PHOENIX -- We've let reality exceed the fantasy aspect of All-Star weekend.
Allowing NBA players to come together for international competition removed the novelty of these spectacular rosters, to the point that even the phrase "Dream Team" became as overused as that "I'll Melt With You" song. (Seriously, are we so out of ideas that ad campaigns for Taco Bell and Burger King and M&Ms had to use the same cheesy '80s tune?)
And lately the All-Star weekend festivities have been overshadowed by trade talk. In 2008, as Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki went out to help repair homes in New Orleans' flood-devastated Ninth Ward, they couldn't go between strokes of paint without reporters querying them about the possibility they could become teammates. This year it started with the Jermaine O'Neal-Shawn Marion trade -- a deal that's been rumored for weeks and finally became reality as the All-Star festivities got underway.
The Phoenix Suns should be focused on hosting the event, but you can't see Amare Stoudemire or Shaquille O'Neal on a billboard around town without wondering if they'll even be a member of the team by tipoff of the All-Star Game on Sunday night. And if John Paxson brings Stoudemire to Chicago, it could be Paxson's last major deal as general manager of the Bulls -- though a Chicago source said Paxson won't quit or be fired anytime soon, it looks far from certain he'll be around next season.
Then there's the depressing economic news, an impetus for much of the trade talk we hear from financially ailing franchises and a driving point for what will surely be contentious discussions of the collective bargaining agreement as early as 2011, with the owners expected to seek a drop in the players' share of revenue and shorter contract lengths.
It's no wonder the All-Star Game sometimes feels like an afterthought, one last bit of required duty after a weekend filled with parties, promotional events, community activities and interview sessions. But let's view it as a prelude instead, a template for what could come to pass in the future. After all, considering the quality and quantity of the players entering free agency the next two years and the caliber of players who have been traded over the past two years, almost any roster restructuring is possible.
So let's have our own trade speculation that combines what we'll witness from the Eastern and Western Conference teams on the court Sunday with pairings we could imagine seeing in the NBA regular season someday. While we will adhere to the salary cap guidelines, we're giving the edge to fantasy here. Every transaction is being entertained without regard to financial implications or competitive balance.
It's the NBA as we want to see it.
Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson together on the Lakers again
Precedents: Jay-Z and Nas reconciling at Jay-Z's "I Declare War" concert, and the Eagles' reunion for the "Hell Freezes Over" tour
Why it should happen: It's time for Kobe, Shaq and Phil to yield to destiny, to realize they're a part of something that's bigger than each of them as individuals. While the Lakers are the best team in the league right now, they're not as compelling as they used to be. As Shaq told Kobe when they were yukking it up for the TV cameras Saturday, "We had our own TV show, and we were the No. 1 TV show ever. Right? Right?"
The Lakers -- and the league -- haven't been the same since they broke up in 2004. Just watching them practice together Saturday afternoon was surreal, like having a dead relative pop up in a dream as if nothing had changed. When Jackson had the nerve to make the team do basic running and dribbling drills, O'Neal and Bryant looked at each other and laughed, as if saying, "Can you believe this?"
They were trying a little too hard to smile for the cameras. Deep down there's still dislike for each other. But now at least there's tolerance, enough for them to work together. They could succeed because their mutual disdain didn't keep them from winning three championships together in the first place.
Jackson promised to use them together, and it's a lock they will combine for one of the All-Star Game highlights.
"He's going to look for me, I'm going to look for him," O'Neal said. "It'll be like old times."
Nostalgia is powerful, almost narcotic. It's possible the fond memories have warmed them to the possibility of a reunion.
"Winning back-to-back-to-back championships, always ending on top and knowing you were at least going to have a shot at it every year, I think they all miss that," said Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who played with O'Neal and Bryant under Jackson in the three-peat days. "If they could all do it over again, I think they would do it differently."
How it could happen: The Lakers get worried they'll lose Lamar Odom to free agency this summer, and they get worried they'll lose Andrew Bynum to knee injuries every season if the current trend holds up. They send them to Phoenix in exchange for O'Neal. The Suns get the payroll relief of Odom's $14 million expiring contract and a promising young player in Bynum at only 60 percent of the cost of Shaq.
Shaquille O'Neal with Tim Duncan on the Spurs
Precedent: Ties in World Cup soccer matches
Why It Should Happen: O'Neal and Tim Duncan have won four championships apiece, and they've split their six playoff series against each other. Let's call it a draw and see what they could do if they combined their powers.
"It'd be great to have him on my side," Duncan said. "Throw him the ball and watch him crush people? That'd be great."
O'Neal doesn't sound as if he'd demand the ball every time, sounding more than willing to share the ball with the man he called the greatest power forward ever.
"It'd be easy, because he's a great ballplayer," O'Neal said. "We'd just go back and forth. He played with David [Robinson], and David deferred to him a little bit. It's just something that I'd have to do. But it's all about winning."
Initially they'd probably try to see who could be more unselfish than whom. Then they'd settle in to showcase the most polished big man of his time in Duncan, and O'Neal's underrated skill set as he no longer had to fill the role of primary low-post scorer. Then O'Neal draws out the humorous side of Duncan that his teammates insist is there, and the two make a hilarious series of commercials for Verizon.
