For years, All-Star weekend has been mostly about what happens off the court, with the parade of parties, marketing gimmicks, and of course, the time-honored tradition of predicting which unhappy All-Star is going to be traded first.
A year ago, it was Amar'e Stoudemire. Go back into the archives, and it was Jason Kidd. This year's guest on the NBA's annual version of "Most Eligible Superstar" is, of course, Carmelo Anthony. Next up in Orlando in February 2012 will be Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and hometown hero Dwight Howard.
|No one expected Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh to leave money on the table to put a trifecta of All-Stars in Miami. (Getty Images)|
This is the way it'll always be, right? All-Star weekend upstaged by trade rumors, power plays, and the incubation of the next superteam? Not at all. If owners get their hard salary cap with no exceptions, with rollbacks of existing contracts to match, could this be the last time we see one team -- the Celtics -- with four All-Stars? Could it be the first and the last time Miami's Big Three stand on the court together as All-Star teammates? With enhanced revenue sharing, might it become impossible for the entire Eastern Conference All-Star roster to come from only six teams?
And if so, does anybody really want that, anyway?
Like it or not, this could be the last All-Star weekend for the NBA as we've known it.
"You would hope not," LeBron James said. "We all love this game of basketball. The fans love this game of basketball, and that's why we continue to see the ratings continue to climb and people coming out to watch the game of basketball at a high level."
But the next time the league gathers for its signature midseason event -- if there is one -- the power and control may very well have been wrestled away from the players. In a stunning backlash, their bold efforts to seek bigger markets and more desirable teammates have contributed as much to the owners' inflexible bargaining stance as the money itself.
Case in point: When was the last time you heard someone at the NFL's Pro Bowl complaining that his team needs to get him some more Pro Bowlers?
If the owners get what they want, the NBA as we've come to know it for the past 15 years will no longer exist. No more superteams. No more superstars forcing their way to bigger markets or forming alliances among All-Stars. No more owners being pressured to spend foolishly and take outlandish risks to keep their best players happy.
No more general managers forced to conduct public firesales for franchise players who want to get out of Denver or Dodge and dictate the terms of their departure.
"It will be like a different sport," one management source said.
As the league prepares for a bargaining session Friday in Los Angeles that will mostly be for show, it's true that a significant number of owners remain focused strictly on the bottom line. There is unwavering support for commissioner David Stern's stated goal of reducing player salaries by $750 million to $800 million, but reducing costs is far from the only goal.
Sources familiar with the owners' stance say the undercurrent of concern about the players' power and control has never been greater. This viewpoint was seared into their consciousness last summer, when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh baffled league executives -- and scared the Rolexes off many an owner -- by doing what players have almost never done before. Given the choice between money and something else, they chose something else.
|2011 NBA All-Star roster breakdown.|
As with any other attempt to play negotiating hardball, the owners' stance comes with a "careful what you wish for" disclaimer. A decade removed from the only work stoppage in league history, NBA owners coincidentally have been victimized by their own strategy of limiting the salaries of top players and incentivizing star free agents to stay with their current teams. After a dramatic escalation of salaries in the 1990s, the league instituted a maximum salary and gave teams a tool to keep their own free agents -- Larry Bird rights, which have mostly prevented superstars from abandoning their teams. Then, James, Wade and Bosh obliterated conventional wisdom by turning down more money to join forces in Miami.
"With all the speculation about LeBron, everyone kept saying, 'No one turns down the money. Everyone always takes the money,'" one team executive said. "None of us gave much thought to [Miami] getting three guys, even five days out. There was a lot of money at stake. And they gave up a fair amount.
"For many years, the league had this notion that it was good for the brand for players to stay somewhere a long time," the person said. "So they created the Larry Bird exception for just that, which basically meant the stars never moved because they wanted the money. Then they restricted the money, which made the discount of what it took to go somewhere else seem small."
Troubled by the trend started by Miami's Big Three, small-market owners in particular are seeking to further restrict player movement by adopting an NFL-style franchise tag. Why do they need one? Because they adopted a system that restricted max salaries, thus minimizing the amount of money stars were giving up by taking shorter deals and smaller raises with other teams. Some executives believe a further reduction in max salaries will only achieve the unintended result of more player movement, not less.
Think about how much revenue the NBA has generated since Kevin Garnett signed a six-year, $125 million contract in 1997. Now think about how much James, Wade, or even Anthony would be worth in today's dollars with no limit on max contracts. One team executive said James conservatively is worth $25 million a year and aggressively is worth $85 million. But even in the NBA's supposedly player-friendly system with no hard cap, the Heat got him for $14.5 million -- and the whole Big Three for only $43.2 million, or half what LeBron alone is worth on the high end.
|NBA All-Star break|
"Melo is staring at real dollars in his head if he walks to New York (as a free agent) and gives up an extra year and gets smaller raises," a management source said. "His happiness might be worth $20 million. But what if the difference is only $6 million? Then he's going to be like, 'Yeah, I'm going to go play with Chris Paul, and I don’t care if I have to go to Kansas City to do it.' Does he want to play with Chris Paul for $80 million or somewhere else for $86 million? Who cares?"
