McHale has surrounded his superstar with, don’t be surprised to see KG absolutely explode sooner rather than later. If this does indeed occur, what better team to suit up for than his hometown Bulls? Pairing KG with players like Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, and Luol Deng (keep in mind at least 2 would probably be traded to Minny) would make the Bulls a serious contender out of the East. Garnett back home with a chip on his shoulder the size of United Center with MJ as his coach (hey, Gretzky did it) and this Bulls team could be battling the Knicks as they did in the 90s.

Boston Celtics

By the time 2008 rolls around, the Celtics should have an excellent core of young players making the leap into All-Stars. Among Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Tony Allen, Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes, and Justin Reed, one would have to expect this squad to be competing with the elite teams in the league. However, deciding which of these players to re-sign come the summers of 2006, 07, and 08 will play a huge factor in the team’s success. Notice how Paul Pierce isn’t listed here? Factor in whatever Danny Ainge can get for him (if not just cap space) and perhaps some more championship banners could be raised in the near future.

Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe could pose as LeBron's biggest rival

With Phil Jackson returning to the pine this season, I think we all expected the Lakers to be a bit more aggressive in both the Draft and free agency. I do however like the move of adding Kwame Brown to a potentially devastating tandem of Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom, if only because these guys are just 23, 26, and 25, respectively and still have worlds of potential. All three are scheduled to remain on the books through ‘07-08 along with McDonald’s All-American rookie Andrew Bynum. It’s also been made no secret that management plans on saving cap space this summer as well as next in order to land a high profile free agent come 2007. Among the players that could also be headed to LA at that time: Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kirk Hinrich, Chris Bosh, or Jamaal Magliore. Put Kobe in his ultimate prime while playing together with the likes of Odom, Brown, and Bynum for two years, and then add one of these guys and we could have our favorites out West.

Houston Rockets

It’s as simply as McGrady, Yao and Swift developing together for the next three years. No I don’t think Yao’s going anywhere and once they add a solid point guard and a couple more shooters, we’ll have at the very least, a hell of a rivalry in Texas.

San Antonio Spurs

These guys could be the Yankees of the league come 2007. Is it really that unrealistic to think they won’t win the next two Titles? Duncan and Ginobili would transform into the Jeter and A-Rod of the NBA.

How much could we hate these two?

As easy as it is for me to place powerhouses in each corner of the country, for the most part all of these blueprints make sense. Sure the KG trade may be a little far-fetched and LeBron could spend his whole career at home in Cleveland, but as a die-hard NBA fan it’s fun to forecast what could be. Looking back at this past season, I wish it didn’t take some asshole throwing a beer at Artest to create the biggest buzz of the year. I wish more people would sit down and watch players like LeBron, T-Mac, and Amare and realize these guys have the ability to captivate a nation just like MJ, Magic and Bird once did. I wish the Finals were actually of interest to all sports fans and not just a small handful. Most importantly, I wish I didn’t need to write this article today, but the fact remains that in order for the average fans to take more notice, the league desperately needs it’s rivalries back. In order for that to happen, we initially need New York to step up and if those of you living outside of the Northeast don’t believe it, well hopefully you’ll take my word for it. I firmly believe that the rebirth and pinnacle of the NBA’s popularity has yet to come, but that its arrival rests firmly on the shoulders of LeBron James. If he heads to New York and brings the Knicks back to glory and the majority of the aforementioned teams can do the same, we will finally be able to witness the same buzz we felt back in the 90s. Think about it, LeBron-Kobe battles, Knicks-Lakers, Celtics-Lakers, Bulls-Knicks, and the list goes on. Right now Spurs-Pistons isn’t doing it for the average fan and any television ratings will prove me right. But who knows, if these teams listed above can progress and get back to their glory days, maybe by then the Yankees and Red Sox will have taken a backseat to Knicks-Celtics. Maybe we’ll be able to compare what LeBron did for the NBA to what MJ did. Maybe fans across the country will see the beauty that Paul and I see every day and make us into billionaires. But until I hear my Mom turn to me and say, “Hey, how bout those Knicks,” all we can do is wait…


At 2:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It all begins with a hit on isiah...
Nice column Anthony. The trading of players like garnett is interesting because it almost always hurts the team who trades away the big superstar. Ben Gordon should be included by the bulls in any trade for KG because Gordon is a player that improves decent teams, but will kill teams with championship potential.
The biggest problem with Lebron as a knick is that I dont see what talent this knicks could offer cleveland to prevent them from matching. I think the knicks should do what ever it takes to draft oden in 2007.
One question though. Will Melo stay a nugget? Personally, I doubt it because he will be blamed for failing to take the nuggets deep enough in the playoffs, eventhough it is clear that miller is not enough of a distributing pg for the team to succeed .

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Anthony Peretore said...

Anonymous, thanks for writing in. Try and leave your name at the end next time so I know who I'm addressing. As for your comments...

1)Thanks for the praise. I agree that the Garnett trade is very interesting. Anytime the best all-around player in the league is in a bad situation it's interesting to speculate what could happen. Gordon would probably be the second most valuable asset to Minnesota behind Chandler. If they lose KG they'd at least like to get a guy that can fill his position and fill it well.

2) Come 2007 it will be a challenge for the Knicks or any team to offer Cleveland equal returns on LeBron. If you're a realist you just assume he'll re-sign for one more season in 2007 then hit free agency the following year. Paul and I actually discussed this yesterday. What would be a fair exchange for LJ? 25 first round picks? It will be interesting how this plays out. My guess is that if the Cavs are serious contenders in the next few years, he stays for '07. But if not he'll find some way out of there with help from the media pressures.

