Going into All-Star break, NBA counting its blessings


It's not the fashion police dominating talk around the NBA at the All-Star break. Nor is it the Auburn Hills police.

It's the chemistry police.

As the NBA caps the weekend in Houston with tonight's All-Star Game, the battle lines are drawn between collective success and individual glory. Or: the Pistons winning 70 vs. Kobe Bryant scoring 81.

What's better for the league? For the fans? For the teams themselves? Overall, the NBA isn't splitting hairs; it's just glad that Ron Artest isn't showing up in Letterman's and Leno's monologues anymore.

"We haven't had excessive fisticuffs. These are things that commissioners worry about," David Stern told the Associated Press last week. "And truth be told, our player reputation in the testing that we do is rebounding quite well from a year ago."

No brawl talk and no labor scuffling, which cast a pall over the events in Denver last year. And not only no raging debate about the dress code enacted on the eve of the season, and no players fined so far, but apparently a big boost in image from it (even though at least one columnist who will remain nameless thought the issue would dog the league all season). The length of game shorts has been a bigger issue than exposed jewelry or missing sport coats.

Scoring is slightly off after taking a leap last season, but more teams are averaging 100 points a game (seven) than in any season since 1996-97. There already have been more individual 50-point games (nine) than last season. The overall cable ratings are up from a year ago.

"We've had a very good year," Stern said, "because people are talking about the game. ... Anytime it's about the game is fine from my perspective."

So what's left for NBA types to get worked up about? To sum up: Bryant getting more national play than the Pistons. The league's winningest teams getting the cold shoulder in All-Star voting. Viewers tuning in star players and tuning out cohesion and, yes, chemistry.

Ground zero, for now, is Houston, where the Eastern Conference roster is Detroit-heavy thanks to a mini-revolt by East coaches determined to right a wrong. Other selections on both teams raised doubts about what NBA followers' priorities are, and should be.

Many applauded when four Pistons were voted on as reserves. Others called it agenda-driven and unfair to great players stuck on lesser teams. Gilbert Arenas got in as an injury replacement; Michael Redd and Dwight Howard weren't as lucky - yet, inexplicably, Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh of lowly Boston and Toronto, respectively, were.

Even Arenas himself was torn, saying that he'd understand if he was passed over for players on the best team in the NBA - but also saying, "Four Pistons? All of them?"

Same for his coach, Eddie Jordan, who claimed these criteria for his ballot: "The best guys that are playing on winning teams, with no position," and "Anything to help Gilbert get on."

Yet the coaches and players are no less divided in their own minds than the fans. Publicly, they insist that more teams style themselves after the reigning champion Spurs and the champs once-removed in Detroit. Yet their All-Star voting (only Tim Duncan starts tonight from either team) and last year's Finals ratings (the lowest since 1981, with only the Spurs' previous Finals trip in 2003 against the Nets being lower) tell a different story.

The popularity contest that is the All-Star Game is one thing - two starters (Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady) are from the host city, whose team happens to be in last place in its division. The leading vote-getter is Bryant, who has become even more of a phenomenon, and lightning rod, since going for 81 last month.

Bryant, of course, is the very definition of a one-man team, and that team is barely hanging onto a playoff berth. Yet the "81" Lakers jersey put up for sale soon after that game is a hot item, while it takes a lot of searching to find people outside those cities wearing Pistons or Spurs jerseys.

So who's right? Neither, says Danny Ferry, now vice president of the Cavaliers and a former player on the Spurs' 2003 title team. Members of his teams, and the Pistons, don't spend much time worrying about the acclaim other players get at the expense of their teams.

"Everyone's trying to simplify it too much," Ferry said when the Cavs came to Washington just over a week ago. "Look at all the champions over the years. The Bulls with the triangle, the Lakers with the triangle, all sound defensively, all sound fundamentally. All champions have great players, and they all play great as a team.

"But some of them just have that magnetic, charismatic player, too. That makes a difference [in ratings and popularity]."

The NBA has magnetic teams and players in abundance this season. If that's the biggest problem it has, then it's having a much better year than usual.


Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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