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Dizzying Highs and Terrifying Lows

Basketball is at its peak right now — too bad it's about to fall off a cliff.

On Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, in a massive conference room that could have doubled as one half of a basketball court, an eclectic group of maybe 40 people convened to determine whether the NBA would play next year. The combined worth in the room was roughly 10 kajillion dollars. There were owners, lawyers, players, league and union officials, and of course, David Stern and Adam Silver, the two men with the most to lose.

You may have noticed this, but the NBA is back. Not since Michael Jordan was coughing up mucus on Ahmad Rashad in Utah has the league been this compelling: personified by its incredible 2011 Finals, currently riding a four-game “Games That Will Be Shown On ESPN Classic” streak. The NBA has more marketable stars than every other American team sport combined. Its three biggest markets (Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago) feature three playoff teams, five of the best 15 players, the reigning MVP (Derrick Rose), one of the 10-best players ever (Kobe Bryant), and the league’s most exciting young star (Blake Griffin). Its signature franchise (Miami) has been the single most polarizing American sports team since … since … (wait, has there ever been a more polarizing American sports team?). Even better, the league has gravitated toward an NFL-type model in which fans watch playoff games no matter who’s involved, as we found out during the Oklahoma City-Memphis series.

Internationally, the league has never been stronger: It’s the only American sports league that attracts stars from every corner of the world. Digitally, the league has been light years ahead of everyone else, embracing the revolution and staying ahead of the curve with social media and video content. It’s also spent the past two decades carefully (and successfully) selling mostly black players to a mostly white audience, an ongoing conundrum that nearly submarined the league in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Throw in a killer 2011 Finals and everything looks fantastic on paper … except for the part that the league is losing money.

Unlike the NFL, they opened the books and showed everyone exactly how much: $300 million. Why are they losing money?

  • 1. The economy tanked and fans don’t have the same disposable income.
  • 2. The secondary ticket market lessened the need to buy season tickets; you can just cherry-pick 10 regular-season games online and skip the other 31.
  • 3. We’re slowly learning that fans would rather stay home, watch sports on their crystal-clear HD widescreen and surf the Internet over hauling their asses to a stadium, then pay for (overpriced) parking, (overpriced) mediocre food and drinks, and (overpriced) mediocre tickets.
  • 4. Every state-of-the-art arena built in the past 15 years was built to accommodate as many fans as possible, when actually we’re learning this decade that things might need to shift the other way: You need fewer seats, you need as many good seats as possible, and you need to figure out a way to engage fans who aren’t close enough to the court (like the Cowboys did with their obnoxiously brilliant video screen).
  • 5. Typing this sentence makes me feel like I’m typing the words, “Michael Cera just beat up one of the Klitschko Brothers,” but it’s absolutely true: Billy Hunter beat David Stern on the last two labor deals.

You know how I know this? Because the players made $2.1 billion dollars this year … and again the owners lost $300 million. Hold on, I have their $300 million right here: Vince Carter ($17.5m), Richard Hamilton ($12.5m), Baron Davis ($13m), Jose Calderon ($9m), Gilbert Arenas ($17.7m), Rashard Lewis ($19.6m), Michael Redd ($18.3m), Matt Carroll ($4.3m), Mike Dunleavy ($10.6m), Jason Kapono ($6.6m), Andrei Kirilenko ($17.8m), Marvin Williams ($7.2m), Jared Jeffries ($6.8m), Vlad Radmanovic ($6.8m), Hedo Turkoglu ($10.2m), Boris Diaw ($9m), Marcus Banks ($4.8m), Joel Pryzbilla ($7.4m), TJ Ford (8.5m), Darius Songalia ($4.8m), Andris Biedrins ($9m), Yao Ming ($17.7m), Sam Dalembert ($13.4m), Memo Okur ($9.9m), DeSagana Diop ($6.4m), Jermaine O’Neal ($5.7m), Eddy Curry ($11.2m), Dan Gadzuric ($7.2m), Troy Murphy ($11.9m). Boom! Everyone on that list ranges from “violently overpaid” to “brazenly stole money and hasn’t been arrested yet.”1

You tell me: Should a professional sports league be stuck in a situation in which T.J. Ford is guaranteed $8.5 million, and Peter Holt (owner of the Spurs, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference this season) is guaranteed to lose $8.5 million or more? Probably not. They need to fix it. Hunter’s team agrees, to a degree: They’re fine with shortening long-term contracts (you will never see one longer than four years again), and they’re fine with making it more difficult for stars to jump franchises (even if it means abolishing the sign-and-trade rule). They’re even fine with giving back a little money, as well as the owners’ plan to frame Lewis and Arenas for murders so they can void their contracts.2 It’s just about finding middle ground. If the players made $400 million less last season and the owners shared revenue with each other a little better,3 everyone would have made money. On paper, this seems really, really, really, really, really, really simple.

