NEW ORLEANS --
Let's hear it for big, fat contracts. Money-money-money-monnn-ey -- MON-ayy. Dollar-dollar bills, y'all. Those salary-cap-killing, luxury-tax-inducing contracts -- envied by fans, cursed by owners with buyer's remorse -- are saving the NBA.
You can't wait for the playoffs to start. You have no idea who's going to win it all. And it's all thanks to economics.
In the past eight months, four All-Stars have switched teams and reconfigured three of the marquee brands in the NBA. In order, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal were traded to the Celtics, Lakers and Suns because their old teams were tired of paying star salaries for scrub results. Their former squads aren't better off today. In fact, Seattle, Minnesota, Memphis and Miami have the four worst records in the league. This wasn't about them trying to stay in the hunt for a championship. It's about them trying to stay out of the red in the Excel files.
Top-to-bottom competitive balance is right where it belongs: in the trash can, next to the short shorts. The league is better off with several superpowers battling it out among themselves, not with some unknown upstarts crashing the party. Supreme teams are compelling and draw big ratings, as the New England Patriots just showed. If the success of the rich must come at the expense of the struggling poor, so be it. Call it de facto contraction.
"There are too many teams," one All-Star said. "There needs to be, like, 20 teams."
But because the owners won't give up that additional revenue and the players won't give up the extra jobs, we're stuck at 30. The best we can do is have the best players concentrated among a few elite teams.
So add Allen and Garnett to Paul Pierce; mix Gasol in with Kobe Bryant; and export Shaq to Phoenix to hang with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Then consider smartly assembled teams such as Detroit and the ever-present Spurs, not to mention the dynamic duo of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and the underappreciated Hornets and Jazz and you have surefire playoff drama.
"The trades seem to have piqued interest," commissioner David Stern said.
There's anticipation and unpredictability, the two things that make sports such compelling TV content. Anticipation and unpredictability sound a lot better than cynicism and skepticism, which was the general attitude toward the NBA last summer.
Those dark days seem so long ago they might as well be in black-and-white. A referee was found to have bet on NBA games and shared inside info with gamblers. A troubled young player had a fatal car crash. The No. 1 overall pick had season-ending surgery before he even played a game. The SuperSonics gassed up the moving vans. The Knicks went through a sordid sexual harassment lawsuit. It was all gloom and doom.
"Last year was one of the hardest years from a public relations standpoint," said former All-Star David Robinson. "To see how well the NBA has bounced back from some of that stuff last year I don't know any league that could deal with that kind of stuff. Wow.
"The energy level is still great. Everybody is looking forward to the playoffs. It's still so much excitement."
So what happened? Sports happened. We should know by now that all it takes to restore faith and interest in a league is to play games. Make that, play games on relevant networks (two points lost on the NHL). Bring out the balls, blow the whistle and the problems go away.
Baseball has survived steroids. The NFL has survived steroids, Spygate and more criminal acts than a season's worth of "Law & Order" episodes.
All they had to do was keep playing and wait for the emergence of a dominant team or two.
There's nothing wrong with a little healthy hegemony. In the league's glory days in the 1980s, there was a nine-year stretch when the Lakers and Celtics won eight of the titles. So much for sharing the wealth.
There are more good teams now. At the current pace, a Western Conference team could win 50 games and still miss the playoffs. It's a little sad that so many competitive teams are west of the Mississippi, but there's this mitigating factor: the team with the best record (Boston) is in the East, and the team that very well could walk off with the Larry O'Brien trophy is also in the East. That would be Detroit.
But you can make strong arguments for the Celtics (who still have a single digit in the loss column, even in February, even without Garnett the past two weeks), Spurs, Lakers, Suns and Mavericks -- especially if the latest incarnation of this Jason Kidd trade goes through.
Before the All-Star Sunday the arena was buzzing with the renewed possibility of a Dallas-New Jersey deal. It turned this weekend's All-Star Game into exactly what it should be: an afterthought. An interlude. People are obsessed with trade talk, and with the state of Kobe's injured pinkie. (One way or another, it always comes back to Kobe). But that's where the focus should be. There's no sense wasting time wondering whether the East All-Stars can beat the West. Who cares? You don't want the exhibtions overshadowing the main event.
This game won't be more entertaining than that Suns-Warriors game Wednesday. There's no way it will be more tension-filled than Shaq's anticipated Suns debut this Wednesday.
It was telling that, for the first time in memory, Stern opened a news conference talking about basketball. Not collective bargaining negotiations, not television ratings, not legal proceedings.
"We're awful pleased about the state of our game," Stern said Saturday night.
"The game looks terrific. It's open, it's fluid, there's more movement. And there are more shots. The fact that the shots go in is also good.
"People feel good about the state of the game and the way it is being played and coached and reffed."
The league rediscovered what matters most, the one thing the fans really care about.
"It's the game, it's the game, it's the game," Stern said.
You know what turned into a nonstory? The officials. We thought every ref would be subjected to nonstop Tim Donaghy references, every bad call investigated by the feds. Instead, it rarely pops up. "Hey ref, you suck" never sounded so hospitable.
"I haven't experienced anything more than we experienced before, which means there are still colorful comments being made," said longtime referee Bob Delaney, who is in New Orleans promoting his book, "Covert," about his days as an undercover mob infiltrator. "And if you make a call that is controversial or people don't like, they're going to let you know about it. But I haven't experienced anything more than has been going on my entire career."
Delaney credits a maturation of our society.
"I think that people have gotten to the point of looking at individuals rather than looking at the group," he said.
Not all the league's problems have magically disappeared. What should be a full-fledged celebration of the hosting Hornets, the team atop the Western Conference, is tempered by the possibility they could leave town without increased fan support. And the Sonics are locked in litigation with the city of Seattle, doing their best to bolt for Oklahoma City.
The last time an NBA team left the Pacific Northwest for the South, it was Vancouver to Memphis and look how that turned out. The Grizzlies are playing in a half-filled arena, having just dumped their best player in exchange for No. 1 pick bust and a rookie.
But why weep for the Grizzlies when you can wonder how far the Lakers will go with Gasol? Sorry, Memphis. Sorry, Minnesota. Your losses are better for the league as a whole. The on-court action is as good as you could ask for.
It's All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Might as well grab a go cup and celebrate the good times.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.