Star clusters still on horizon

There's one thing that won't change in the post-lockout NBA. In fact, the lockout only served to drive the point home: Players have the power, as long as they show a willingness to take less money.

The parting shot from the last collective bargaining agreement was the Carmelo Anthony saga, when the Denver Nuggets (and the entire NBA news cycle) were held hostage by Anthony's desire to force a trade to the New York Knicks. The new agreement hasn't even been ratified yet and already the next big story is Chris Paul's wish to leave New Orleans and join the Knicks as well. Dwight Howard might be on the move before that can happen. And there's no guarantee that Deron Williams, who took the same route out of Utah as Carmelo minus the fanfare, will stay with the Nets. As much as ever, it's a players' league.

"There's no doubt," an Eastern Conference team executive said. "It's even easier for player movement. Shorter contracts means they can be unrestricted [free agents] faster."

Yes, with the contracts limited to five years with a current team and four for newcomers, players will reach the final year faster, which means we'll be dealing with these scenarios even more frequently. And how did we reach this point?

Let's start with Carmelo. The only reason the Nuggets had to acquiesce to Melo was because they took him seriously when he indicated he would depart as a free agent and sign elsewhere for less money than the Nuggets were offering him. Otherwise they could have engaged in a high-stakes staredown, kept him on the roster past the trading deadline and dared him to turn down their $65 million contract extension offer and try his luck elsewhere in whatever the new form of free agency would look like after the lockout. No one knew for sure what the next CBA would be, but everyone knew it would result in smaller, shorter contracts for the players. Before it could reach that point, the Nuggets looked into Carmelo's eyes, and the Nuggets blinked first. They didn't see someone who wanted to be on their team long-term. They decided to get what they could in exchange for him while they still had his rights and they sent him along on his way (with that $65 million extension as a parting gift).

All this did was continue the pattern set by the Miami Heat's cooperative. What LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh put together wasn't a money grab; it was a power play. You'll notice that none of them will be among the 10 highest-paid players in the league this season. Even Pat Riley's extensive gutting of his roster to clear salary-cap space couldn't create a way to give all three players the maximum amount of money. They took a little bit less. While everyone else howled, the Heat trio wound up within two victories of a championship. The draft, the trade deadline, the salary cap, the luxury tax -- none of the mechanisms the league had in place to promote competitive balance could stand up to three stars' desire to play together. It was an empowering moment for the players, and an enlightening revelation to the owners.

"I think the league realizes: 'Did you see how much press LeBron James got?'" a team executive said. "It increased our revenue, it did not decrease."

Those attitudes continued through the lockout. The players were willing to yield on their percentage of basketball-related income, but held firm -- past multiple threats and deadlines from David Stern -- to keep their movement options open (the so-called "system issues"). Missing a couple of paychecks didn't change their mind or their resolve. The league relented on some movement restrictions. Even though the players lost the CBA war, they won that battle.

"They showed us how much that meant to them," someone on the ownership side said. "Good for them."

The only thing is, if the players want to adhere to principle and put their desires over their dollars, it will cost them more now. They can't sign a full midlevel contract with a team that's above the luxury tax line. They can't get true Larry Bird-rule raises if they sign with their current team for the purposes of a sign-and-trade deal. They can't do a Carmelo-style extend-and-trade for as many years.

"The fact you can't do the Carmelo thing, it kind of favors a player staying put," a Western Conference team executive said. "But in some situations, if Chris Paul gets where he wants to, it ends up being the same."

One thing that wouldn't be the same would be Paul's salary. The best-case scenario for him would be for the Hornets to trade him to the Knicks, where he could sign a one-year extension to his current contract. But there's no way a straight-up deal with the Knicks would be in the best interest of the Hornets, who would have little interest in the players the Knicks could make available.

The Hornets could get better players from the Clippers, who are "after Chris Paul so hard" according to one league source. The Clippers could offer, say, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman, who's on the last year of his contract. The Clippers traditionally haven't been anyone's dream destination, but they do play in L.A. and they do have Blake Griffin, ready to throw down any alley-oop Paul tossed his way. Would he walk away from them the way he's indicated he would walk away from the Celtics if he were traded to Boston?

It would mean opting out of the $17.8 million on the final year of his contract, for starters. If he wanted to sign with the Knicks as a free agent next summer the best they could be in position to offer him would be about $13 million in his first season, costing him about $5 million in Year 1 and up to $42 million over the life of his contract compared with what he could make by staying in New Orleans.

All Paul needs to do is make the Hornets or any potential trade partner besides the Knicks think he would do it to get where he wants to go. If another team wants to trade for him and gamble, that's on it. It's not up to the Hornets to accommodate Paul's desire to play in New York; they're obligated only to assemble the best roster they can for themselves.

The owners clearly had the leverage during the lockout. They had more money, they had the ability and the desire to shut down the league until they got a deal that met their terms. As soon as the proposed deal goes into effect, the leverage reverts to the players. It will be so for the next two years, at least, until the luxury tax becomes more punitive.

"It'll work out as the tax escalates after a year or two," an Eastern Conference executive said. "There might be some isolated incidents, but I think this will dissipate. I think it will get harder."

For now we're reminded that things are as they once were. Owners own the teams, players run the league.