Upside, downside and West side

Having learned to wait a week, which is how long it took the horror stories to surface after last season’s Battle of Las Vegas All-Star game, I think it’s safe to say:

This year’s All-Star game went great!

NBA Cares looked like a truism, not an ad campaign. The All-Stars competed, as they do about every five years. Even the lame dunk contest came alive as a caped Dwight Howard flew through the air and Gerald Green blew out a candle on the back of the iron.

Of course, All-Star games in any sport are now just TV shows that fewer and fewer people watch.


With a 4.3 overnight rating -- down 16% from Las Vegas -- this was the NBA’s least-watched of all time, so the show had better not be the whole thing.

Happily for the NBA, all signs in New Orleans pointed to the same thing: The league is having a great season, possibly even a turnaround season.

Take Commissioner David Stern, who hasn’t done a single controversial thing!

After the laughable disputes over a dress code, a new ball and suspensions for hitting opponents in one’s follow-through, this is progress.

My high point of the weekend came in Stern’s state-of-the-league news conference when he opened the floor for questions -- and none came.

“I can’t believe it,” Stern murmured.

We finally thought up some and the session droned on uneventfully. Last summer’s referee scandal that threatened the NBA’s very existence got two questions, even as the writer asking them stipulated that as far as the reaction went, “nothing much has changed.”

Throw in more happy developments -- the revival of the East or at least Boston and Detroit; the Lakers’ awakening; the trades that captured headlines for weeks -- and it’s as good a start as the NBA could hope for.

“People still think we have an image problem,” an NBA official told ESPN’s Bill Simmons. “I just don’t get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?”

Wrote Simmons: “That’s the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem?

“If the NBA can’t put that tag to rest this year, of all years, then it’s never happening, and we’ll have to accept there are deeper issues at work here.

"(Well, one deeper issue. And you know what it is.)”

Boring basketball?

Oh, that.

If you don’t know what it is, ESPN magazine marked the festive occasion with a Woe-Betides-the-NBA issue that included a poll attributing the “disconnect” with fans to “significant -- and troubling -- racial stereotyping.”

On the bright side, whatever has disconnected the NBA from its fans hasn’t permeated society.

Actually, as far as race relations go, this is a day no one my age thought we’d live to see, with Sen. Barack Obama leading the race for the Democratic nomination.

Woe is such a common prediction, Stern must call around every morning to see whether he still has a league. However, coming from ESPN magazine, a natural ally, pitched at the youth demographic that sustains the NBA, it’s not good news.

There’s something wrong, all right, but while it may touch on race, compounded by the generational split hip-hop represents, that’s not it.

The problem is simpler, but something no one, starting with Stern, gets: Years of West domination that bled out all the drama with small and medium markets dominant and the mega-markets (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and, the last three seasons, Los Angeles) down or out.

The biggest TV market left in the conference finals in last spring’s worst-case scenario was No. 11 Detroit, which then fell to No. 17 Cleveland.

Meanwhile, No. 37 San Antonio dispatched No. 35 Utah before sweeping the Cavaliers, 4-0, in the second-lowest rated NBA Finals, on merit.

Actually, Stern did address the problem. He announced he would maintain his long-standing posture of not addressing it.

“We’re not going to a balanced schedule and put those teams into the East, etc.,” he said. “And yes, I did notice that [Pau] Gasol and Shaq [O’Neal] got traded to the West, but these things have a way of equaling out.”

Everyone (outside Detroit, San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas and Utah) is ecstatic at the thought of a Lakers-Celtics Finals, which could get the NBA back to the days of double-figure ratings.

This would perhaps follow a Lakers-Phoenix series, which ESPN’s Mike Tirico petitioned the “basketball gods” for after last week’s game got the highest regular-season cable rating in four years.

Even if the Lakers are the best team in the West -- which they may be now, even without Andrew Bynum -- with all the other good teams, let’s say they have a best-case 50% chance of reaching the Finals.

Let’s say the Celtics have a 60% chance of coming out of the East.

That would give the Lakers and Celtics about a 30% chance of meeting in the Finals.

Worse, the Celtics and Pistons are up there in age and nobody may donate a Kevin Garnett to equal things out in the future.

But why worry about that now? Hope springs eternal, for the moment.