So why is it so hard? Why are we 20 days away from that self-imposed June 30 deadline with no real momentum? Where is the urgency? Why did Derek Fisher, the head of the National Basketball Players Association, decide that his family vacation was more important than a fairly crucial labor meeting in Miami last week?4 And why doesn’t anyone realize that the league will absolutely shut things down on July 1 if there’s no agreement? This isn’t like what’s happening in the NFL, where both sides are staring each other down like two assholes fighting over the last Maybach in a Mercedes dealership because they literally can’t figure out how to split up the hundreds of millions they’re making. The NBA infrastructure is fundamentally flawed right now: Superstars shouldn’t be able to hold free agency over their teams’ heads like an anvil; frauds like Eddy Curry shouldn’t be able to cash eight-figure paychecks for six straight years with no repercussions; and idiotic owners and front offices need to be protected from themselves because teams knew we were heading for a hard salary cap and still splurged for the likes of Channing Frye, Drew Gooden, Josh Childress, and Mike Conley.

It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle: You can see all the pieces, they all make sense, but it’s impossible to figure out how to assemble them. I am cautiously optimistic only because this is David Stern’s last rodeo; it just seems incomprehensible that the final chapter of his legacy would be, “LOCKED OUT THE PLAYERS, LOST ALL THE MOMENTUM FROM A FANTASTIC SEASON, TURNED FANS AGAINST THE LEAGUE.” He wants to set up Adam Silver to succeed in his place; he wants to make sure no franchises fold on his watch (a genuine source of pride for him, a streak that has extended to 27 years); and he doesn’t want to be remembered by his owners like NFL owners remember Paul Tagliabue, who sold them out and left money on the table just because he wanted to get one final deal done and get the hell out of there. Stern also cares about the smaller market owners — particularly the Maloofs (he still calls them “the boys”), Peter Holt (the most respected NBA owner, as well as the head of the labor committee), Minnesota’s Glen Taylor (the other bigwig on the labor committee), and Michael Jordan (no need to explain) — and wants to make sure they’re protected going forward.

An underrated difference between the NBA and NFL: In the NFL, three greedy billionaire megalomaniacs (Bob Kraft, Jerry Richardson, and Jerry Jones) have controlled the owners’ side of the labor talks, while Roger Goodell has been exposed as a glorified puppet, a talking Ken doll who plays the media brilliantly but has no real juice at all.5 Any time you have the selfish interests of three people representing 30, you’re headed for trouble — especially in a league in which wealthy people buy teams for the same reason that they’d purchase an obscenely lavish yacht. You have to see my new boat, it’s fantastic! The NBA works differently; its owners are more interactive, more accountable, more diverse, more available, more hands-on.6 They have more at stake because, unlike the NFL (where the money just pours in), you can never feel safe when you’re owning an NBA team … not when the league dramatically ebbs and flows depending on the quality of its superstars, not during this economy, and not when it’s becoming more and more unclear why anyone would want to attend more than eight to 10 regular-season games per year unless they had fantastic seats.

The NFL lockout concerns me more because the league’s owners haven’t put real thought into it. They’re just greedy. You can’t predict what will happen in a situation when the only motivating factor is greed; it’s like trying to predict the weather. The reasons for an NBA lockout (or, the threat of it) feel much more genuine. For instance, let’s say you had a son in kindergarten who wasn’t reading at the same level as everyone else. That’s a problem. But it’s a fixable problem. You could read with him every night, find him a tutor, work on him with his letters … as long as he’s not dyslexic, the kid will catch up to everyone else, as long as you spend the time.

