LeBron James and Dwyane Wade changed the game. By structuring their second contracts so they could hit free agency early and simultaneously, they flipped the league from teams choosing players to players choosing teams.
This summer looms as the ultimate referendum of drafting versus signing. Welfare state versus capitalism. Should we continue to believe that bad teams tucked away in small markets will always be given a fair chance to build their way toward on-court prosperity through lucky lottery combinations and long-term partnerships sealed by David Stern's handshake? Or should we just realize that the NBA will predominately be a league of champions by checkbook?
The Lakers won the past two championships by swiping Pau Gasol from the budget-minded Grizzlies, while their most recent NBA Finals opponent and the previous champion, Boston, became an instant contender by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007.
The only truly home-grown champions over the past 10 years were the Spurs, particularly the 2003 vintage that featured three draftees in the starting lineup (Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker) plus Manu Ginobili as the sixth man.
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who came up through the Spurs' organization, is fighting to keep doing things the Spurs' way. Six of the top eight players on this past season's team were acquired through the draft or via trade the night they were drafted. The Thunder don't want to be lavish spenders in the free-agent market, even though they have the ability to do so with approximately $14 million in salary cap room. They'd rather give it to their guys in house.
Ironically, the Thunder had to work with their polar opposite, the Miami Heat, to make it happen Thursday night. Oklahoma City took Daequan Cook and his $2.2 million salary plus the No. 18 pick from the Heat in exchange for the 32nd pick in the second round. That created more salary cap space for the Heat, and enabled the Thunder to nab Eric Bledsoe at 18 (later dealt to the Clippers for a future first-round pick) and send their 21st and 26th picks to the Hornets in exchange for the No. 11 pick, Cole Aldrich.
And just like that, the Thunder had the big man everyone knew they needed, without having to spend money on the likes of Brendan Haywood this summer. Another member of the roster on a rookie-scale contract.
Presti holds on to cap space "like grim death," another general manager said. That GM predicted the Thunder would use the draft to "get a big at a low number so he doesn't need to pay a David Lee $10 million," and that's how it played out.
The Heat's Pat Riley couldn't be more different. He hates draft picks unless they can bring a surefire star. Riley has no use for anything outside the lottery and would have made the No. 2 overall pick that yielded Michael Beasley in 2008 disappear if he could have found a taker. Riley doesn't like dealing in the unknown, projecting how the increasingly younger pool of college players will fare in the pros. Especially when he's locked into paying for the development process by the rookie scale.
So he's been targeting this summer's freeagentpalooza, lately finding himself in a sort of anti-arms race with the Chicago Bulls to see who can shed more contracts before the bell rings July 1. One general manager predicts the Heat and Bulls will wind up with five of the seven top free agents (he broke it down as James, Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat, and Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson on the Bulls; the combinations could change depending on whom you ask).
Instead of hoping fortune smiles on you in the lottery, then hoping the top pick is as good as expected, you can just wait and make the safe purchase of an established superstar. Now we'll find out whether Riley the Recruiter can win out or whether Presti's prudent method will pay off. If you love the draft, if you want to see an equitable distribution of talent throughout the league, if you treasure the unpredictability, the optimism and the outfits (I didn't know whether to hand Wes Johnson a golf club or a sailor's cap), you'll root for the likes of the Thunder and the Milwaukee Bucks (who lately have been burned by their lavish contract on Michael Redd and rewarded with their choice of Brandon Jennings).
But something tells me you're more likely to see a parade in South Beach or a victory rally in Chicago's Grant Park first. Portland's Kevin Pritchard has done as good a job as anyone in the league when it comes to draft-day wheeling and dealing the past few years. Thursday night he lost his job.