Weekly Countdown: Season lessons
Current stars view themselves more as entrepreneurs than as team employees
Many NBA teams are trying to copy Thunder's approach of building team cheaply
More topics: Bird on LBJ's move, James' legacy, Paul's future in New Orleans
From training camps in late September to blockbuster moves through the summer -- what has it all meant?
The players are partners, and their rival is management. I received a lot of mail from readers who questioned my reading of LeBron James' controversial move to play with his rival Dwyane Wade in Miami (see below). Both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have since declared they would not have considered turning rivals into teammates in their day.
But this is not their day anymore.
"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,' " Jordan told NBC. "But ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing."
In Jordan's day, the players were rivals against one another. Jordan had his vicious rivalry with Isiah Thomas, which was preceded by the emotional triangle of Magic vs. Bird vs. Isiah.
The landscape is different now. Bird, Magic and Jordan didn't grow up playing AAU together. They didn't play together for USA Basketball summer after summer.
The best players today view themselves as partners. Chris Paul has recently joined LRMR, the marketing agency formed by James. Paul, James, Wade, Bosh and Carmelo Anthony are all represented by the same agency, CAA Sports. On the court they were competing against one another for the championship, of course, but in other crucial ways they are united against a common rival.
That rival is the NBA ownership.
The joining of LeBron, Wade and Bosh is entirely foreign to the stars of previous eras, and that's because Magic and Jordan weren't raised in the AAU system. Instead, they were raised on high school and college basketball, which was a system created on the strict authority of coaches and rules that could not be broken. You grew up playing for the high school coach in your town and he was your boss; you went to college for at least two years; you were drafted by an NBA team and if you were a star, that was your team for life. (Yes, I know that Jordan played two farewell seasons for the Wizards, but he did so as president of that team -- by then he was foremost an executive who hoped to improve his franchise by recruiting himself out of retirement.)
Players of Magic's and Jordan's era viewed themselves as employees who knew nothing else than to respect authority.
Players of LeBron's and Wade's era view themselves as entrepreneurs. They grew up forming their own AAU teams outside the authority of the high school coach. James and his boyhood friends took it one large step further by choosing as a group to attend the same private high school -- St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron -- which is something that never would have occurred to Magic or Jordan either.
The lucrative market for players has changed everything. There are a few great players and a large number of coaches and executives trying to get their hands on those few players. The players grow up understanding the market, and no longer are they willing to be told where they are going to play or what they are going to do for the entirety of their careers.
As Jordan said, "Things are different."
People will complain that this difference will be the death of the NBA, but, of course, that isn't true. How many times have we heard similar complaints over the years about the changing business of pro sports? It used to be said that free agency was going to be the death of sports. Wrong. Then player strikes and owner lockouts were going to kill sports. Wrong again. The high price of tickets, the proliferation of games on pay-subscription TV channels, the best players skipping college or leaving early, performance-enhancing drugs, the sponsorships and naming rights for everything -- all of these incremental changes have been followed by larger audiences and more money for pro football, baseball and basketball.
Now we're entering a phase of player power in which the stars are exercising their rights in an unprecedented way. The real story isn't that these three players decided to play together for the same team. The important story is that they view themselves as entrepreneurial free agents at a time when their union is negotiating for a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners -- owners who want to view the players as employees in an old-school way. The owners want to turn back the clock and reduce salaries and make the contracts shorter and put themselves back in control of the NBA.
The league's best players want no part of that old world. So here is the key question: Will LeBron, Wade and Bosh be able to persuade the NBA's lesser players to join with them in an extended fight against the owners next year?
The conflict between owners who want to be boss and the players who want to be their own boss is the reason why so many league insiders are anticipating an extended lockout after next season. The resulting labor stoppage figures to be something that Magic and Jordan could not have imagined in their day either.
Cap space is fool's gold. A half-dozen teams spent two years developing major cap space, and in the end Miami was the only winner. The Knicks (Amar'e Stoudemire) and Bulls (Carlos Boozer) landed consolation prizes, and everyone else struck out.
Over two decades of unrestricted free agency, the results have been recklessly disappointing for teams with major cap space. Shaquille O'Neal remains the only major free agent to win a championship with his new club, having won three championships for the Lakers after signing as a free agent in 1996.
Four years after Shaq went to Los Angeles, Orlando thought it would be able to recruit Tim Duncan but wound up instead with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, whose injuries prevented the Magic from moving past the first round. Now the Heat hope they have created a dynasty around James, Wade and Bosh; even if it works, they will be the exception to the rule. Free agency rarely works out as planned.
Now teams with cap space are looking ahead to the summer of 2011, but how can they be certain of the future? No one can predict the rules of free agency that will be delivered by the ongoing negotiations between owners and players. Teams may have cap space in 2011 under the current system, but how can they say whether the same space will exist under the rules of the next bargaining agreement?
Kobe Bryant is the favorite. He may even be the people's favorite to defend his championships next spring. Traditional sports fans will appreciate Bryant for not only sticking it out in Los Angeles (putting aside his frustrated demands to be traded a few years ago) but also because he'll be the old man trying to fend off the three youngsters in Miami. There may actually be feelings of sentiment for Bryant and the old-school values his play represents.
Bryant has redefined himself as the best postseason player in basketball over the last two years. He has presided over the transformation of his Lakers from a score-first bunch to a team of defenders. Miami will have to make a similar conversion in order to beat him.
Zones will grow in importance. How else to defend Miami but collapse inside and hope that James and Wade can't make jumpers? The Suns' wholesale manipulation of zone defenses against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals showed everyone that there may be more value to be plundered from these packages. Every staff will require an assistant with expertise in constructing and picking apart zone defenses.