NBA Rides Wave of Success Into Season

David Stern, promoting his product earlier this month, said what you'd expect him to say: "We are very excited about the upcoming season."

He's the NBA commissioner. Of course he's excited.

Magic Johnson, now a TV analyst for the league, said what you'd expect him to say: "Right now, I got goose bumps, talking about waiting for the season to start for real."

He's an NBA ambassador. Of course he's energized.

Still, it does seem like Stern and Johnson have some justification for their exuberance, with the 2008-09 season about to start Wednesday.

Olympic success: The U.S. basketball team, an embarrassment of late, won gold for its strong play in Beijing, and earned praise for its model behavior. The squad, led by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, took its responsibility seriously, playing selflessly on the court and mingling with the other Olympic athletes when idle.

TNT analyst Doug Collins believes that has "given the NBA a nice bump."

"I think people saw them in a different light," Collins said. "There's so much criticism of NBA players.... Now these guys are coming to their respective (NBA) teams and most of those guys will be playing on playoff teams. So it is very positive going into this season."

Big markets: After historically low ratings for the San Antonio Spurs' 2006-07 NBA Finals sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the league rebounded strongly with a rekindling of the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Regular-season and playoff ratings were up more than 10 percent on TNT, ABC and ESPN.

There's still room to grow: that NBA Finals was exactly half of what was recorded in the peak year of 1998, when Michael Jordan won his last of six titles, and before the lockout.

A recent survey of NBA general managers forecast the Lakers and Celtics to meet in the Finals again, with the Lakers adding center Andrew Bynum back to their lineup, and the Celtics only losing James Posey from their championship squad.

Wild West: No Conference in NBA history has been as competitive as the Western Conference was in 2007-08, with all eight playoff teams winning 50 of 82 games, and another winning 48. All signs point to the same balance in 2008-09, especially with Portland Trailblazers expected to emerge in Greg Oden's debut season (the 2007 No. 1 overall pick missed 2007-08 with a knee injury.)

TNT announcers Marv Albert, Reggie Miller and Doug Collins picked three different West teams (New Orleans Hornets, Houston Rockets, Lakers) to represent the conference in the NBA Finals.

East on rise: The East, down for several years, should be more compelling, as well. The Philadelphia 76ers stole Elton Brand from the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason.

"It's always great to have young talent, but more important, what the league and any league really needs is great rivalries," Miller said. "That's what is going to draw Now that Philly is relevant again, how great is it going to be to have that Boston vs. Philly rivalry back?"

Also, Cleveland finally gave James a legitimate sidekick: former Milwaukee Bucks guard Mo Williams.

"We have seen LeBron James come on the scene and do some amazing things, but the team has not followed LeBron James," TNT analyst Dick Stockton said. "The breakthrough is everything, and there are a lot of people who think this will be the year, that the Cavaliers are going to make their big bid."

"This is going to be the year that he really breaks through and makes a serious run for the MVP," Johnson said.

Still, ESPN analyst Tim Legler doesn't believe that anyone will truly replace Michael Jordan as a singular dominant force. Nor do he or Stockton believe that such an icon is necessary, if James, Bryant, Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and others are trading off titles and awards from season to season.

"It is more on the intense competition and the jockeying for position in East and West," Stockton said.

That competition has created more storylines. Legler said that in recent seasons, he and his colleague frequently bemoaned the absence of fresh contenders.

"We felt like it was San Antonio and Detroit, and there wasn't a lot else to talk about," Legler said. "There is now. That just gives you more interest around the country."

Much of that renewed interest is in the right area.

"The most passionate fans are in the Northeast corridor," Legler said of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. "You go nearly a decade without any of those teams really being relevant. All three teams were bad at the same time."

Now only the Knicks will be, at least this season. At least, with Mike D'Antoni on board, they won't be bad and boring.

Knicks' rise: Isiah Thomas is no longer running the Knicks into the ground, which means that one of the NBA's signature franchises may no longer be a running joke. Instead, the Knicks will try to play D'Antoni's run-and-gun style. That gives them a chance to get on New York's back pages for what they do on the court, rather than just Thomas's embarrassing appearances in courtrooms.

Nor will the Knicks be the only team trying to play an up-tempo style. The Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and even the previously staid Miami Heat are among the squads going small, attempting to outsprint as many opponents as possible.

"The state of the game today is better than it's ever been," Heat president Pat Riley said. "It's a different collection of characters, of players, of philosophies, a different culture, and it's more exciting than it's ever been. As a matter of fact, it reminds of what it was like during Showtime, and Showtime reminded me of what it was like when the Boston Celtics were dominating during the 60s."

It reminds few of the successful but aesthetically-unappealing grinding style that Riley employed with the Knicks and then the Heat last decade, a style that found more favor among coaches than observers.

Scandal fades: The officiating scandal that threatened to sink the league has faded to the background, at least for now. Tim Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in late July, but Stern has insisted that the corruption stopped with one official, and so far no indisputable contrary evidence has surfaced.

"The league has shown tremendous resiliency," Stockton said.

The next thing to test that resiliency?

The economy.

The NBA did cut 80 jobs this month, laying off roughly 9 percent of its workforce, citing a modest season-ticket decline in a difficult environment. Still, Stern said last week that the league would be "about flat in attendance, which is good news, we think," and that "sponsor renewals and presentations are very strong."

"With the economy the way it is, there's going to be a lot of people staying home and watching on television now," Collins said.

Those viewers can vote, with their remotes, on whether the league has just cause for all of its good cheer.

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