Young stars joining forces? Superteams created from superheroes?
One reason we asked the artists at Marvel to illustrate our NBA preview was that LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh spent the summer turning the Heat into their own version of the Avengers. In doing so, they changed the story that takes place every off-season. It wasn't just about franchises getting better; it was about players wresting control of the game. We're talking about the real game -- trades, contracts, franchise building -- in which they have historically taken it on the chin.
That's why King James' power move -- frowned upon by vocal fans and Hall of Famers alike -- was actually cheered silently by many NBA insiders. They viewed it as a long-overdue lesson in comeuppance for the owners. "MJ, Magic, Bird, all these guys, they're just jealous because these young boys stood up for themselves," says one former player, now an assistant coach in the league. Adds former LeBron teammate Ben Wallace, who's now with the Pistons: "It's a business -- that's what the owners always tell us. So this was just one of those things that come along with the business."
No arguing that. The real question now is: What happens next?
The lesson of the off-season wasn't solely about LeBron, his ego or his character. It was about the road map he created. Along with Wade and Bosh, James showed players how to dictate terms to owners in a way that is as unsettling as the government's repealing tax cuts. After "The Decision," it didn't take long for New Orleans' Chris Paul and Denver's Carmelo Anthony to share publicly dreams of playing with other A-listers. Milwaukee's flashy young point guard, Brandon Jennings, has hinted at the notion of one day teaming with other rising stars like Golden State's Stephen Curry or Sacramento's Tyreke Evans. "LeBron definitely planted a seed," says ex-player and former Suns GM Steve Kerr, now an analyst for TNT.
That could be great news for fans. The league was at its competitive best during the 1980s, its golden era. That's when it was dominated by Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers, which combined to win eight titles that decade. Those two Hall of Fame-laden teams are what the next iteration of dynasties -- Isiah's Pistons, Michael's Bulls -- strove to become. LeBron is a student of NBA history and, along with his new running buddies, recognized in all four of those teams that winning was a group effort. Being a dominant superstar doesn't equal hardware -- in 21 combined seasons, the Heat trio has one ring, earned by Wade in 2006. But being a dominant team does.
In the '80s and early '90s those legacies were cemented by young players staying together for many seasons. That doesn't happen in the free agency era, but players are still hungry to build bonds. "Michael said he never envisioned playing with Bird and Magic," says Henry Thomas, agent for Wade and Bosh. "But those three never got the opportunity to practice together, play together and bond with one another -- on and off the court -- the way LeBron, Dwyane and Chris did several summers playing in the world championships. It's like high school kids who play together in summer camps and AAU deciding they want to attend the same college. It could happen again."
Maybe. But building an NBA full of superteams isn't as easy as the supertrio made it look. First, Miami's ability to clear enough cap room to sign three max stars was rarer than a 360° windmill jam in traffic. Second, few players have the foresight that LeBron, Wade and Bosh did in 2006, when they signed shorter deals to position themselves as free agents at the same time. That also took guts. The bet those three made looks smart now, but what if one of them had suffered a career-altering injury? Chances are, if a team offers the security of a long-term, max-dollar extension, most players will sign.
But beyond all that, the biggest obstacle is likely to be the new collective bargaining agreement, which is expected to change the league's financial landscape after this season. There's talk of owners, in an effort to keep superstars from bailing, throwing franchise tags on top players or increasing the gaps between what a player's current team and all other clubs can offer him in years and money. Says one team exec: "You'd better believe the owners of the Hornets and the Nuggets will stand up in the owners' meetings, and say, 'In order for my franchise to stay viable, I've got to be able to keep Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.' And there will be more teams siding with them than with Miami or some place like New York."
Not surprisingly, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban doesn't share the same fears as many of his peers. He doesn't mind seeing opposing players dabble in front office work the way the Heat's ballyhooed threesome did. He thinks those with the audacity to build their own rosters are in for a surprise. "I like the idea of a player as GM," he says. "I like it simply because it's not an easy job and I don't think many players are going to be very good at it. Player/GMs are always very, very smart in the summer. But those great summers can turn sour very quickly when you actually have to start playing games. It will be very interesting to see the levels of responsibility that future player/GMs take when things don't go as planned."
That's why the key to LeBron's grand experiment isn't how well he played the game this off-season; it's how well the Heat actually play during the regular season. "It's a real challenge to win in this league," says NBA commissioner David Stern, who has no problem with players colluding to win a title. "And Miami has a whole season to prove whether this coming together was a good thing -- or a great thing."