Every so often, sports offer us a moment so radical that it irreversibly alters the status quo. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we realize these moments as they are happening. Last summer’s “The Decision” was one such moment. Up to that point, all off the conventional wisdom seemed to point towards the self-proclaimed “Chosen One,” reprising his role as the Savior of Cleveland. He even has a “Loyalty” tattoo. LeBron was widely heralded as the best player in the game and generally highly regarded by the average NBA fan. He and his entourage had almost complete run of the Cavs. From player personnel to coaching hires and fires, the Cavs seemed to be LeBron-R-us. He could do no wrong in that city.
Now Cleveland is more known as the second-city of MFFLs than they are anything LeBron related. Allow us to take you to last summer. DeLorean time… (P.S. We’ll develop a Mavs themed DeLorean someday.)
When word leaked early in the free agency process that all of the summer’s top prizes would be going to the Heat (apologies to Amare and Joe Johnson), we didn’t give it much credence. No way someone who was so clearly “the Man” would go to SOMEONE ELSE’S team to chase a ring. No way he would leave that comfort zone. Then, once word came out that LeBron would hold a 1-hour ESPN special announcing where he would play, we didn’t think there was any chance that he’d be leaving Cleveland. No way a guy could be THAT egomaniacal. Nobody with as many agents and handlers as LeBron has could possibly be so coldly myopic on national television (a sentiment Cuban himself put forward on his blog).
When LeBron announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach and joining the Miami Heat, we were shocked. Like Santa’s-not-real-and-he-also-has-a-drinking-problem shocked. It felt wrong. It felt contrived. It felt like cheating. No matter how much money was raised for the Boys and Girls Club, the spectacle of the Decision still stank. It felt like the charitable tilt of the night was just misdirection from the shameless self-promotion of the whole hour. Crap wrapped in bacon (and bacon is awesome).
Beyond the television spectacle, it still stank. It felt like LeBron was trying to circumnavigate competition. In the post-Jordan era, we demand from our basketball super-stars a supreme competitive drive. It’s obviously not a fair expectation we automatically throw on these players (see the general criticism of Dirk until the 2011 playoffs), but it’s a precedent that has been set by MJ. The great ones want to crush their contemporaries, not go party with them on the beach and rack up easy championships. Kobe has such a drive. The UberMan has it. We thought LeBron had it. We were wrong.
Oh well. This isn’t meant to be a critique of the colossal PR disaster that was The Decision. Enough has been written about that event that we can’t possibly hope to add anything new.
This is about how The Decision, one year later, has changed the current landscape of the NBA and how its fallout has impacted players, GM’s and the current Lockout negotiations.
Item 1: The Super-Friends Model
The NBA, like most other major sports leagues, has a formula for what it takes to win a championship. This is not a static thing. It changes, and not always linearly. At the very least, you build a team around one superstar, augmenting the roster with role players paid with money leftover from paying said superstar. One school of thought holds that you need at least 2 stars to win the championship. The Bulls (Jordan/Pippen) and Lakers (Shaq/Kobe) exemplified this model. Alternatively, you can ride a dominant big man to the ring (Hakeem, Kareem, Duncan, Shaq). Like every standard, there are exceptions. The Pistons championship of 2004 comes to mind (and perhaps history will remember the Mavs of 2011 as one of these exceptions despite the presence of a top-20 all time player– though we’re rooting for a threepeat).
Nonetheless, after the three amiEGOs signed with Miami in the offseason, everyone rushed to declare them the next championship prototype. People debated how many games they’d win next the year (Trollinger and the 70 win prediction anyone?). Other of the leagues star players looked on in envy. Plans were hatched to form other super teams. Some players even started talking openly about how they would form their own Super Team (Chris Paul at Melo’s wedding) and challenge Miami’s Big Three.
Side note: From the Decision, we think we’ve learned that the whole ‘collusion’ bylaw in the NBA rulebook really only applies to Mark Cuban and a couple of other owners who talk too loudly in the press.
However, it seems like this SuperFriends model is really taking root. LeBron’s influence in the league is already enormous. He recruits stars to his agency (CAA) and these recruits are eager to copy the LeBron Model. Melo forced his way out of Denver to the team he wanted all along (also a CAA client). If Chris Paul’s wedding toast turns out to be more than just the champagne-talking, we think you’ll see the LeBron Model really take hold. By the way, Chris Paul is also a CAA client. As we’ve now seen, the players hold more than 57% of the influence in this league. Should-be rivals are buddies and want to play on each other’s teams, not beat them. GM’s and owners are scared of losing their star players for nothing. Even the threat of getting Decisioned is enough to make front offices act. Which brings me to my next point…
Item 2: The Impact on NBA front offices
Seeing what happened to Toronto and Cleveland, the Jazz and Nuggets decided to spare themselves the potential pain and preemptively trade their stars before their contracts could expire. Getting some manageable assets in return is better than two first round picks and nice view of a franchise player’s backside as he walks out the door. To illustrate: Masai Ujiri, once derided as being the guy Melo had over a barrel, now looks pretty smart for getting excellent value for his Decision-ready superstar.
