The first round of the NBA playoffs has been so misleading. Sure, several teams are off to a good start and seem capable of winning the title. Then you think about the Miami Heat.
Before the postseason began, many around the league figured the defending champion would repeat. Miami's dismantling of the Milwaukee Bucks in an opening-round sweep only reinforced the opinion that basketball's best team is far ahead of the pack. But while the perception that everyone else is competing for second isn't encouraging for the competition, the Heat's dominance is great for the NBA.
Professional sports leagues need glamour teams. They're the ones that stir the most excitement by winning — a lot — with style. Once fans are hooked, advertisers and television executives usually follow. For all the complaining in Major League Baseball about the New York Yankees' $230 million payroll, who really wanted to watch the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series?
There's always grumbling when one team is most closely identified with a league's success. No one enjoys being stuck at the back of the line. The view is awful. But the benefit of having a powerful team at the top of the league outweighs competition concerns. At least one NBA pioneer agrees.
Often in his Hall of Fame career, Elgin Baylor was on the wrong end of NBA Finals battles against the Boston Celtics. Six times in the 1960s, Baylor's Los Angeles Lakers teams lost to Bill Russell's great Celtics clubs.
The Celtics' run of championships brought more attention to the NBA, which, at the time, was far less popular than baseball and the NFL. Those Lakers-Celtics matchups were important in growing the NBA. Baylor gets that.
"When you're going through it, you don't think about what type of [effect] what you're doing can have, you just think about winning," the 10-time first-team all-NBA selection said during a phone interview Wednesday.
"Almost every year, it was the Celtics. And you just wanted to beat the Celtics. But now that it has been so many years, you kind of look back, reflect back, and say, 'Wow. That was important for the game.' "
In the 1980s, the Lakers took the lead role in the league's evolution. Los Angeles won five titles while finally breaking through against its archrival, defeating Boston in two of three Finals meetings during the decade. The 1990s were all about the six-time champion Chicago Bulls.
For teams that are the face of the league, it's never only about having the most talent. The Celtics of the '60s set the standard for teamwork. The "Showtime" Lakers turned the fast break into an art form. There may never be another team that plays half-court defense as well as the Bulls. Everyone on the list has one key thing in common: a transcendent superstar.
Russell, who has more championship rings (11) than fingers, is the greatest winner in NBA history. His defensive skill and competitiveness provided the foundation for the Celtics' rise in the national sports discussion of the day. Considering how much Russell did to lift the league up, his image should be the one depicted in the NBA logo.
"Boston had good players, don't get me wrong, but Russell . . . Russell was the guy," Baylor said. "He was just a dominant, dominant player out there. You'd beat your man, then, hell, Russell would come out of nowhere and block your shot. That's the type of guy you need to be that kind of team we're talking about.
"You need a guy who understands how to play and understands how to make plays for his teammates. He has to have the athletic ability but also that competitiveness. No one ever wanted to win more than Russell. But there have been other guys who have that same type of approach."
Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan quickly come to mind. LeBron James joined the list last season.
James raised his game to a second-to-none level in winning his first title. With the spotlight on him even more this season, James led Miami to a 27-game winning streak — the second longest in league history — and the best regular season record.
In its past 43 games, the Heat is 41-2. It's no wonder sports highlight shows carve out so much time to praise the Heat. They like that in the league office.
"There are some terrific players in the NBA, but LeBron is just unbelievable," Baylor said. "I mean, really, just spectacular. I also like [Dwyane] Wade. He's terrific. [Chris] Bosh is a good player, too.
"You don't have a lot of good teams now, so when you have guys like Wade and Bosh on one team, you have a chance to be really good. You add James, man, now you're talking about a great team."
The current Lakers were supposed to be another. A Miami-Los Angeles NBA Finals seemed inevitable after Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined Kobe Bryant. But the Lakers' failure is proof that bad management can ruin anything.
San Antonio is smart and determined, but probably not talented enough to overtake Miami. Russell Westbrook's knee injury makes Oklahoma City less special. New York? In his ninth season in the league, Carmelo Anthony still hasn't proven he understands what it takes to play championship basketball.
"People want to watch a great team," Baylor said. "That never changes."
The NBA right now has only one truly great team: the Heat. From the league's perspective, that might not be such a bad thing.