Monday, June 10, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 145



The NBA Finals have lost all charm 
and sex appeal

NBA Update

Brad Sebastian

The 2002 NBA grand finale is shaping up as anything but grand, and can hardly even qualify as a finale with the Lakers winning the first three games almost effortlessly, with final scores 99-94, 106-83 and 106-103, respectively.

Now the series is only one game away from being over, an outcome that, for most, was a foregone conclusion. The Eastern Conference is being exposed as the NBA's second class.

The mighty Los Angeles Lakers are cruising past the New Jersey Nets with the panache and ease of a Hollywood star strutting down the red carpet.

While the Nets may have displayed the heart and determination it takes to become champions, they still amount to the East's sacrificial lamb. The real NBA Finals went seven games and the Sacramento Kings came within a few free throws from earning their shot at basketball's crown jewel.

The blame for this Finals mismatch shouldn't fall in New Jersey's lap, however. There is simply an unprecedented level of talent disparity between the NBA's two conferences. Whatever the reasons may be, professional basketball has become extremely unbalanced between the haves of the west and the have-nots in the east.

Any one of a handful of Western Conference teams could defeat the Nets in a seven game series. For argument's sake, if you shipped a couple of those squads over to the east, it's unlikely the Nets would have ever made it to the Finals.

While the existence of an unbalanced league may be coincidental and (one hopes) temporary, the situation poses a problem for the NBA. First of all, it makes the finals boring. This year's finals have little chance of being compelling.

The Finals simply don't have any dramatic flare. Trying to sell this best-of-seven series to a public that already has a ho-hum attitude about pro basketball is a huge mountain for NBA Commissioner David Stern and his marketing people to climb.

What is there to market? Of course they have Shaq and Kobe. The problem lies in the fact that all the superstars are on the same team. Stardom sells, but stars facing each other sells more. Jason Kidd can't bear the weight of the entire "weak-stern" conference on his own. So far, there isn't enough to make the series interesting.

There was a time when the NBA Finals rivaled other sporting events. It ranked right up there with the Final Four, the World Series and the Super Bowl. Those days are gone. Magic is gone. Bird is gone. Michael is all but gone, as most of us wish. And dynasties are just no fun to watch if it all looks too easy.

The thrill of watching a team win a championship comes, in part, from the idea that the outcome is in question. Without some sense of rivalry, the games just seem a bit dull.

So where does that leave Shaq and Kobe? If no true contender emerges to push the Lakers to the brink, will their legacy suffer? Probably.

If there are no memorable game-seven moments, Shaq and Kobe and the current Laker legacy will likely be overlooked in conversations about the best teams—and best tandems—in league history. Without competition in the Eastern Conference, there's just not an entertaining product on the floor.

The NBA would have an easier time marketing a seniors' game between some retired Celtics and Lakers than it is having trying to hype these Finals.

The simple truth is that the Lakers have all the weapons. They have all the talent. They have the Zen master. 

Even their fans are more interesting. It's David and Goliath. However, this time, Goliath will cover the spread.

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