- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2011

Contrary to popular belief, the potential fall of the Lakers won’t topple NBA headquarters.

Whether or not Los Angeles comes back from dropping the first two games at home to beat Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals, the league is already losing.

Business is bad, Commissioner David Stern keeps reminding us, and that won’t change even if the NBA’s most popular team gets back to the championship round and faces a marquee opponent for a chance at a third straight title.

_ Los Angeles against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Miami? That’s the sexiest matchup.

_ LA and Boston again? That story always sells.

_ Chicago, with the Lakers getting a chance to beat Phil Jackson’s old team in his last run? An easy hook.

But what if none of those happen?

What if Dallas finishes off the champs, then loses in the next round, leaving reporters everywhere scrambling to figure out the best flight schedules into Oklahoma City or Memphis?

What if none of the East powers survives and instead it’s the Atlanta Hawks, who struggle for attention in their own city?

For the league, the answer is not much.

Yes, a Hawks-Grizzlies final might be a ratings disaster, but that is ABC’s problem. The NBA already has a long-term contract with its national TV partners, so it’s getting paid whether anyone is watching or not.

Lakers tickets do cost more than in Memphis or Oklahoma City, so there would be an obvious loss of gate revenue if the lights are turned off early at Staples Center.

But the NBA is projecting leaguewide losses of $300 million this season, and those numbers were even higher the last two seasons, both of which ended with Stern handing the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Lakers.

So even if everything goes perfectly from a ratings perspective, and Kobe Bryant is battling James and Wade in a seven-game championship series, Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver will quickly remind everyone that the players were guaranteed 57 percent of revenues, leaving the league too small a share to do business.

In fact, another championship for the Lakers, or some other big spender, could show why owners might shut the NBA down this summer until they can implement a new system that lets the little guys compete, too _ precisely because the Lakers and Heat can’t save the NBA on their own.

Stern refused three years ago to give reporters the answer they craved when he was repeatedly asked what it meant for the Lakers and Celtics, the league’s greatest rivals, to be meeting again in the finals, declining to put any added importance on the matchup.

The reason was probably because he took so much heat a few years earlier, when he said his ideal finals matchup was “Lakers vs. the Lakers.” And while Lakers-Celtics attracts more casual fans, it won’t attract enough dollars this time around to turn a profit _ and Stern insists it’s time that the NBA does that.

“We’re not going to lose any money,” he said this week in Chicago. “I’m not going to be commissioner of a league that is comfortable (losing money). Because I don’t have a group of owners who find it acceptable for me to have that conversation with them. You don’t have $4 billion worth of revenue and pay out over $2 billion in salaries and benefits to lose money. It’s something that we have sort of gotten used to as the revenues have gone up, et cetera, but the world has changed about the prospects for all franchises.”

In the end, another Lakers title can only reinforce why the last game of the finals might be the last NBA basketball for a while.

Stern says the new business model must allow for all teams to profit and compete, and the Lakers, with a payroll of more than $90 million, can certainly do both better than most clubs.

The players argue good management trumps a bigger market, a case that’s helped if Oklahoma City, which owes its success to smart, patient building rather than spending, goes on to play for the title.

If it does, the league and ABC will try to generate hype around the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, the league scoring leader the last two seasons.

Yet Durant can’t match the notoriety of James, whose lone finals appearance in 2007 was the last involving smaller markets. San Antonio’s sweep of Cleveland went down as the lowest-rated ever.

So maybe the league would prefer a team like the Lakers to win again, if only to avoid the embarrassment of a ratings debacle.

It just has little else to gain from it.


Brian Mahoney on Twitter: https://twitter.com/briancmahoney.

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