— Imagine plunking down $50, $100, perhaps even $1,000 or more for an NBA ticket, only to see a curtain displaying the mere silhouette of a player at center court.
Imagine the public-address announcer enhancing the tease by proclaiming, "Fans, behind that curtain could be LeBron James! … Or Kobe Bryant! … Or Dwyane Wade!
Then, in one of those barely-audible, car-financing tones, the disclaimer is added, "… of course, you'll have to wait 21 months for that, so please sit patiently, and remember, those season-ticket invoices are in the mail."
The undercurrent of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 NBA seasons is the seduction.
It could turn into the ultimate pro sports bait-and-switch.
On both sides of the Hudson, from South Beach to southern Michigan and parts beyond, the present moment has been traded in for a future that comes with no guarantee.
All the while, patience is being preached.
In New Jersey, the Nets have surrounded Vince Carter with a supporting cast that helps explain the stench emanating from the Meadowlands. Of course, if there's anyone willing to take Carter in a deal, well, the Nets would gladly pack his bags, as well.
In New York, the Knicks refuse to inject any additional salary-cap funds into the 2010-11 ledger. That means making David Lee wait for a deserved extension, as well as simultaneously showcasing and shopping scoring leader Zach Randolph.
In Miami, the Heat has requested ultimate patience from Wade, while surrounding him with a bench as shaky as anything he's experienced since entering Richards High.
And in Detroit, Joe Dumars sold his all-for-one soul to take on Allen Iverson in a trade that was struck with the goal of freeing enough cap space to entice an A-list free agent in 2009, or, more likely, in 2010.
In each market, short-term expectations have been muted by management.
No, Detroit might not make it a seventh consecutive season in the Eastern Conference finals.
No, Wade's playoff return might not come after merely a one-year hiatus.
No, the Knicks might not be running Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less into May.
And no, the Nets aren't going anywhere.
Because 2010 is the year some of most visible franchises plan to reinvent themselves.
On one hand, who can blame them?
There has never been such a free-agent convergence.
LeBron. Kobe. Wade. Bosh. Amare. Nowitzki. Joe Johnson.
All, and many more in that stratosphere, could be free agents that summer.
It is why this past summer so few teams were willing to offer contracts that extend more than two seasons. And it is why next summer, plenty of free agents will be offered huge deals, with the caveat being that they're only going to be one-year deals.
Further, it is why players with more than two seasons remaining on their contracts have become pariahs on the trade market.
In some cases, it can be understood. No matter the contract length, no one is knocking down the door to secure Eddy Curry (if, indeed, the Knicks center could even fit through the door).
In other cases, it is shocking how much trouble the Bobcats are having in moving Gerald Wallace, or how little interest the Clippers might find with Chris Kaman, if, indeed, he is put up for bid. Each has four years left on his contract.
Having trouble unloading that condo in Palm Springs? Try moving lengthy contracts in today's NBA marketplace. And yet, not everyone will land a LeBron or a Kobe or a Wade.
With the Nets, it appears the long view already is turning into a distorted view. Last time we checked, that rail yard in Brooklyn is still a rail yard, not an ascending arena.
Somehow we're not quite as sure LeBron is instead envisioning a future in East Rutherford or Newark.
Then there's the historical lesson.
Beyond a Shaquille O'Neal who had outgrown Orlando, a Baron Davis whose desire to be a Hollywood baron necessitated SoCal sustenance or an Elton Brand who allowed a suddenly relevant David Falk to create a Philadelphia freedom, NBA stars don't usually relocate through free agency.
Just ask Clippers fans, who could have sworn they had Bryant the last time Kobe was a free agent.
Collective-bargaining rules allow for longer contracts and a lot more money if a free agent stays in place. It is why LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade went for rookie extensions instead of immediate exposure to the market.
And those rules aren’t changing. The current CBA will run through at least the 2010 offseason. For now, the only thing many teams around the league are buying is time, selling the image of that silhouetted player behind that curtain.
A Heat team coming off a league-worst season, Nets and Knicks teams caught in the purgatory of mediocrity, and a descending Pistons team are championing futures that might never arrive.
In each case, there is front-office brilliance, from Pat Riley to Rod Thorn to Donnie Walsh to Dumars. Those are not the type of names you doubt. But it doesn't mean there won't be considerably more teams in the mix by 2010.
Remember, amid their seduction of Shaq in 1996, the Lakers lacked the funds for a signing. Then they sold off George Lynch and Anthony Peeler to the Grizzlies for nothing more than "future considerations." Voila! Instant cap space. And an instant dynasty.
