Conspiracies Pushed Aside, Along With Some Fan Interest

The NBA Western Conference finals, a decidedly unsexy matchup, include San Antonio's Tim Duncan, right, squaring off against Utah's Mehmet Okur.
The NBA Western Conference finals, a decidedly unsexy matchup, include San Antonio's Tim Duncan, right, squaring off against Utah's Mehmet Okur. (By Matt Slocum -- Associated Press)

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By Mike Wise
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Boy, that David Stern, he sure fixed things. He conspired so well that LeBron James is the last thing resembling a Q-rating left in the playoffs, the one basketball player an on-the-fence fan might go indoors on a Sunday to watch.

After all the great plot lines of the NBA season -- Dallas and Phoenix tearing up the league en route to a supposed May showdown, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony teaming up in Denver, Don Nelson mining more gold in Northern California -- we are left with Tim Duncan vs. Mehmet Okur, a Western Conference finals that has the personality of a washcloth.

It's not much livelier in the East, where the deep and balanced Detroit Pistons are a virtual lock to shut down LeBron and his apostles.

Poor LeBron. He's no longer the Chosen One; he's the only one -- the last line of defense separating the NBA's eroding superstar culture from the rebirth of the bona fide, five-man team.

"I think the real fan loves good basketball, whether it involves star-power players like LeBron James or whether it involves the unassuming great player like Tim Duncan," said Jeff Van Gundy, the former Houston coach now working as a TV analyst. "Those people don't differentiate. But the more casual fan wants to be drawn to star power or heated rivalries. That's what they're used to."

That's what Stern has sold them for years, which is why the conspiracy-theory crowd has no argument this postseason. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire were ratings gold. Phoenix was eye candy, an aerial circus pleasing to the naked eye. The Suns played such a beautiful brand of ball and could have carried the conference and NBA Finals by themselves.

But after Tony Parker gave Nash a bloody nose, Bruce Bowen kneed him in the groin and Robert Horry sent him sprawling, Stern essentially punched Nash's team in the gut -- suspending Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a crucial Game 5 in the Suns' semifinal series with the Spurs.

If ever there was a reason the league could have looked beyond the spirit of the leave-the-bench rule, this was it. Stern didn't budge. His box-office bonanza was penalized and eventually went down in six games, leaving the Jazz and Spurs to duke it out for small-market supremacy in a postseason of mostly benign interest.

Golden State was a nice tale, but the Warriors ultimately became a hard team for which to root. They showed their true, punk colors at the end, with Baron Davis elbowing Derek Fisher in the head and Jason Richardson taking down Okur in what some bone-headed analysts called a hard playoff foul. Between ejections and fines and thuggery, four out of the six playoff games lost by the Warriors were lost ugly.

Watching the NBA's final four at home with the rest of us now are Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Iverson, Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.

It raises a daunting question for the NBA consumer: What is it you really want? To simply be entertained, to watch Gilbert Arenas detonate for 50 and Marion to levitate above the rim? Or do you want the toughness and togetherness that breeds a champion and pushes the tenets of the game to the highest levels?

As this star-less postseason has shown, you can't have both.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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