Signs of change in the NBA

ESPN Illustration

NEW ORLEANS -- It felt like the opening scene in "The Godfather," with people requesting audiences with Don Corleone during his daughter's wedding. Kevin Durant made his way toward an immaculate white couch where Michael Jordan was sitting in the back of his shoe brand's party.

Jordan stood up, they shook hands and hugged, exchanged a few words, then Jordan nodded his approval at Durant, then tapped his temple with his index finger. You didn't have to hear the conversation to understand the respect flowing between the two.

Then it struck me that Durant and his contemporaries are two generations removed from Jordan. How did we get that far this fast?

With All-Star mainstays such as Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan not present this year, the number of All-Stars who played in the NBA at the same time as Michael Jordan was down to three: Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker. If you refuse to acknowledge any part of Jordan's career after Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the number drops to zero.

"Speed" isn't an adjective that usually comes to mind in this distinctive city, which seems to have every clock set to the pace of the Mississippi River that ambles through it. And All-Star Weekends in general mean slower traffic and longer waits. There's something different this time, a tempo that neither this town nor this event could detain.

"The rate of change is accelerating," said Adam Silver, the newly ascended NBA commissioner.

Whether it's by action or perception, the NBA is rapidly moving in a new direction. It's evident if you pay attention to the details, such as the Photoshopped presence of Silver's signature on the NBA balls dribbled by the giant images of All-Star players plastered outside the Smoothie King Center. The Smoothie King Center is another example of change: finally the New Orleans Arena has a naming rights sponsor. Expect more money to rush into the league through more avenues, including sponsor logos on jerseys, a move that Silver said "ultimately will happen."

Elsewhere this weekend there was talk of a lucrative future, with whispers of more and more franchises hitting the billion-dollar valuation mark, licensing revenue increases of 25 percent or so and TV rights deals that could double the current annual revenue of almost $1 billion a year.

If the David Stern era was defined by the transformation of an afterthought league into a powerful global brand, the Silver years could very well be about finding more ways to cash in on it. What's amazing is how quickly the league seems to have moved on from Stern. I thought the shadow cast by Stern's 30-year reign would loom over the event. But with Stern not around (a calculated move to avoid turning everything into a retrospective), the NBA amazingly fast-forwarded to Silver's league. His introductory news conference ditched the table-and-vinyl-backdrop to have Silver stand at a podium in front of a giant electronic screen filled with the NBA logo. Stern made it impossible to separate the NBA from his personality. Silver injected his personal story into the narrative. He's the youngest of four children from divorced parents, a reformed Knicks fan, a Duke graduate who went there when the ACC was loaded with future Hall of Famers such as Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson. I learned more about Silver's life in three minutes than I did about Stern in 30 years.

It's part of Silver's effort to make the NBA more transparent, from the officiating to the statistical analysis. He also said he wants to grow the game in conjunction with the players, but that overlooks one cold truth: the only way for players to maintain maximum control of their careers is to play for less than the maximum amount of money.

That's what it took for the Miami Heat's Big Three to assemble. It's what Dwight Howard did to leave Los Angeles for Houston. It's the way players can circumvent a collective bargaining agreement designed to contain costs and achieve parity.

It will be the true test of Carmelo Anthony's stated desire to do whatever it takes to win a championship. He could play for less than the hometown max and join the Chicago Bulls. He could stay with the Knicks at a discounted rate and hope they'll use the extra money to bring in better players down the road.

It's a weird setup that punishes teams for rewarding their players. Two months after the Lakers signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, the move is still drawing criticism. In the span of 20 minutes I heard a management type deride the Lakers for offering it, and heard an agent scoff at Bryant for signing it. Think about that: an agent opposed to a player getting the most money possible. (The rationale was that the cap-clogging contract would prevent the Lakers from building a championship-caliber roster around Bryant.) A team offered to share the riches with the player who helped make the franchise worth $1 billion, and both sides were mocked.

That's the dichotomy of the NBA right now. The league is poised for unprecedented prosperity ahead in the Silver era; the players' biggest paydays are locked away back in the Jordan era.

Another set of conflicting ideas: news and even rumors of transactions spike Web traffic, and super teams like the Heat are great for TV ratings ... yet fans say they hate the player movement and lack of loyalty.

What's undeniable is that LeBron's move to Miami and Dwight Howard's departure to Houston were the right move for both to make, even if they were handled clumsily and awkwardly. Want to talk fast? Doesn't it already seem like a long time ago that Howard's wobbly walk out of Orlando and his uncomfortable season in L.A. were as big a story as the NBA had? Now he's on the hottest team in the league at the All-Star break, winners of seven straight, sitting in third place in the Western Conference and reporters were more interested in the upcoming free agencies of LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love (in 2015).

Howard couldn't have come off worse when he left Orlando. But now that he's finally settled in Houston he's said nothing but the right things. On the other side of his free agency he offered an eloquent perspective on a player's right to determine his playing place.

"That's the only time you really want to be selfish, when you're making the decision about where you want to play basketball," Howard said. "A lot of people might look at you and say, 'Hey that's not right, you're not looking out for my team or my city.' But at the end of the day, you only get one time around the track, you only get one time to play this game of basketball. Our windows are so short. We have to do whatever we can to be successful. A lot of people are not going to like it ... because we're not doing what they want us to do. And people hate that. All of us have to learn, in our own way, we have to make ourselves happy first. We want to do whatever we can for the fans, sign autographs, take pictures. That's who we are off the court. But when it comes to the business of basketball, we have to be selfish and take care of our self first."

Michael Jordan didn't change teams twice in two years during his prime years the way Howard did. But he did command premium pricing back when the only restrictions were the limits of an owner's pocketbook. And Jordan's way of being selfish was zealously building and protecting his own brand, a pioneering individual athlete in a team sport. That Jumpman logo that was everywhere during the Brand Jordan party made $2.25 billion for Nike last year.

The money's out there. Adam Silver's getting a head start on hauling it in for the NBA. For all of the various visions and ideals he laid out during his introductory news conference, that one facet is what has the owners excited for his tenure.

If the players want to replicate a team that's anything like the talent assembled this weekend, they'll have to learn to live with a little less of the cut.