In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, NBA owners are more conscious than ever of the heavy hammer wielded by NFL owners in their contractual collisions with players. At the end of every NFL season, you hear things that are blasphemy in the NBA: championship teams having to shed players because they can't fit them under the cap, and potential free agents taken off the market with the franchise tag. This past summer, NFL-like rules might've resulted in LeBron staying in Cleveland and Lamar Odom joining him -- after getting waived by the defending champion Lakers in a cap-cutting move.
On the flip side, you'll never hear Ben Roethlisberger say he wants to be a Cowboy, Drew Brees say he wants to be a Jet, or Peyton Manning say that the Colts need to spend more money.
"Everybody has the same opportunity to win," an NBA front-office source said.
To NBA owners and executives who spend more time dealing with disgruntled stars than trying to make the playoffs, this is the kind of nirvana they are seeking.
"Of course right now there's a lot of talk about guys wanting to play with other good players in certain cities to get our best opportunity to win championships," Wade told CBSSports.com. "So I'm sure there's going to be some talk about it, some question about it. But our only objective is to make sure our game continues to prosper and that we'll be able to continue to play for our fans."
But the consequences of Wade's brilliant ploy to recruit James and Bosh to South Beach could have crippling consequences for the groups that stand to lose the most from a lockout -- the rank-and-file players and the fans.
For years, Stern and his militia of deep thinkers in the NBA's Fifth Avenue office tower have schemed various ways to improve the image of the league and control the players' behavior. There was the dress code, inspired by Allen Iverson's hip-hop revolution, followed by a series of efforts to clean up on-court behavior. This year's flavor of that time-tested concoction has been yet another crackdown on complaining to the refs. This one has taken the form of a supposed zero-tolerance policy with regard to technical fouls that has been so unevenly enforced as to become meaningless.
"One of the things this league has wanted to do is clean up and focus on professionalism," said Heat center Juwan Howard, who became the NBA's first $100-million man as part of the historic free-agent class of 1996. "And when you talk about professionalism, a lot comes into play -- respecting the game, dressing accordingly as professionals, and conducting yourself as a professional on an off the floor."
Fining players for making trade requests somewhat chilled the torrent of public complaining, but didn't solve the underlying problem. The first two-thirds of the NBA season is focused on player movement, instead of the players' movements on the floor. The feeding frenzy has gotten exponentially more widespread, to the point where last season's conference finals, and to a degree the Finals and the draft, were overshadowed by James' free-agent decision -- just as All-Star weekend will be overshadowed by Melo.
"I'm not sure a year's worth of talk is good for our game, whether it's Melo, Chris Paul, or Dwight Howard," a team executive said. "If this is just the new game, that might not be good. ... You get not only the silliness Denver is dealing with now, but you get the silliness of the last few years in Cleveland before [James] left, where you had one bad signing after another trying to please him or maximize him before he could walk."
The death knell for this era of the all-powerful NBA superstar, some owners believe, cannot be achieved with Band-Aids, dress codes, or technical fouls. It can only come from altering the landscape of the sport. It's not simply about a new labor agreement, but what that agreement will be intended to do.
If the playing field is equalized with a substantially better revenue-sharing system, and star players no longer have the power to dictate where they play and with whom, "There won't be a whole lot to complain about," one executive said.
"That will never happen," Howard insisted. "Because you're always going to have freedom of movement in contracts; you're always going to have player movement. All that 'Bron and Dwyane did was exercise their free agency rights. That was a business move on their part -- and a smart business move. So I don’t think the NBA is so upset with the fact that those guys moved to the same team."
On one hand, Howard is an old-school guy clinging desperately to the old-school system that owners are trying to eradicate. But he stumbled on an important question: If Stern and the big-market owners were to be honest, would they really be so opposed to a system where the whims of 20-something stars generated unprecedented interest -- and thus, sky-rocketing TV ratings and record revenues -- in their sport? Would they really want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg -- a system that has given them the Lakers, Celtics or both in the Finals seven times in 10 years since the last lockout?
Which brings us back to the theme of All-Star weekend, quite possibly for the last time.
"If Melo can force his way to New York on the cheap, then I think that's going to shake a lot of owners in Memphis, San Antonio, Utah, and Sacramento," one of the team executives said. "You're going to say, 'Even if I draft one of these guys, I won't even be able to keep him because the power dynamic is such that you can just run to desirable location.'"
And if you happen to own a team in an undesirable location? Or you're a GM who works for such a team?
"If the game just becomes who can live in the sun on the East Coast or the West Coast," the executive said, "then I'm up a creek."
Up a creek, without any All-Stars.