How it could happen: If the Spurs wanted to remain championship contenders, they'd have to keep Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and it's nearly impossible for the Suns to trade O'Neal to San Antonio without those players being involved. Fortunately for the Spurs, the Suns are desperate to save cash and begin buyout talks with O'Neal. He surprises them by accepting, is waived and signed by the Spurs.
Chris Paul and Brandon Roy on the Trail Blazers
Precedent: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in "Wedding Crashers"
Why it should happen: A pairing that you never spent time dreaming up, but one that could turn out to work surprisingly well. Truth is, I didn't think about it until Brandon Roy suggested it. (Chris Paul actually wished for Tim Duncan, but Roy had first crack.) The Blazers are always concerned about asking Roy to do too much, and anytime they can find someone to bring up the ball they're happy to relieve him of those duties. So why not get the league's top point guard to bring up the ball and initiate the offense? All Roy would have to do was go to his favorite spots and stand there.
"[Paul] does a great job of getting guys easy shots, something I don't come across a lot now," said Roy, the focal point of every opponent's defense.
When you think of Roy you think of him pulling up and hitting jumpers with a hand in his face, or driving through the lane, spinning and shooting.
The problem with the Hornets is things usually go sour when Paul goes out of the game. Roy might not be a pure point guard like Paul, but he's a guy who can handle the ball and make good decisions -- always. So Roy with the ball would become the Ultimate Plan B.
"I like to create," Roy said. "I think you've got to have two guys who can create, especially to be good. I think we could fit."
How it could happen: The word around the league is the Hornets are already trying to shed salaries to get below the luxury tax next season. Perhaps they get so desperate they take the ultimate plunge, throwing Paul in the mix to entice someone to take on Peja Stojakovic's contract. The deep-pocketed Blazers bite and send LaMarcus Aldridge plus the expiring contracts of Raef LaFrentz, Channing Frye and Shavlik Randolph to the Big Easy for Paul.
Danny Granger with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the Celtics
Precedents: Sammy Hagar replacing David Lee Roth in Van Halen, and Snoop Dogg taking Eazy-E's spot in NWA
Why it should happen: This would be the true test to tell us if Danny Granger is really as good as he's looked this season, or if he gets the Shareef Abdur-Rahim Award for putting up good numbers on bad teams.
Granger's stats this season look a lot like Ray Allen's at the same point in his career: 25.4 points per game, 44 percent shooting, five rebounds, three assists. (Allen averaged 22 points, four rebounds and four assists and shot 46 percent in his fourth season.) The Celtics were about more than numbers in their championship season. Maybe I should say they were about less than numbers, since their success was the opposite of statistical predictions. The scoring for Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett went down in '08, yet the team was better for it. Would Granger take the same veteran approach as Allen and sacrifice for the sake of everyone else. How would he fit in?
"I think very well," he said. "I can shoot it pretty good, I can create my shot off the dribble. When you have those type of guys, it's a nightmare for the defense, because you don't know where you're going to help, who you're going to guard. So I think I'd play great with them.
"When you're playing with players of that caliber, annual All-Stars, all they need to average is 16, 17 a game each and everything else will take care of itself."
I like that phrase, annual All-Star. We'll have to see if Granger can get that label to stick to him.
"I can," Granger said. "This is my first of many, I think."
So far, Allen (with a little help from the commish) has made two All-Star Games in two years with Pierce and Garnett. I want to find out if Granger can continue the pattern.
How it could happen: Allen, content with a ring or two, signs elsewhere for more money as a free agent in 2010. The Celtics send Rajon Rondo and a player or two to match Granger's $11 million salary to Indianapolis.
LeBron James and Dwight Howard on the Knicks
Precedent: Beyonce and Shakira together in the "Beautiful Liar" video.
Why it should happen: Talk about bringing two incredible physical specimens together. David Stern likes to brag that the NBA features the world's greatest athletes. Any team with LeBron James and Dwight Howard would be Exhibit A.
LeBron's improving defense would get even better if he could gamble knowing that the league's best shot-blocker was behind him.
And what would Howard get out of it?
"He's a great passer," Howard said. "I could run to the rim and he could throw it up there."
This would be basketball without limits, taken to a new place by two people with outrageous physical gifts with the creativity and personality to go with it. Finally, something to justify those high prices at Madison Square Garden.
How it could happen: Howard can opt out of his contract in 2012. The Knicks currently don't have any players locked into contracts for that summer. They sign LeBron in 2010 and keep everything else short-term or trade away their other lengthy contracts to preserve salary cap room.
This would be a while down the road, but remember, LeBron is 24 now and Howard is 23. They would just be entering their prime years in 2012. Yes, they'll be better. Way better. The only thing scarier than that thought is the prospect of them reaching that stage together.
Call all of these scenarios foolish if you want. But if you've been paying attention for the past few years, you should realize that no scenario is too impossible in the NBA. In 2004-05, when Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal finished 1-2 in the Most Valuable Player voting and Jason Richardson averaged 22 points a game in Golden State, could anyone believe they'd all be together three years later? And would anyone believe that combo would be an underachieving squad in the process of getting dismantled?
It's the NBA. Not even the most active imagination can outdo it. But might as well try.