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On the future of player movement

Was Lebron James’ choice to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh a one-off product of the current NBA cultural and economic environments? Or did his decision (and The Decision) alter those environments in fundamental ways that will lead us down a road of future hour-long specials featuring Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and -- projecting further into the future -- Blake Griffin?

MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytic Conference hosted a panel on this topic:

The Decision: How Players And Teams Will Choose In The Future

The panelists were:

R.C. Buford – General Manager, San Antonio Spurs

Brian Burke – President & General Manager, Toronto Maple Leafs

Mark Bartelstein – CEO and Founder, Priority Sports & Entertainment

Donny Marshall – former NBA player and current NBA Analyst, Comcast SportsNet

Burke suggested that in the NHL, which has a hard cap in place that might serve as a model for the NBA, it’s very difficult to sign multiple stars and still fill out a roster capable of winning a championship. Which is the whole point of stars gathering to begin with. “I don’t know where I’d find that money,” Burke said. “I don’t know how I’d do that.”

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Although the NBA’s smaller rosters put more of a premium on securing top-talent, this factor alone could submarine the efforts of any star to join Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony in New York in 2012. With the league’s concerns about competitive balance and team profitability, and Commissioner David Stern’s longstanding desire to see stars remain with one franchise for long stretches, it’s reasonable to assume the new CBA, whatever form it takes, will prove a relative disincentive to Miami-style player movement.

However, the panel did validate the commonly held belief that the culture has changed amongst NBA players and that stars joining up to chase titles is seen more as pragmatic than cowardly. Marshall suggested it’s a “softer league today” and stars in bad situations are quick to “look for the easy way out.”

Sour grapes from an old school guy? Maybe not.

Even Bartelstein concurred, saying he regularly fields calls from players looking for moves to better situations, even as early as their first day of training camp after signing a new contract. “The culture has changed. Guys who are 21, 22 years old, who haven’t had the coaching and education through four years of college… every time something doesn’t go [their] way, it’s ‘get me out of here.’"

And that might be the x-factor here.

How strong is the sense of empowerment/entitlement (choose the modifier you feel most appropriate) in today’s NBA players? Is it strong enough to overcome even the most stringent of economic agreements?

Will anything less than riches, rings and a throng of twitter followers be considered inadequate, or are we obsessing over a mere blip in the history of the NBA, one where “talents” and “South Beach” unnecessarily became four letter words?

Bartelstein: “You only get one or two chances in your career to [choose your future in free agency]. You’ve got this one moment in time to do what’s best for you and your family.”

Nobody’s sure what will happen in the future. But in the final analysis, perhaps Buford’s cool-headed read of the myriad of factors that led to last summer’s frenzy will prove most prophetic: “I don’t know there will be that many times you can orchestrate what happened last summer.”