If you are an avid basketball fan who has a lot of vacation time coming and money to spend, then ask your travel agent to make plans so you can see this year's NBA Western Conference playoffs.
They are going to be something to behold.
For the basketball purist, it will be like spending a week talking basketball with a John Wooden or Dean Smith. When it comes to execution, fundamentals and team play. Western Conference members Portland, Phoenix and Denver put on clinics almost every time they play.
All three prove that the sum can be greater than the parts. On paper, each has some nice individual talent but they make up for glaring deficiencies by playing well as units.
And they also illustrate a growing trend in the NBA: the decline of the so-called aging veteran on contending game.
Denver, for example, is built around David Thompson (third year). Bobby Jones (fourth year) and Dan Issel (eighth year). Portland's leading players are Bill Walton (fourth year) and Maurice Lucas (fourth year).The best of the Suns are Paul Westphal (sixth year), Alvan Adams (third year) and Walter Davis (Rookie). Out of that group, only the 30-year-old Issel can be considered old by NBA standards.
Unlike the past great Celtic clubs, which relied on a nucleus of veterans and carefully integraged younger players, these new-era power clubs have, in many cases, discarded older athletes and gone almost entirely with youth.
"The young players give us the enthusiasm and hard work we want," says Denver Coach Larry Brown. "Besides they have the quickness we need to execute our offense and defense."
On these teams, veterans mostly are used to fill certain needs: Portland's Tom Owens to back up Walton, Phoenix's Gar Heard as a defensive specialist. Denver's Mack Calvin (until the recent defection of Brian Taylor) as an experienced reserve guard.
Of the three clubs, Phoenix will enter the playoffs at the greatest disadvantage. The Suns will probably have a better record than Denver but, under the NBA's playoff setup, the Nuggets will have a home-court as advantage if the two meet - as long as Denver wins the Midwest Division. And if the Suns should get by a series win Denver, they'd also give away a home-court edge to the Trail Blazers.
Portland, of course, was supposed to be this good. The Suns, however, keep getting better as Davis continues to improve. And Denver hasn't faltered despite the loss of Taylor in midseason.
Indeed, the Nuggets registered what General Manager Carl Scheer calls "the most significant win" in the franchise's history when they won at Portland last Sunday, snapping the Trail Blazers' home-court winning streak.
"We're still trying to blend in the news guys (Darnell Hillman) and Ralph Simpson)," said Brown. "When they are more comfortable, we should be a better club."
Scheer admits it's unusual for a contending team to try to patch their roster (Hillman to fill a need for a veteran forward, Simpson to replace Taylor) so late in the season. But he felt it was the only way he could keep the Nuggets in contention.
"You get forced into some moves you might not want to make," he said. "But so far, we think they are going to work out okay."
Former Celtic great Bob Cousy is forecasting a complete collapse of the NBA salary system in the next decade. And he says some clubs are headed for bankruptcy.
"If the NBA collapses, it will because of the greed of a few players and that's what I'm against," he said.
"Frankenstein has turned on his maker," said Cousey. "We have created monsters with salary escalation, where blue-chip athletes, from the time they get out of grammar school, are told, 'You won't have to worry about money for the rest of your life."
Cousy believes "a star who entertains literally millions of people should be paid $150,000 to $200,000. But when you pay people playing a child's game $450,000, it's ludicrous.
"I see a massive turnoff everywhere in the country. Teams are just going through the motions. Attendence figures are deceptive. There's an undercurrent of discontent among fans."
Bob Love, former star for the Chicago Bulls, says he is going to start an education program to "professional athletes who always face the possibility of unexpectedly short careers."
Love, who lives in Seattle, would start a camp that would include some basketball instruction "but the main emphasis would be on educating student athletes burdened by low grades.
"There are a lot of high school athletes that are being allowed to slide through school with low grade point averages because they are good athletes," said Love. "I want to help them find a future if their sports future fails."