Who Needs a Jerry Colangelo?
Maybe “The Decision” wasn’t as useless as we thought back in 2010. When Lebron James sat across from Jim Gray for an hour and took his talents out of Ohio, we ripped him for his arrogance and blatant disregard of common sense. I’ve heard the “It’s not what he did, it’s how he did it,” line too many times. I’ve said it myself, but I think it’s time to go back and analyze the implications of what Lebron did on national television. Forget about his personality or his Q Score, I’m more interested in what his decision means for the future of the NBA.
What if I told you that general managers in the NBA are quickly becoming obsolete? The most important part of “The Decision” was that it was a nationally televised decision. Simple as that, Lebron decided. All of the GMs in the league tried to woo him like Chinatown shopkeepers, and it was for naught, because during the entire process, he was communicating with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The players decided together to form a super-team: Run DLC, the Injustice League, whatever clever nickname you want to label their Big 3. Last year, Pat Riley shared NBA Executive of the Year honors with Gar Forman from the Chicago Bulls, but Riley didn’t do much. Wade called Bosh, Wade called Lebron. “Yo, Florida has no state income tax. The weather is perfect. The women are beautiful.” Wade probably deserved Executive of the Year more than Riley. And the city of Miami deserved the award more than Wade.
The real reason everyone got upset with the Big 3 is because they threatened basketball’s status quo. The players decided to solve free agency themselves, which is just good strategizing. Try to refrain from hurling moral judgments at them. What they did can certainly be interpreted as an easy way out, but they took control of the process. The NBA has a system: commissioner, owner, GM, coach, player. Four of those pieces are necessary for the puzzle, but if Lebron showed us anything with “The Decision,” it’s that GMs don’t have a shred of influence over the players anymore.
Let’s go back to Boston, 2007. Celtics GM Danny Ainge made some trades to bring in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, but only after they both expressed serious interest in joining up with Paul Pierce. The Boston Three Party formed a prototype model and they won a championship, but Miami’s Big 3 perfected the formula. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett were old when they merged. Wade, Bosh, and Lebron are all in their prime. When Miami won the championship, basketball’s tectonic plates shifted permanently. Even before, Chris Paul hinted at a New York Big 3 with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony when he gave a toast at Anthony’s wedding a few summers ago. Now, all the league’s stars see that Big 3’s succeed.
Of course, GMs will continue to be part of the NBA’s infrastructure, but nearly all of them will be competing for secondary prizes, such as the NBA Executive of the Year Award. The honor has been around since 1972, and only three GMs have won it in the same year that their franchises won NBA championships. Three times in forty years. The award doesn’t go to the guy with the best team; it goes to the guy who assembled a team that exceeded relative expectations. To give that statistic some context, Jerry Colangelo has won Executive of the Year four times even though he never had a team win the NBA Finals. GMs will still fulfill ancillary tasks like finding a few adequate bench players and hiring a decent coach who won’t sink the ship, but that likens GMs to airplane stewardesses: make sure all the passengers are comfortable while the pilots fly the plane.
The only way to compete with a Big 3 is to get a Big 3 of your own. Building through the draft will get tougher, because young projects can’t compete with three stars in a “Win Now” league. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti is the exception, and he is a great exception. Drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in a three-year span indicates that he has an incredible eye for spotting potential, but duplicating his results requires a team to consistently draft outstanding players while remaining bad enough to stay in the lottery. No one can count on that sort of balancing act.
The league’s other big stars know they have to band together to have any chance at a championship. Deron Williams and Dwight Howard will probably sign with the same team in the next year, but having a strong duo won’t lead to rings anymore, because those teams will be one weapon short. Having a strong trio may not even cut it if the players are at different stages in their careers. This year’s San Antonio Spurs team is a perfect example of how a Big 3 needs a capital B—Tim Duncan was too old to compete at the highest levels against Oklahoma City. GMs can’t fix this type of problem, especially if the best NBA players are doing the managerial work themselves.
What comes next will upset a lot of fans who want competitive balance in professional sports. The Big 3 Formula will increase the talent inequality in the NBA, leading to better rivalries for the best teams and irrelevance for everyone else. The NBA’s playoff system will start to resemble the NCAA Tournament, because middling teams will have to be content with first round upsets instead of championship aspirations. Norfolk State won’t win March Madness, and the Atlanta Hawks won’t come close to an NBA title without acquiring three legitimate stars. Or, to rephrase, the team won’t come close to an NBA title until three stars decide to acquire the Atlanta Hawks.
So, it’s time for the first offseason in the NBA’s next era. A few days ago, I saw a Pokemon meme that showed “LeChoke” evolving through a trade into “LeChamp,” which highlights a commonly flawed argument that Lebron (or Wade, or Bosh) didn’t win the championship the “right way.” But every great player has help. Jordan had Pippen and Rodman. Magic had Kareem and Worthy. Bird had McHale and Parish. Go back to Wilt’s teams, Russell’s Celtics, the Knicks in ’70 and ’73. The only difference is that Lebron, Wade, and Bosh didn’t wait to be put together by some old guy in a suit.
It looks as if the inmates can run the asylum just fine without the guards. Somewhere high up in a Fifth Avenue office building, David Stern is seething. But the wheels are turning, and there’s nothing he can do.
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