Trade Deadline Deals Show How LeBron's "Decision" is Reshaping the NBALeBron James' infamous "Decision" is reshaping the NBA and may ultimately result in a lockout that could cancel at least part of the 2011-2012 season. This is not about whether James was (1) right that his best option was to leave Cleveland for Miami and/or (2) whether James handled the free agency process appropriately; I already addressed both of those issues soon after James commandeered an hour of ESPN's schedule to, among other things, shred whatever remained of Jim Gray's journalistic integrity. No, this is about all the dominoes that have inevitably crashed down since last summer when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwyane Wade to form a trio that looks so powerful on paper that the normally analytical Jeff Van Gundy temporarily lost his mind and predicted a 75-7 season for the Heat (who are currently 43-16 and on pace to finish with the 60 victories that I predicted they would collect). Technically, Amare Stoudemire's decision to leave Phoenix to go to New York preceded James' "Decision" by a few days but there are many reasons that James' action has become a capitalized buzzword (not the least of those reasons being that the Heat are legitimate title contenders while the Knicks, despite all of the media buzz, are barely above .500 at the moment); Stoudemire's choice was less shocking to the NBA's system because Phoenix was not willing to give Stoudemire a max deal--fearing that his knees may not be a good long term investment--so it was not a big surprise when Stoudemire went for the cash (though Knicks' fans who expected to receive LeBron James as their Christmas in July present may have been surprised to find Stoudemire in their stockings).
The current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set up to encourage each superstar to re-sign with the team that drafted him; that team can offer such players both the most money and the longest term deal. Until last summer, no elite free agent had spurned that extra cash and extra security to go elsewhere. On paper, the system seemed ideal: players had the right to seek greener pastures, which thereby provided owners a significant incentive to build a solid enough organization/roster so that their star players would not want to leave. In the "bad old days" before free agency, teams essentially owned players for life after drafting them but the current CBA balanced players' rights with owners' (and fans') desires to not lose cornerstone players.
Throughout his tenure in Cleveland, James enjoyed being coy about his intentions, never indicating whether he planned to stay or go (and ultimately alienating fans in cities across the country who became convinced that James was just flirting with those other towns but really planned to commit to them). While it could be argued that this provided great incentive to ownership/management to spend money to build a strong team it could also be argued that this discouraged other free agents from signing with the Cavs in prior seasons and that it led to a short term plan centered on acquiring veteran players as opposed to a long term plan that would have created a better roster eventually but may not have led to an immediate championship; the way things turned out, the Cavs made it to the 2007 NBA Finals, rebooted their team and made it to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals (after posting the league's best regular season record) and then rebooted their team again before posting the league's best regular season record in 2010 only to fall short in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Cavs basically catered to every great and small whim that James ever expressed and then they offered him the max deal for max years, never dreaming of or planning for the possibility that he might actually bolt town. Some might argue that James, Wade and Bosh unselfishly left money on the table in order to try to build a championship team in Miami but the reality is that they gave up little if any real dollars when one factors in the taxes they saved (Florida does not have a state income tax) and the extra endorsements that they likely will receive from playing in the Miami market--and that is the brilliance of what Pat Riley pulled off: he figured out how to bring three max players into the fold for less than max dollars in a way that those players still essentially received max dollars. Also, this may sound flippant but the reality is that if the number one goal for any of these free agents was truly to win a championship then they would have accepted the midlevel exception (or some similar deal) to join forces with Kobe Bryant in L.A.; winning a championship may be a goal for some or all of these guys but getting paid is the first goal and being "the Man" is a secondary goal (at least for James and Stoudemire; Bosh seems to understand and accept that he is not, in fact, "the Man").