The NBA is a league constantly in flux. It is the reason Allen Iverson one day is in Philadelphia, the next day is in Denver, and then the next day is in Detroit.
Things change over weeks, months, and certainly years. Already half the league has enough 2010 cap space to sign an elite free agent to a max contract. What fans in so many cities are being sold with the 2010s well may emerge as false promise.
The entire league needs to knock it off, needs to talk about the present moment, the present hope. Or are tickets and television rights going to be refunded over these next two seasons?
To be actively selling July 2010 to fans in November 2008 is to render the coming weeks, months, years meaningless. Only in the NBA do you find yourself wishing away two years of your life.
A: The start is impressive because the schedule hardly was soft, what with the victories against the Magic, Hornets and Raptors.
The real issue is how you define "for real."
Could the Hawks get back to the playoffs, push a team in the first round, as was the case against Boston last season? Certainly.
Is this a team ready for a move beyond that? That's an entirely different question.
Two players likely will define the next step: Joe Johnson and Josh Smith.
Is Johnson a leading man? At times, he has thrived in that role. Yet at others, it's almost as if he prefers to be a versatile facilitator. His scoring average this season indicates he is ready, and capable, of that next step to something closer to a Wade, Kobe or LeBron, at least in terms of offensive consistency.
Then there's the enigmatic Smith, who appears on the cusp of translating his freakish athleticism into some more tangible on the court. While the current ankle injury that could sideline him for up to a month is a setback, he has taken a major stride this season toward becoming a premier defensive stopper.
A concern, though, is the quality of the rotation beyond Johnson, Smith and Al Horford. Already, Mike Bibby is looking more and more like a short-term rental, possibly to be cashed in at the trading deadline by the Hawks, just as the Kings did last season.
And while Flip Murray has gotten off to a surprisingly strong start, he is, at the end of the day, still Flip Murray. Ditto with Maurice Evans. What is needed is something closer to consistency from Marvin Williams and Acie Law.
Eventually, the lack of depth could have late-season losses catching up to the early-season success.
A: Ah, nothing like instant analysis two weeks into 10-plus-year careers.
Not to be wishy-washy here, but it depends on how you define success: From a statistical standpoint? Or from a team-success standpoint?
Right now, O.J. Mayo is looking fantastic. The rub with Mayo around the draft was that there might not be much more of an upside, that this is all there might ever be.
Well, who cares? Because the way Mayo has started his pro career, he already is pretty close to an A-game level.
Now, will there be team success for the former Southern Cal guard? Of course not. He plays for the Grizzlies; they never win anything.
Instead, figure on Derrick Rose for years being able to provide a tangible payoff in just about every appearance. If it's not with his scoring, it will be with his playmaking. If not with a somewhat streaky shot, then with his impressive build.
Eventually, Rose will find himself surrounded by better talent that the hodgepodge John Paxson currently has in place in Chicago. That's when the winning will start.
As for Greg Oden? It's a tough call, and depends on how well that body holds up. The amateur orthopedists have already offered their views, but it truly will come down to longevity. Right now, it is difficult to project 10 years down the road with a player we're still not sure is going to remain whole 10 games into his career.
With the others, the question with Michael Beasley is whether the 'tweener forward can find a comfortable fit. There are similar concerns with Kevin Love.
A rookie (at least in NBA terms) to keep an eye on is Marc Gasol. That body works, as does the skill set. But will he stay stateside for any appreciable amount of time?
For now, bank on Mayo, count on Rose and then see if others such as Beasley, Love and even Russell Westbrook can settle into career niches.
A: They won't have to, with Williams' sprained left ankle finally allowing for a return.
Considering the undefeated start came to a crushing halt against the Knicks, the timing could not have been better.
Smoke and mirrors and Ronnie Price only get you so far in this league, especially when you've already utilized two of your get-out-of-losses-free cards with early-season games against the Clippers.
What the success in the absence of Williams showed is the remarkable system Jerry Sloan has in place. As long as you pick-and-roll and feed the post on offense, and bump the cutter (yes, we know it's illegal) on defense, the victories continue to accrue.
And while no one wants to play without their team leader, the opening run showed the Jazz that they can survive in the absence of Williams.
What the Jazz winds up with now is a newly slimmed-down playmaker who well might have benefited from the additional time off after spending his summer with the Olympic team.
Any other team would have bemoaned the loss of a leader. Sloan, of course, would have none of it. It is why he's found a way to win 1,000 games in the same place.