Now, let’s say that you didn’t do anything. And let’s say your kid is now in the fourth grade, and he still can’t read or write very well. That’s a real problem. You’re going to have to work three times harder to get him up to speed, and only because you blew it by not taking care of it sooner.

That’s where the NBA is sitting right now, in the kindergarten stage … and they have to take care of it now. Which is why we will have a lockout if they don’t. And look, I hate bringing this up during such an astonishingly compelling Finals, but it’s impossible NOT to think about this stuff. Professional basketball, potentially, is one or two games away from disappearing for a while. That’s why those games are so important: The more momentum we have, the harder it will be for both sides to walk away on June 30. You never want to leave a hot blackjack table. Ever. Keep the cards coming, keep the drinks coming, keep the run going. It’s the only way. You don’t leave. And yet that’s what they would be doing with a lockout in three weeks.

So as fans, we have more at stake with these last two Finals games than anyone in the series. We need one or two more killer games. We need more momentum, higher ratings, more drama, more everything. The better this goes, the harder it will be for everything to stop. Keep your fingers crossed.

As for the rest of the characters, here’s what’s at stake:

Jason Terry: After draining the single biggest irrational confidence shot by someone not named Ali Farokhmanesh (Terry’s 3 to clinch Game 5 of the Finals), he’s climbing up the all-time Irrational Confidence charts and breathing down Vernon Maxwell’s neck. Just remember, Mad Max has a ring.

The Miami Welcome Party: We’re one Dallas victory away from it becoming permanently funny.

Me & Cousin Sal: We went heavy on Dallas to win in six games (+450). As Sal points out, we are 0-344 in hedging situations. Should we let the wager ride? Should we hedge with Miami to win the series (+120)? Just know that, whatever we decide, it will swing the series in the opposite direction. We have these powers. Just ask our wallets. Speaking of wallets …

Mike Bibby: $6.417 million. That’s what he gave up next season to chase a ring this season.

Erik Spoelstra: If they lose, I’d like to sum things up with the words of a rowing Fredo Corleone. Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb … (KAPOW!)

Dwyane Wade’s “Eff You” 3:7 We’re one Dallas win away from that becoming an iconic “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” sports moment. You can’t do that crap unless you know, with absolute certainty, that the series is over. For instance, Larry Legend iced the ’86 Rockets in Game 6 by grabbing a loose ball with the shot clock winding down, dribbling through three people just so he could plant himself in front of Houston’s bench, then draining a 3 with his ass in their faces. Game over. That’s when you do it. Wade jumped the gun. If they lose, he will never live it down.

Peja Stojakovic: Wait, he’s still alive?

Tyson Chandler: Actually, it’s already happened win or lose — he’s basically turned into 2008 Kevin Garnett but without a jump shot. Along with Dirk Nowitzki, James Harden, Dwyane Wade, and Zack Randolph, he’s one of the five biggest winners of the 2011 Playoffs.

Chris Bosh: A decent lock to be traded this summer if Miami blows this series. There will have to be a scapegoat. You know, other than Spoelstra.8

Brian Cardinal: Balding/sweaty/doughy immortality. A role model and idol for a future generation of Haleys and Scalabrines.

Jason Kidd: A much-belated ring, a historical bump (from top 40 to top 35), the memory that he was an extremely rich man’s version of what GP gave the 2006 Heat, and also living proof to Rajon Rondo that ANYONE can turn into a deadly 3-point shooter with some work.

Juwan Howard: There’s nothing at stake; he already won. A friend of mine e-mailed me last night, “I can’t believe Juwan Howard is playing in the Finals right now. I’m glad I taped this game on my Betamax.”

Cleveland fans: Maybe they haven’t won a title since the 1960s, but what’s unfolding in this series is damned close. It’s like when beaten-down Boston fans took pride in Ray Bourque winning a Cup in Colorado, only the exact opposite.

ABC & ESPN: Don’t tell anyone, but if there’s a Game 7, Disney makes an extra $110 billion (all numbers approximate). You might see everyone on Dallas foul out in Game 6. I think Tyson Chandler already has 2 fouls and the game doesn’t start for another 48 hours.