3) Paul and I discussed the Melo topic yesterday as well. Paul thought he would stay in Denver because he really seems to like it there. I'm a bit torn. I think he enjoys the limelight and if he's not getting it done in Denver he may want a change of scenery to a bigger market. A Paul Pierce/Tony Allen trade may make some sense in the next year or so. I personally think he's going to have a huge 05-06 season and take Denver places. But we'll just have to wait and see.

Thanks for writing in.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about a Lakers/Clippers rivalry, or even better-- Lakers/Insert Vegas Team Name Here rivalry? We'd probably have to wait longer for that, but if you think about it...that could be a major rivalry! By the way, what would we call the Las Vegas team? The Gamblers? The Lonesharks? Rebels? Bouncers? I bet the NBA comes out with something lame like, The Las Vegas Show...or the Las Vegas Gazelles.

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous David Lievense said...

Nice article and I do agree with your premise that the league has none of the buzz that MLB come playoff time (because lets face it 162 games is just way too much to care about day in and day out) or that the NFL has week in and week out (benefit of a 16 game season, every game is the playoffs).

Where I disagree with you, is in your solution. Just trading around the superstars to different teams isn't going to suddenly create rivalries.

You are right though that the rivalries are what pull in the "casual" fan to look at what might happen, and they are what pump up to the "super" fan. NY-Bos in MLB, Oakland-Denver or Indy-New England in the NFL. These teams hate each other.

So what's the problem with the NBA? Think about the recent "rivalries" that have developed in the NBA, Indy-Detriot, Lakers-Kings (2 yrs ago), Boston-New Jersey (2 yrs ago). Why did these rivalries form, because these teams had played each other enough to develop story lines, bad blood and an extra intensity that makes all rivalries great.

Think about it, NY & Boston have played something like 80 games against each other the last 3 years (including playoffs), that's nearly 1/2 a season. The Pats and Colts have played each other 6 times in the past 2 years, that's over a third of a season.

How often does Boston play the Sixers or Nets (two old rivalries), just 4 times a season. The reason they play so little is because Stern & Co think we need to see EVERY PLAYER, come through each building every year. Starting with Bird & Magic and exploding with Jordan the game stopped promoting it's teams and became about the individual player. Once those transcendant players left the game, along with the rapid expansion of the game (diluting the quality of each team and reducing the number of games divisional teams face each other) you saw rivalries diminish and fans starting to pay less attention to the game because there wasn't a Jordan who you had to watch every night for what he might do.

To get back to that excitement level the NBA needs to take a book from the NFL and focus more on promoting the teams and fostering rivalries again. Part of the way to do that is to cut down on the number of non-divisional games people play. Like the NFL alternate which division you play in the other conference (i.e. Pacific one year, then Northwest, then Southwest). This would garrentee that in 3 years every player would go through every arena so you'd still be able to see a LeBron James in his prime. This would also free up 10 games a year that could then be played against your divisional opponents (i.e. one more home & away series with the team). This would be an increase of number of divisional games by 12%, and making the percentage more inline with what the NFL & MLB do.

Right now there is little to no reason for the individual divisions to exist in the NBA.

Just my long winded 2 cents though. :-)

At 1:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

your 2 cents isnt even worth 2 shits. why the hell did nike just unveil a huge (and i mean HUGE) lebron billboard in cleveland right across from quicken loans arena? esp if they want him to play somewhere else? they dont! and lebron has said himself that he doesnt want to play anywhere else. this is his team. the cavs are his team, and he is there identity. they give him a sense of individualism instead of being mixed in with other celebrities in nyc.

lebron to nyc...or to anywhere else besides his native ohio...is wishful thinking. if anything, go after carmelo or chris bosh. i doubt denver keeps melo and i doubt bosh wants anything to do with toronto past 2007. those are more realistic thoughts than thinking that you can somehow pry lebron away from cavs owner dan gilbert.

At 1:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh yeah bricks also signed eddy curry to a nice, long, six year contract. and oh yeah you signed the wrong james in jerome to a five year deal. good job.

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

If you want to talk rivalry, what about some new blood in Cavs-Heat? It's a lot easier than maneuvering players around the country. Don't tell me for a second that LeBron-Wade won't captivate the world's audience. And Cleveland/Miami aren't even big markets. You don't need that to create big rivalries.

It just seems to me that you're a frustrated Knicks fan.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Amar said...

I agree with someone saying that rivalries form by having two teams play each other a lot, not by just having superstars traded around. LeBron James is a marketing icon even though he's in Cleveland. He is adored there and the local media never rips him. He has a free pass to do whatever he wants, and he is at home in Ohio. In NYC, the media wouldn't spare him if he had a night like the one he just had at Indiana. In Cleveland, they blame it on other players. It's never his fault, and he has his own billboard bigger than any billboard in NYC (I'm serious, look it up, the thing's huge). Sure, leading the Knicks to a title would bring infinite fame, but LBJ can't do it by himself. Look at last year's Cavs, he was a one man team and missed the playoffs altogether. You think the Knicks can actually sign him AND surround him with talent? You are speaking with your heart and not your head if you answer "yes."

Garnett to NYC? Possible. If I was a betting man, I'd lay down 50 on that. NYC can offer a ton of expiring contracts and draft picks, so the Wolves can rebuild. In fact I think that works out best for everybody. A Knicks-Cavs rivalry fueled by KG and LeBron would be great, or Knicks-Heat or Heat-Cavs. Cleveland's mid-market status has nothing to do with LeBron's popularity or the popularity of the league, he still had the top selling jersey his ROOKIE YEAR!!!


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