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Not all are invited to party

Crowd favorite Kobe Bryant backs down the Celtics’ Ray Allen during the first half of last night’s NBA All-Star Game. Crowd favorite Kobe Bryant backs down the Celtics’ Ray Allen during the first half of last night’s NBA All-Star Game. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA certainly knows how to throw a party.

That’s why it remains the preeminent league in celebrating and promoting itself, even through these turbulent times. No one wants to see this fun end, which is why the current labor negotiations are more amicable than they’ve been in the past.

The NBA spent the weekend drawing attention to the international entity it has become, perhaps not having overcome the NFL in pure popularity but certainly in promotion.

The question is whether Commissioner David Stern is comfortable with the NBA being a top-heavy league run by only a few power teams. Only eight teams have won the NBA title since 1980 and with two of the league’s premium free agents joining one team this summer — LeBron James and Chris Bosh with the Heat — and Carmelo Anthony passive/aggressively demanding a trade to the Knicks, the balance of power doesn’t appear close to shifting to smaller markets to balance the ledger.

The smaller markets such as Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, and Oklahoma City can only hope their standout players stay after free agency. Asked last summer in Las Vegas about the concentration of big-market title-winning teams, Stern pointed to the success of the Jazz of the 1990s, the Kings of the early 2000s, and the Trail Blazers of recent years.

None of those teams won an NBA title, and it doesn’t appear we’re going to have a new champion unless Thunder general manager Sam Presti is able to maintain a high-level roster around Kevin Durant, who bucked the trend of smaller-market stars bolting their teams by signing a five-year contract extension last summer.

The NBA has a major issue in this disparity. Teams such as the Bucks or Grizzlies can draft well and cultivate their players, but they are not as likely to retain those players as, let’s say, the Lakers. While that has been a league problem for years, it has been exacerbated by today’s players forming “Super Friends’’ combinations to play on the same club.

Tandems are not going to form to play in Cleveland or Toronto or Minneapolis, and Stern has to address that issue. While the idea of a “franchise tag’’ was thrown around over the weekend, perhaps giving smaller-market teams an opportunity to keep their draft picks for as many as eight years, there needs to be a serious proposal that would encourage players financially to remain with their original teams more than now.

James and Bosh had the option of staying in Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, with a sixth year and $30 million more on their contracts. Each declined that opportunity, but those teams then facilitated sign-and-trade deals so the duo could receive an extra year with the Heat.

While the Cavaliers and Raptors do possess $10 million-plus trade exceptions that are good for one calendar year, both teams were left in shambles by the departures of their superstars.

The decline of the smaller-market teams is a concern not lost on Stern, who was asked about the topic yesterday.

“Our goal in these [collective bargaining agreement] negotiations is to come up with a system where all 30 teams over a period of time have the ability to compete,’’ he said. “I think what you’ll also see is that the teams that have been competing the hardest in terms of moving along in the playoffs are [luxury] taxpayers. And we don’t think your ability to pay taxes to have a roster should be part of the competitive landscape.’’

The luxury tax discourages frugal owners from adding players who would force them to pay dollar-for-dollar for any amount above a certain level. That prompted the Jazz to dump valuable guard Eric Maynor on the Thunder last season.

Salary dumps that damage the competitive chances of a team should be discouraged by Stern and it’s no coincidence that some of the league’s worst clubs are at the bottom of the salary scale. The Clippers, Kings, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves are last in NBA payroll. The Bulls are the next-lowest, but primarily because they saved so much money in the futile pursuit of James and Dwyane Wade and settled for Carlos Boozer.

You get what you pay for in the NBA, and the smaller-market owners need to invest more in scouting and marketing, and find shrewd ways to build competitive teams. Major League Baseball is filled with lower-payroll teams that find ways to compete.

While the NBA is basking in its juggernaut status, there has to be a realization that several of its members are being forgotten. Reports surfaced this weekend that the Kings are looking to move to Anaheim, as if Southern California needs a third NBA team.

That has to be perplexing to Stern, who encourages smaller markets and one-team cities in the NBA. That’s why he yanked the SuperSonics out of Seattle and repositioned them in Oklahoma City.

The question for Stern is whether his fan base finally will begin to tire of lack of competitive balance. So far there are no signs of that. An estimated 8.1 million viewers tuned in Saturday night to watch Blake Griffin leap over a Kia to win the slam dunk contest, a record for the showcase event.

The NBA’s popularity is at an all-time high, even eclipsing the Michael Jordan era. But the untold secret is that many of the smaller-market teams are suffering, and that’s a byproduct of bad management and players choosing to play in more attractive cities. There’s nothing to celebrate about that.

“I think it would be a good thing if more teams could compete,’’ Stern said. “We are very focused through revenue-sharing and this deal, this agreement that we are trying to get, on having small markets with the capacity to compete in this league and succeed in this league.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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