Rick Carlisle: If he wins, no more Jim Carrey jokes as well as an overdue ascent to “best game coach alive right now.” Nobody controls a game with timeouts better than Carlisle, nobody uses his subs better or more effectively, and few coaches make better adjustments within a series (even simple ones, like moving Dirk’s high-post game from the top of the foul line to the left side of the floor, just because it seemed like Miami was getting used to it). He’s really, really smart.9

Dwyane Wade: If Miami pulls this off and he’s the hero (our most likely scenario), that puts the following things in play historically: (a) “Kobe vs. Wade” becomes an argument; (b) any “clutch Finals players” list has to include him; (c) any “best player alive” argument begins with him first; (d) he has to be mentioned in any list that includes the best 20 players ever from that point forward; and (e) we’ll remember him forever as an evil genius who somehow convinced his biggest archrival to move to HIS city, play for HIS team, and become HIS sidekick.

Mark Cuban: Spent the right amount of money, hired the right people, brought in the right players, took the right chances (for the most part), made one tremendous decision (taking on Tyson Chandler’s contract),10 and most importantly, kept a low profile and let his players do the talking for him. You can’t do better as an NBA owner than Cuban did these past few months. Except for the part when he shot 3s while wearing a tank top before Game 4. Just a little Richard Simmons-y. Just a smidge.

Pat Riley: He’s already a winner: What he pulled off last summer means he influenced the Finals in four different decades, something only Red Auerbach can say. (And he’s dead.) Don’t be surprised if, behind the scenes, Mr. Riley becomes a little more involved heading into these last two games. Miami needs to get a little bit tougher … and nobody knows how to motivate quite like Pat Riley.

Dirk Nowitzki: He’s already propelled himself into the top 20 and a permanent “Barkley, Malone or Nowitzki?” discussion; he’s erased any lingering scars from the 2006 Finals and 2007 Playoffs; and he’s clinched “one of the best clutch scorers of his generation” status. But if he wins the title with a bunch of role players? That nudges him up a level; now we’d have to discuss him with Julius Erving, Bob Pettit, John Havlicek, and maybe even Tim Duncan as one of the Greatest Forwards Ever Not Named Larry Bird. However it plays out, he’s already the biggest winner from this series. You can’t say enough about Dirk Nowitzki.

German cars: No longer the best thing about Germany. Huge loss for Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.

LeBron James: You know, just the run-of-the-mill stuff … like his legacy as a player. I watched him pretty closely in Game 5 from my seat: He doesn’t seem comfortable, as if he lost his identity as a basketball player to some degree.11 Is it possible that he’s so talented that he never ended up concentrating on one great thing? He never developed a go-to gimmick like Dirk’s high-post game, Wade’s one-on-one game, Kobe’s one-on-one game, Duncan’s low-post game … he’s like one of those fancy diners that has a six-page menu loaded with options, only when you ask the waitress what’s good, she says, “I don’t know, everything!” But wait … I asked you what’s good.

When his erratic 3-pointer was falling against Boston and Chicago, it made him seem unstoppable. Now it’s gone again. What’s left? He’s doing a tremendous Scottie Pippen impersonation, right down to his numbers every game … and I’ll let that sentence speak for itself. What’s really shocked me: LeBron’s inability to adjust to however these high-pressure games seem to be playing out. When Jordan’s shot wasn’t falling, he got to the rim. When Bird’s shot wasn’t falling, he went down low and crashed the boards. Magic learned to morph into whatever his team needed from him: He could run fast breaks, go down low, get Worthy going, feed Kareem, whatever; he always made the right decision. LeBron? It’s like he can’t figure it out. There’s never a Plan B for him.

Dallas made a key adjustment in Game 4, sticking Shawn Marion on Wade and Kidd on LeBron — with the implication being, “We can do this because LeBron won’t make us pay by taking Kidd down low and torching him” — and it worked like a charm. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, they mixed it up by throwing a zone at Miami, hoping LeBron would get confused, stand around, avoid long 3s, and stop moving. That worked, too. To repeat: The Mavericks built their defensive strategy around LeBron’s limitations and predictabilities. Not a good sign for someone currently finishing his eighth season. What’s at stake for LeBron? He already lost. The emperor has no clothes. He needs to unleash two of the most phenomenal performances in Finals history — not one, two — to change my mind on that one.

Everyone Who Loves the NBA: We already won. What a series. Too bad we might be three weeks away from losing again.

Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at and check out his new home on Facebook at

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Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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