Forget how the media hyperventilated about all of this, with Cleveland media members shamelessly ripping James after seven years of (wrongly) elevating him far above Kobe Bryant (James only passed Bryant, as a regular season performer, quite recently and never by the margin that his sycophants suggested), while national media members breathlessly declared that the Heat would instantly become one of the greatest teams ever and "stat gurus" asserted that the Heat would actually win 90 out of 82 games due to the combined "advanced statistical" prowess of James, Wade and Bosh; disregard all of the hype and all of the nonsense: James' "Decision" was an Earth shattering event for the powers that be in the NBA and a massive paradigm shift whose implications are only now being fully appreciated. Owners looked at what James did and became terrified that their own star players might leave; star players looked at what James did and began plotting how to arrive at their dream destinations. The perfect storm that produced the Cavs' epic collapse this season (a subject worthy of full length treatment in a separate article) added fuel to the fire; no owner wanted to end up like Dan Gilbert--jilted and howling at the moon with his franchise's value plummeting with each double digit loss--and no star player wanted to replace James as Public Enemy Number One.
The dominoes began to fall. While many people point to the "Melo-drama" saga as perhaps the first reaction to the implications of James' "Decision," it would be more accurate to say that Orlando's desperate midseason trades were that first domino: the Magic dealt two starters (former All-Stars Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis), arguably the best backup center in the league (Marcin Gortat) and their best perimeter defender (Mickael Pietrus) because they were already concerned that if they did not make a serious NBA Finals push this season then Dwight Howard may walk when his contract expires. Much like James' refusal to commit to Cleveland influenced the Cavs to seek short term roster solutions instead of developing their roster with a long range view, the Magic went for broke because they lacked confidence in the team's ability to win a title right now. I understand the bind that the Magic are in and I don't blame General Manager Otis Smith for rolling the dice but I also predicted that those deals were more likely to remove Orlando from championship contention than they were to vault Orlando past Miami and Boston--and that is exactly what has happened: the Magic are 21-13 since remaking their roster (just 8-7 in the past month) and they look like they are competing not for an NBA Finals berth but rather to avoid first round elimination. Hedo Turkoglu seems to be past his prime and/or satisfied with his big contract, Gilbert Arenas was always overrated and is now a shell of his former self and even Jason Richardson--the best player the Magic acquired--has hardly set the world on fire. The Magic have the second highest payroll in the league (behind only the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers) but, even more ominously, Arenas is not only their highest paid player this season but is slated to be their highest paid player through the 2013-14 season. How thrilled do you think Howard is about that? The problem is not just that Arenas makes more than Howard: the problem is that Arenas is a non-productive player who is taking up salary cap space that could have potentially been used much more effectively. Arenas' advocates--and he inexplicably has many of them, ranging from fawning media members to "stat guru" fanboys like Neil Paine--will no doubt argue that Arenas was a great player before suffering knee injuries but (1) that is irrelevant to the Magic, who cannot put Arenas in a "hot tub time machine" to fix his knees and (2) Arenas was never as productive as his fans/"stat guru" admirers insisted, a point that I established definitively when I refuted Paine's tendentious assertion that Arenas was once an elite player; the truth is that even when Arenas was in his prime he had no discernible impact in the standings: the Wizards were roughly a .500 team when he played and they were roughly a .500 team when he didn't play.
The Magic saw what happened with LeBron James and Cleveland and were so terrified that they decided that making Arenas their highest paid player is a risk worth taking if it even slightly increases the probability that Howard might stay in Orlando. How crazy is that? Arenas is averaging 7.8 ppg with the Magic, while denting rims across the country with his .234 three point shooting, .698 free throw shooting and his .336 overall field goal percentage. Remember, the Magic owe Arenas more than $60 million through 2014, there is no way that they will be able to trade him and the only way that Arenas fails to receive that money from Orlando is if there is a lockout or if he actually fires his guns in the locker room (just bringing them into the locker room in Washington apparently was not enough to get his contract voided). No, the Magic will not be winning a championship any time soon but someone should turn Coach Stan Van Gundy's "Wired" segments into a reality TV show; that show, along with the inevitable "stat guru" articles trying to explain that Arenas really was an elite player once despite all rational evidence to the contrary, will provide some great unintentional comic relief.
On to the next "Decision" domino. The main storylines this season should have been the Lakers trying to threepeat (and trying to accomplish the even rarer feat of reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time, something that has only been achieved by the Showtime Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics and Bill Russell's dynastic Celtics), the Spurs potentially making a run at 70 wins, the reloaded Celtics attempting to reach the Finals for the third time in four years and Miami's newly assembled trio battling to compete with the three aforementioned established powers--but instead we have been saturated with "Melo-drama."
