Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas recently said the NBA has become a league of "dunkers," younger players who emulate that aspect of Michael Jordan's game but forget the other things he did so well, such as shoot jumpers and play defense.
Are the words of two veteran stars and one recently retired superstar an indication of a league in trouble? Or is it simply the reaction to a changing league that is opening doors to a new generation of players?
The changing of the guard will be evident at tonight's All-Star Game in Minneapolis, which is void of names such as Jordan, Thomas, Johnson and Bird.
Eleven players will be making their first All-Star appearances, standing beside such mainstays as Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. It's the dawning of an era in which players such as B. J. Armstrong, Latrell Sprewell, Kenny Anderson and Mookie Blaylock will step into the spotlight.
Will those players -- along with second-year All-Star Shaquille O'Neal -- become legends as Jordan and Johnson did? How will television ratings from tonight's game compare to those from recent years?
"Can you ever replace Larry, Magic or Michael? No," NBA commissioner David Stern said on Friday. "But I don't think we could ever really replace Wilt [Chamberlain] or Bill Russell or Bob Pettit or Elgin Baylor or Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. But somehow we struggled through, and I think we'll do pretty well."
Too much, too fast?
If the league is thriving in most areas, one area of concern has been the current trend of long-term, multimillion-dollar contracts. Each of the top rookies this year signed a deal covering at least seven years and worth an average of $3 million a year. All-Star forward Derrick Coleman is seeking a nine-year, $90 million deal with the New Jersey Nets -- a contract that over the life of the deal would be worth more than the franchise itself.
"It'll be interesting how it affects the players," Los Angeles Clippers coach Bob Weiss said about the recent deals. "Most of the people in our league are natural competitors. Unfortunately, there are people who have enough talent to just guide them through their whole career -- and who are not driven people."
In the past, players first had to prove themselves -- at times at the NBA minimum -- before commanding major contracts.
"The player of the '90s has a contract that the day of the draft he became not a millionaire, but a multimillionaire for years to come," said Hubie Brown, a former NBA coach and current TNT analyst. "And he has yet to dribble a ball, score a basket. It's incredible.
"With the rookies getting so much money, and the proven players getting so much money, the people that make the team successful -- players five through nine -- end up in jeopardy and their careers end quickly," Brown added. "People say why pay players five through nine a million dollars when we can get a guy to do the same thing for $250,000. You have to protect those guys."
Six-time NBA all-star Adrian Dantley was in that position after the 1989-90 season, when he bought out his contract with the Dallas Mavericks and -- hoping to parlay his skills into a lucrative contract -- became a free agent. The career 24.3 point-per-game scorer wound up sitting out most of the 1990-91 season, finally signing a contract with the Milwaukee Bucks for the last 10 games. The next season he was out of the NBA and playing in the Italian League.
"That's just the market," said Dantley, now an assistant coach at Towson State, describing the influence of the big contracts. "It's all about leverage. When the rookies come in, they seem to have a lot of leverage now."
More money, less incentive?
Still, many wonder whether the increasing flow of money to the young players takes away incentive.
For former guard Michael Cooper, the defensive star for the "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s, one of the most dramatic changes in the game is experienced simply by walking into a locker room before a game.
"When we were with the Lakers, the approach was to watch tape before a game -- and if you're talking, you're discussing what you have to do that night to make you a better team," said Cooper, an assistant to Lakers general manager Jerry West.
"Now, from what I see and what I hear from other people, players have rap music on, talk about what they did the night before and cover anything but basketball. From what I'm hearing around the league, the approach is lackadaisical."
It's all part of the NBA as entertainment, an era in which simple dunks often result in the posing and posturing that Thomas and Barkley referred to. O'Neal, Seattle SuperSonics forward Shawn Kemp and Houston Rockets forward Robert Horry are three of many "entertainers" featured prominently on the late night sport shows.
The entertainment also branches out to the many off-court ventures that are often just as lucrative as a player's contract. Where once players would relax on a day off, some of the new players spend much of their free time filming commercials or making television appearances.
Orlando rookie Anfernee Hardaway flew to Los Angeles on Thursday to make an appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" before arriving in Minneapolis to play in the first Rookie All-Star Game. Earlier this year, Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Isaiah Rider missed a practice to film a commercial for his own shoe.
"The tide changes and, in a sense, basketball is now entertainment," Cooper said. "It's just like music or movies. It's a new trend, and the people can still keep their wealth and maintain their focus of what it's all about: winning championships."
The Shaq factor
Perhaps the player with the most off-the-court distractions is O'Neal, whose many roles include being a basketball player, rap singer and movie star.
Among the league leaders in scoring (28.5 ppg, first), rebounding (12.1 rpg, fourth), field-goal percentage (61.5 percent) and blocked shots (3.06 per game, sixth), O'Neal still faces criticism as a player whose massive 7-foot, 300-pound frame makes up for lack of real basketball talent.
"There's a lot I can do offensively," O'Neal said. "But when you have two or three guys going against you, it's hard to show it."
Regardless of whether he can only dunk, the public buys the "Shaq attack" and that is why O'Neal and the Magic are second only to the Chicago Bulls in television appearances.
In fact, television ratings have not dipped in the post-Jordan era -- a sign that predictions of the league's demise are exaggerated.
"Maybe those guys aren't as mature but, by vote of the viewer, people like to watch them play," said Don McGuire, executive producer at TNT. "Is there anybody like Michael on the horizon? No. Nobody like Magic, Larry or Michael. But our ratings are as high as they've ever been.
"We feel good about the young guys, and what they mean to the growth of the league."