This brings up another point, and one of Fish’s favorite themes: Asset Management. The Celtics built their championship team by having enough tradable assets to acquire compatible stars to pair with Paul Pierce. The Mavericks managed their assets astutely enough to (finally?) find the right collection of talent to surround Dirk to put the team over the top. (and how sweet it was).
When a franchise cornerstone walks out the door for nothing, a team loses its most valuable bargaining chip. From ‘asset-management’ view of NBA GMing, this could set the franchise back years. Its not just losing Sammy Superstar that hurts so badly, but losing what Sammy Superstar represents in equivalent assets. In a trade, that superstar could bring a handful of lesser, but still productive players. Players that could be used to keep the team in contention or traded for other desired pieces. This was why D-Lord’s DUST Chip had such potential value.
Lebron and Bosh represent the havoc that losing that kind of asset can wreck on a team. Denver and Utah decided to act before that happened to them and, in so doing, ensured that they would have at least some assets to keep their team from the doldrums. You can be sure this fear of losing a face of a franchise for nothing and being left with no useable assets weighs heavily on the minds of NBA owners and GMs.
Indeed, the Decision might have changed their job description. It behooves a GM to know who runs in what circles and which stars are perhaps a little too chummy with their counterparts. If you’re an NBA GM and your star is BFF’s with a star on another team with cap room, there has to be a part of you that’s at least a little nervous he might bolt. The Knicks model of slash-and-burn cap-clearing might not have netted them LeBron, but they do have a nice little Super Team starter-kit, especially if Chris Paul joins them soon. This situation has to produce some anxiety for NBA front offices and will almost certainly be a component in the lockout negotiations.
Speaking of which…
Item 3: The Impact on the Lockout and The Future of the League
Since we’re not lawyers, NBA players or owners, we’re not privy to the inner workings these lockout negotiations. However, these seem to be the central pillars of the negotiations: division of skillions of dollars of league income, the feasibility of a salary cap and revenue sharing and the rights of players to free agency while retaining some sort of protection for teams that own the rights to those players. It is the latter point where the think the Decision plays its biggest role.
Lets go on a hypothetical journey. Suppose that Chris Paul leaves the Hornets for the Knicks, that Kevin Love leaves Minnesota for say, the Thunder, and Dwight Howard follows Shaq’s footsteps and jets out of Orlando for the Lakers. Never mind how these deals get done, just assume they do. You’d have a handful of Mega Teams and a whole lot of teams at the bottom looking up with no chance. Would such a situation be good for the league? We’d argue not only no, but HELL NO. Sure it’d be fun to be a fan of one of the teams with multiple stars and watch them battle it out, but the competitive balance would be heavily tilted in favor of the Super Teams. The NBA was already the most top-heavy league amongst major professional sports. The Decision created a model that, if followed, will only cement and perhaps exacerbate that reputation. What the league needs is MORE competition, not less. You think it’s hard for small market teams to turn a profit now? Imagine what it will be like when they really have no shot if their stars bolt to make super teams in destination franchises. A two-tiered league is like a two-tiered society. It’s untenable in the long term and eventually the have-nots will revolt, which they already have in a sense. See: hard cap supporters in current CBA negotiations.
Hope-Seeking Sidenote: The NBA is a copycat league, as Paul and Anthony have thoroughly proved by trying to follow in the Heat’s super-team footsteps. That being said, there is no doubt that the NBA stars who may have been thinking about colluding with their buddies saw the love and respect absolutely heaved upon Dirk for beating D-Wade and friends with his team in his way. The kind of admiration he’s received nationally for his accomplishments would not have come anywhere near the Heat’s Big Three had they won the championship. Sure, they would have played well in order to win, but they would have had to lean on each other. Dirk was the guy, and that’s a story that fans respect and remember. It placed Dirk into a special light that LeBron and Chris Bosh are no longer capable of reaching because of their decision. Obviously there is no way of knowing and these current NBA stars could be completely unfazed by the heroics of Nowitzki, but you hope that they took note and realized the merit in building your own legend. There is the sentiment around the league that Dirk saved the NBA for a year by beating that super team, but perhaps he saved more than that by showing its young stars what can be honorably accomplished with loyalty and by diligently working to perfect your craft. But back to our point…
You can bet NBA owners already know this and will be actively arguing it with the players union. That is assuming the already-have and have-not owners can get their own house in order and agree on a revenue sharing model to even propose to the players.
July 8th marks the one year anniversary of the “Decision,” and most of brouhaha surrounding that disaster has subsided. Even in Cleveland, people are moving on (thanks, in part to the valiant work of your World Champion Dallas Mavericks). That’s not to say, however, that the impact of LeBron’s Decision isn’t still being felt. Like a shotput falling into a millpond, the ripples of the decision is still being felt and could be a significant event in shaping the future of the league…
…Unless the Dirk-model saves the day again.
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