Denver offered Carmelo Anthony a contract extension but Anthony refused to sign, made it known privately (more or less) that he would like to play for the New York Knicks and thus issued an ultimatum to Nuggets' management (but retained plausible deniability because he never uttered his ultimatum publicly): trade me now or lose me for nothing later (like Cleveland lost James). Anthony saw that James' approach--being coy and not making his intentions clear to his team or his fans--may have been good for ESPN's ratings but it was terrible for James' image, so Anthony tried to make a smoother version of James' power play, though Anthony did utter his share of tone deaf statements (capped off when Anthony said "I have to take my hat off to myself" because he was so proud of how he handled the challenge of deciding where he is going to live for the next few years while making tens of millions of dollars playing basketball).
Anthony essentially held at least three franchises (Denver, New York, New Jersey) hostage for months and took away attention from what really matters--great players playing basketball at a high level. Technically, Anthony did not do anything wrong and yet it mystifies me that anyone can believe that this is a sustainable business model for the NBA. The Nuggets finally ended the "Melo-drama" by shipping Anthony (plus Chauncey Billups and other considerations) to New York in exchange for several quality players plus some draft picks; in a heartfelt press conference, Denver General Manager Masai Ujiri explained how wrenching it was to trade hometown hero Billups and candidly said that the Nuggets were "killed" in the deal, a historically accurate sentiment based on the majority of previous trades consisting of stars being exchanged for solid players. The ironic thing is that I am far from convinced that the Knicks have suddenly become a legitimate contender nor am I sure that the Nuggets really got "killed" (though Ujiri was right to lament the way things went down and was also probably firing a shot across the bow in anticipation of the upcoming CBA showdown this summer); not only do I not see the Knicks winning the East any time soon I suspect that they will lose in the first round of the playoffs (unless they luck out and run into the Magic, perhaps), while the Nuggets--relieved of the huge dark cloud hanging over their heads--will probably move up in the West standings, though they too are likely first round fodder (which is no different than their fate during most of Anthony's Denver career).
The next domino seemingly took everyone by surprise but actually makes a lot of sense in light of everything that preceded it: as soon as the Nets lost out on Anthony they made a deal to acquire Deron Williams, who--as Kevin McHale astutely noted--is actually a better all-around player than Anthony. Williams had some undefined role in Utah Coach Jerry Sloan's sudden midseason retirement and Williams sent strong signals that he--like James, Anthony and possibly Howard--intended to head elsewhere when his current contract ends. The Jazz, mindful of what happened to Cleveland (collapse), Orlando (panicky deals that seemingly are backfiring like an exploding cigar) and Denver (enervating drama) tried to avoid the dreaded horsemen of Collapse, Panic and Drama by shipping Williams out in exchange for an All-Star point guard (Devin Harris), a promising young player (Derrick Favors) and three first round picks. Historically speaking, the Jazz got "killed" (to borrow Ujiri's terminology) because they lost one of the top 10-15 players in the league but in today's crazy NBA world they made out pretty well: they obtained two players who can help them now plus three draft picks that will hopefully either provide an infusion of youthful talent or else be useful in future trades. By acting so quickly the Jazz also prevented Williams from hijacking the season and circumvented any attempts he might have made to choose his destination a la Carmelo Anthony.
