Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group
Two years of waiting, speculation and mind games have come and gone with a purple checkerboard shirt, a few softball questions and beach plans. Now all we're left with is the debris and the TBD fallout for the rest of the league. Just three years removed from the Celtics forming their Mega-Team, we're looking at the next vicious model. Except this Batmobile has self-implosion capabilities as well as additional horsepower and night-vision steering.
Will this become the norm? Will quick-fix gigantic free agent deals make contenders out of big market teams for the next era of basketball? That's what this is -- the next era of basketball. There was the amorphous blob years after Jordan retired that slowly came to form something as LeBron developed, but that was more of an interlude between epochs. Starting with Danny Ainge assembling his Transformers team and now Pat Riley puppeteering his, basketball is venturing into strange territory.
Shattering conventional wisdom and traditional forms of building a franchise, Riley, Ainge, and every other GM who geared up for the 2010 summer have adopted the all-in philosophy. It's the immediacy of today's media, the impatience of today's average fan, and the money first, win later attitude of today's player all rolled up into one.
It doesn't matter that Chris Bosh asked his twitter followers which team he should sign with. It doesn't matter that LeBron practically masturbated on national television for three hours. It doesn't even matter that Kevin Durant announced his extension without a huge fuss. In the "your guys versus my guys" basketball, the draft has become the hipster's way of accumulating talent. Look at Oklahoma City and Portland. It used to be you build through the draft, as each of those teams have, acquire a piece or two on the market to bolster some need and grow as a team. Now, teams are getting the huge, proven pieces through free agency, and hoping they strike gold with minimum contract players late in the draft, from the D-League, or after a few years of stashing overseas.
While OKC and Portland appear to be on the up and up, they've yet to seriously challenge the Lakers, Celtics or even the Nuggets and Mavericks to some extent. Why? Because the rules are different now. There aren't many lifers left in the NBA, although that's been the case for 10-15 years at least. What's changed is the approach teams have to signing free agents. The failures of guys like Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Larry Hughes, and Jermaine O'Neal, who were brought in to be that "missing piece," for a multitude of franchises (mostly the 76ers) forced some General Managers to search for a way out. Ainge and Riley got there first, rewarded with multiple 4-6 year goody bags that could have a few rings in them, or it could just be a bunch of watermelon lollipops. We won't know for a few months (and even then....) if Riley's latest gamble pays off, but it creates an intriguing dynamic among different types of teams that typically lends itself to baseball.
It's the Yankee-like spending versus the Rays/Marlins prospect-based development, where the Thunder/Blazers represent the little guy. This is typically less visible in basketball because of the cap (pending new CBA), but because of the all-in philosophy being adopted in the higher circles, it seems like we're trending in that direction. It's terrific for the D-League since there will be more call-ups even after the record-breaking year in 2009-10, although what does it mean for today's talented role player making a little over the mid-level exception? Should he be forced to wallow on mediocre teams like Charlotte, Houston, and Detroit while less talented D-League players play for less money and a similar role?
Look at some of the loaded contracts given to mediocre players this year. Darko Milicic to Minnesota, Drew Gooden/John Salmons to Milwaukee, Amir Johnson to Toronto, Channing Frye/Hakim Warrick to Phoenix. What do they have in common? They're all mid-lower tier NBA players going to mid-lower tier teams that won't be winning a championship in the next five years. Because teams can no longer seriously contend in the upper tier without committing themselves to doling out max contracts. The sad truth of it is that for the most part, they're wasting their time.
The only team to win a championship without two legitimate stars in the past 20 years was Detroit in '04. As Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post overheard at the Orlando Summer League, teams can't win with one star anymore, they need three minimum. So while the best players will flock to the 4-5 best teams, the 25 others have to build through pedestrian draft picks and scavenge through the scraps of inferior talent, paying them too much money to do less than what the minimum-salary guys are doing elsewhere.
It's been hinted at for a few years, and with LeBron heading to South Beach to become the biggest, meanest head of Cerberus, the new era has unmistakeably arrived. Welcome to Yankee basketball.
h/t to Jon L for helping out.