The champagne had not been cleaned from the San Antonio Spurs’ locker room floors before every NBA fan and most team’s executives started to speculate. Where would LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony be playing basketball next season? Would they pair up together and change the trajectory of an entire league? Would they find a team with a budding young star and join them?
The free agency trend that has been prevalent among teams since back in the summer of 2010 when LeBron James uttered his now iconic phrase telling the world of his decision. LeBron spurned his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and joined the Miami Heat in a team up of stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh that rivals Marvel’s “Avengers.” LeBron joined his Super Friends down on South Beach and proceeded to claim they had just created a dynasty.
Oh come on! We all remember LeBron’s overenthusiastic proclamation at the pep rally following the Big Three’s assembling. Though they did capture two NBA titles and make four straight Finals appearances, the Heat fell short of being a dynasty in my book. They did cement LeBron’s legacy by getting him two rings and locking him into being considered a top 10 player all-time.
But eventually in the fourth season of the Big Three era, James had seemingly become the One Man Army similar to the situation that had him bolting away from Cleveland four years prior. James opted out of his deal possibly bringing an end to the Heat’s Big Three era. What wasn’t known at the time of the big three’s conception is that it was about to change the way teams went about planning their offseasons and started an arms race among NBA franchises.
Along with the arms race came the new notion of the buddy system in the NBA—players collaborating and trying to collect their friends or guys they want to play with in an attempt to join forces to make a run at a title. No other team has been even as successful as the Heat were. No other team has even come close. In fact, the teams that have won titles during the Heat’s era are teams built largely through draft picks and trade positioning.
The 2010 Dallas Mavericks, for example, drafted the one star they had on their roster during their championship season. Dirk Nowitzki has played his entire career in Dallas and owner Mark Cuban has worked to put a team around him.
Emphasis on team.
This past season’s champion San Antonio Spurs drafted its three stars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli and added pieces around them.
So building super-teams isn’t the only way to win championships. So why has it become so prevalent for teams to try to assemble one? Let’s be honest. The Miami Heat were driven by LeBron James to their success though he had a very above average supporting cast. But there’s only one LeBron James, and outside of Kevin Durant, no player in the NBA will single handedly change a whole league’s expected landscape in one move.
So why have teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Houston Rockets grappled with stars to join their teams for the last three summers in what always comes up to ultimately ended up being highly publicized unsuccessful chemistry projects that only yield mixed results and do not ascend those teams to the elites. It only puts them in a group with the up and coming built teams that are cheaper and younger. Examples that fall into that category are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers. So it’s not who a team signs, or who’s friends with who, but how a team is built to fit a common goal every player has a role and fill that role on a consistent basis.
So, why then every summer is free agency held hostage by one or two super stars trying to team up with a buddy? I blame the age of social media and technology that allows these players to connect with each other.
Back in the 90’s at the peak of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, I have a hard time imagining Michael Jordan tweeting about Patrick Ewing having a big game. Or Michael Jordan smiling and hugging Isaiah Thomas after beating them in the Eastern Conference Finals. As it is we sit as fans and the role players that will truly make an impact on creating the winning formula. We collectively wait as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh make their decisions and are wined and dined by teams and pitched on the futures of prospective franchises as if they are about to make a purchase.
This must happen before the Luol Dengs and Trevor Arizas of the world can find their new homes as every team in the NBA is considering breaking their team apart completely to stack a team of stars together a formula that has mixed results to begin with. But teams are not about to remove themselves from contention of hosting the new big three by signing complimentary players. Ignoring the fact that the formula of stacking stars is only creating a giant gap between the haves and have-nots of the NBA as a result.
The smaller market teams struggle to strike gold in the toss up that is the NBA Draft only to watch that gold run to join another team. The quality of the game is suffering as all the good players play on a handful of teams and the good role players follow and familiarity with teammates is a thing of the past. Leaving the bottom tier with the left overs. Yet the NBA is as popular as ever. I leave with the question are spoiled stars ruining the NBA or is the NBA spoiling the stars and ruining itself?