The next domino was smaller but perhaps even more surprising: the Boston Celtics, believing that they will not be able to re-sign Kendrick Perkins when his contract expired after this season, traded the starting center from their 2008 championship team (plus reserve guard Nate Robinson) to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. The Celtics added versatility and shooting but they lost a key part of the physical presence that defined their team's identity; Perkins and Kevin Garnett set hard (semi-legal) screens, grabbed tough rebounds in traffic and patrolled the paint defensively, making life easier for perimeter All-Stars Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Without Perkins' bulk and toughness, Garnett will not be as daunting a presence (Garnett has shown that he likes to pick on smaller, younger players, while Perkins has shown that he will get in anyone's grill). Perkins is not a superstar--or even an All-Star--but the first thing I thought of when I heard about this trade is the infamous (for Boston fans) Paul Silas fiasco. Red Auerbach did not make many bad moves during his long, distinguished career as a coach and executive but he often said that his biggest mistake was trading Silas to Denver in 1976 instead of meeting Silas' contract demands; Auerbach admitted that he failed to realize Silas' true value. Silas eventually landed in Seattle, where he provided toughness in the paint, mentored a young Jack Sikma and helped the Sonics reach the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979 (Seattle won the 1979 title). Meanwhile, the Celtics, who won two championships in Silas' four years with the team, became a doormat until the arrival of Bird (and later McHale and Parish) revived the franchise. The Perkins-Silas comparison is not perfect--no comparison is--but the similarities are eerie: both players were traded because of financial (not performance) issues, both players had played key (but intangible) roles for championship teams and both players went from a veteran Boston team to the same young, aspiring Western Conference franchise (the Oklahoma City Thunder used to be the Seattle SuperSonics). The main difference is that Silas was a wily veteran near the end of his career while Perkins is a young veteran just entering his prime but it will be interesting to see what impact this trade has on both franchises in the next five years. Perkins could turn out to be the final piece in the Thunder's championship puzzle (not necessarily this season but soon) and he could also turn out to be Danny Ainge's biggest regret. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson delivered the best zinger, wryly noting, "Doc (Rivers) had touted the fact that the (Boston) starting five had never lost a playoff series. I'm sure most everybody has heard it in the NBA, that this starting five has never lost a playoff series. Well, they go down without ever having lost a playoff series." Ainge, seeking to avoid the aforementioned deadly horsemen of Collapse, Panic and Drama, perhaps believes that Green's versatility and Krstic's shooting will make up for Perkins' size/toughness but it is very bold to tinker with the starting lineup of a one-time champion/two-time Finalist that is contending for the best record in the East. Perhaps Ainge has more moves up his sleeve but it sure looks like the Celtics should have let things ride with Perkins, tried to win the 2011 title and then dealt with Perkins' contract at a later date; if I were Ainge, I'd rather win a championship even if it meant losing Perkins for nothing later then trade Perkins now just for the sake of getting a leg up on the inevitable rebuilding project after Allen, Garnett and Pierce retire.
The footnote to the Boston situation is that a major reason that the Celtics felt comfortable trading Perkins is that they believe that Shaquille O'Neal can take his place as a 20-25 mpg physical force in this year's postseason; this is the same O'Neal whose departure from Cleveland is never mentioned when people talk about the Cavs' collapse sans James. I will discuss this in greater detail in a separate article but the fact that arguably the best team in the East has installed O'Neal as their starting center (and the other top team in the East, Miami, has used Zydrunas Ilgauskas--Cleveland's backup center last season--as their starting center in most of their games) is a not so subtle indication that it is foolish to pretend that Cleveland only lost one important player this season. Another fun fact worth pondering is that this season the Miami "Superfriends" are likely going to combine to produce fewer wins than James and the Cavs totaled in either of the previous two seasons; I still say that it would not surprise me at all if James never wins more regular season games in his best season with Miami than he did as a Cavalier and I just cannot fathom the supposed logic that suggests "James plus trash equals 66 and 61 wins but James plus two top 15 players equals 60 wins or less"--if James really won all those games by himself in Cleveland then he should indeed be able to win 90 games out of 82 in Miami as the "stat gurus" predicted; since James and the Heat are not quite as good as so many people expected it would be reasonable to at least consider the possibility that defensive-minded coaching and a solid, deep supporting cast may have had something to do with Cleveland's record the past two seasons. Yes, I am fully aware that James and the Heat will be judged not by regular season wins but by playoff success (or failure); I have made that exact point many times--and I am also not convinced that the Heat are a lock to have more playoff success in the next four seasons than the Cavs did in the previous four (two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and one trip to the NBA Finals).
Time will tell the significance of the Perkins deal and time will enable us to make sensible evaluations of James' supporting casts in Cleveland and Miami--but the Orlando, Denver, Utah and (to a lesser extent) Boston dominoes will shape the NBA for years to come on the court and also will likely culminate in the final domino this summer: a lockout that continues until the owners and players agree to fundamentally restructure the league's failing business model.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:56 AM