NEW ORLEANS -- The NBA season chugged into the Big Easy on a quarter-tank of gas, three flat tires and a misfiring engine, then took a seat in a palm reader's chair in the French Quarter hoping for refreshing clues about the immediate future.
Seriously, weren't the first 50 or so games the lousiest in league history in terms of luck, given all the major injuries and crude overall quality of the East? (It was, I just looked it up, just to be sure.) And then, two days into All-Star Weekend, the re-tooled dunk contest received mixed reviews at best and was upstaged by -- I kid you not -- the unearthing of Vanilla Ice, by unpopular demand. Word to your mother.
But just as it has done in the past, the league showed a bit of resiliency in bouncing back with its annual pickup game Sunday and, well, let's hope for the NBA's sake the next few months will bring the same elastic. The East and West combined for the highest-scoring All-Star Game in history (318 points) and showed some fourth-quarter intensity, with the game's finest 24 players locked in a tight score until Kyrie Irving pulled the East away and walked away with the game's MVP.
Irving winning that award was rather appropriate for the theme of the weekend. He was in New Orleans on a relief mission as well. He found it in the second half of Sunday's game, when he scored 24 of his 31 points, and the NBA is looking to score points in its own second half. The tough thing for Irving is returning to the Cavs after this. They're a perfect example of what's wrong with the league. They're underachieving, sitting at 20-33 and some nights barely competing. Wait, there's more: They fired their GM just a week ago, their No. 1 overall pick is being compared to Kwame Brown and their locker room, if whispers are true, is being infiltrated by meatheads with agendas. Given all that, it came as a mild surprise that Irving, still a work in progress defensively, was voted a starter.
Now he brings back hardware from a 163-155 win and maybe something to rally the Cavs around -- if you believe an All-Star trophy can do that sort of thing.
"Regardless of whether I won MVP of this game or not, my focus level and goal was going to remain the same after the All-Star break," he said, "and that's trying to get as many wins as possible."
Since the Cavs are a hot mess at the moment, winning might be tough to pull off without some immediate help. With Irving not only winning MVP but playing nicely off LeBron James for the East, the speculation machine just received another oiling. For at least a day anyway, which is perhaps a day too much, the LeBron-to-Cleveland chatter will make the rounds.
"My focus is just on our team that we have now," Irving said. "I'm trying to raise the morale of my teammates."
LeBron is sticking to his stance of saying nothing about his future plans (no surprise) and also heaping praise on Irving (also no surprise).
"He's a special player, a very smart player. I've always known that, ever since he was in high school. I'm extremely happy for him and proud of him. For receiving this award. It's big time."
Another despondent soul who came to New Orleans seeking fortune therapy was Carmelo Anthony. Still woozy from the Knicks' dreadful half-season, and certainly wondering about his own future as a result, Melo set an All-Star Game record for three-pointers made (eight) and can at least say he's won at least one big game this season.
"I've been saying it was going to be hard for me to try and enjoy the weekend, but I did," he said. "I found a way. Just the whole vibe of the weekend was something I was looking forward to, just being around the guys."
Well, that's understandable. Melo spent Sunday with LeBron and Irving and Paul George, among others, as his teammates. Now he goes back to Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith.
"Now it's back to the grind," he said, not sounding all too enthusiastic about that.
So the All-Star Game served as a get-well tonic for Irving and Melo and perhaps the league, then. It started with a breezy, jazzy rendition of the anthem, which didn't exactly erase the memory of Marvin Gaye, but Gary Clark Jr. and his blues guitar are now on the Mount Rushmore of All-Star Game anthems. And it had a classy touch, with players from both teams surrounding Bill Russell, who turned 80 four days ago, and wishing him a happy birthday.
The weekend itself was a celebration of firsts: the first with Adam Silver as commissioner, the first All-Star setting of any kind in any sport to feature a female referee in Violet Palmer, the first since 1999 without Kobe Bryant in uniform, and the first All-Star Game for six players, which suggests the league is in a transitional period. And then the game began, and it quickly became a bigger spectacle than Pharrell's red hat because LeBron and Blake Griffin used the opening moments to demonstrate what and who the dunk contest missed.
You know what was the best news to emerge from New Orleans? There's only 60 days until the playoffs begin and the rash of tanking -- pardon, "rebuilding" -- ends. If there's any season that needs someone to press the fast-forward button, it's this one. By moving quickly through March and April, the league can distance itself from insinuations of tanking and the rash of serious injuries involving franchise players and the hideous sleeved jerseys and can finally open the window in the East and let the stink out.
The All-Star Game wasn't immune from the injuries because, in a normal situation, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and perhaps Rajon Rondo would've cracked the lineups and added to the show. Instead, Westbrook has had three knee procedures in 10 months and hopes to return to Oklahoma City for the second time this season (maybe this week against Miami). Rose suffered more heartbreak and anguish by suffering another, unrelated injury to his other knee. And Rondo is on a minutes ration as he tries to recover from knee surgery.
The league is not better off when top-20 players are seen wearing tailored suits during games. The biggest loss, however, was Kobe Bryant, if only because his injury robbed the Lakers, one of the Tiffany teams, of any shine this season. Bryant did show up anyway to New Orleans and expressed some concern about his body here in his sunset years.
"Of course," he said. "Absolutely. That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty, `are my best days behind me' sort of thing. My recovery, it's coming slowly. I'm optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements. But it's a slow process."
Will he play again this season? Kobe was non-committal. While he obviously wants to play -- "I love what I do and when you have a passion for it, you want to find new ways of doing it" -- would it really make any sense to try and rescue a collection of mutts and perhaps deprive the Lakers of a high pick in the next draft?
"I just stick to the script," he said. "Just try to get better and go from there. I just try to focus, keep my blinders on and do what I have to do and stay focused on my responsibilities."
If the responsibility of the NBA is to finish better than it started, then it shouldn't be too hard. The bar was set fairly low based on the first four months, where the only highlights were mainly restricted to Kevin Durant, LeBron and the surprising Blazers and Suns. The schedule will cooperate this week when the Thunder and Heat meet, but these types of games, sadly, between two quality contenders haven't been the norm.
That all changes when the playoffs begin in late April. The trick is getting there first. What the NBA hoped to see in its immediate future from a weekend of soul-searching and fortune-telling in New Orleans was a fast forward button.