MIAMI -- On the morning after, the sun came out in Miami and it remained one of the truly stellar places in America. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks, who had taken their talents -– as well as the Larry O'Brien Trophy -- to South Beach on Sunday night for an epic championship celebration.
But on the morning after, once champagne hangovers were chased away, it was time to sift through the fallout of a thrilling NBA Finals, as compelling a season as the league has had since Michael Jordan's last championship shot, and the uncertain future ahead.
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Already, lawyers and economists and negotiators -- the bane of this summer of discontent in sports -- will descend on New York on Tuesday to continue the business of trying to destroy all the progress pro basketball has made over the past dozen years. This seems like a viable strategy, shutting down a business that captivated the nation with playoffs that were the best show in sports or anywhere on TV for 2½ months. By comparison, the next 2½ months for basketball fans are going to feel like people you don't know are stealing from you, and telling you to like it.
The fallout begins with the last two teams standing, and how they will adapt to basketball's new world order. The Heat changed the game last summer, front-loading their roster with the three best available free agents (or so we thought), only to find out that the inverted pyramid works in journalism, but not on a basketball roster. The Heat, already installed as 5-1 favorites to win the championship next season (if there is one), will have to do some soul searching and make tough choices under a system proposed by owners -- including their own, Mickey Arison -- that calls for a hard salary cap of $45 million. That's $2.7 million less than Miami's Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are scheduled to make next season.
In 2013-14, the Heat are on the hook for $56.8 million to the Big Three alone.
The Mavs will have decisions to make, too, and shouldn't complain about having to break up important pieces of a championship team. Why? Because their owner, Mark Cuban, who I'm guessing will go straight from the club to the Omni Berkshire hotel in Manhattan for collective bargaining talks Tuesday, has been one of the hardest-line owners in trying to stick it to the players during the two years of mostly fruitless "negotiations" that have progressed as much as LeBron's low-post game and sense of self-awareness.
So without knowing what (if any) new system the high- and low-revenue owners, along with the high- and low-earning players, will be able to come up with, here's a look at what changes the Heat, Mavs and the field -- the teams chasing them -- may be up against. Some have to do with the labor talks, and others are just common sense:
The first order of business is coach Erik Spoelstra, who came up almost as small as LeBron in the Finals. Spoelstra is an excellent young coach, and he earned respect in the Heat locker room and beyond during the regular season for sticking with his principles and not panicking every time it seemed his star-heavy team was going off the deep end. But Spoelstra was unable to push the right buttons in the Finals, got thoroughly outcoached by Rick Carlisle (not to mention Dwane Casey), and was too stubborn with his starting lineup to be able to make the changes he needed to before it was too late.
|Pat Riley and Mickey Arison face some big decisions in this uncertain offseason. (AP)|
The Heat also failed to adjust in a way that would force Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki to defend Chris Bosh, letting the big German rest on the defensive end while minding nonfactors Haslem and Anthony. While it's unimaginable that a coach who led his team to the Finals could be fired afterward, these are the heightened expectations that the Heat placed on themselves when they formed this team. Speculation will commence immediately as to whether team president and Big Three architect Pat Riley will vacate the confines of the executive offices and save the stars from themselves.
Whoever coaches this team, Riley will have to take a critical look at whether it will be possible to surround the Big Three and their $47 million price tag with enough complementary talent to win a title in what the Mavs proved remains a team-driven league. At various times during the season when the Heat struggled, rival executives privately speculated about whether Riley would be better off trading one of his stars for multiple players who would fill roles -- another shooter, a post-up scorer, more depth. Even if the cap came in at $50 million next season -- an estimate some executives are using, without knowing how realistic it is -- the Heat would be more than $16 million over. Under those parameters, is $16 million better spent on a third superstar, or 2-3 role players? Once the sting of this championship defeat wears off and some clarity about the new rules begins to take hold, this is precisely the kind of decision Riley will have to make.
Would a team with cap space or a trade exception (if those things still exist after July 1) be willing to absorb Bosh, who couldn't win on his own in Toronto and couldn't win with LeBron and Wade in Miami? And think about this: If you're the Cavs, would you trade Antawn Jamison and the rights to No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving to the Heat for LeBron? It's preposterous on so many levels, but even if you removed the obvious human element, would you do it? (The better question is, would the Heat?)
The dilemma for the Heat, whose officials privately conceded Sunday night that they need to get better and deeper this summer, is that they may need to make these decisions by the June 23 draft -- which could be the last time enough assets and moving parts are available to make trades under the current rules. Nobody knows what the world will look like after July 1, so the Heat's best chance to break up the Big Three, if they so choose, could come in the next 10 days.
Title teams always undergo changes, and the Mavs could be losing one of the most important pieces in their championship puzzle. In 2008, Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau got passed over for several head coaching jobs because he was too busy devising impenetrable defenses that turned James and Kobe Bryant into mere mortals en route to the Celtics' 17th championship. Casey, architect of a Dallas defense that swept Kobe's Lakers, outlasted Kevin Durant and completely stymied LeBron and Wade, could get the same treatment. Casey will get strong consideration for the Detroit and Toronto openings, and, in fact, is on the Pistons' wish list of candidates to interview as soon as time permits. Casey will have to decide if he has waited long enough for another head-coaching opportunity or prefers to wait longer -- like Thibodeau -- for a better job.
As for the roster, Cuban need not gloat too much over his first championship since buying the Mavs in 2000. The essence of the current NBA salary rules have been in place since a year before Cuban bought the team, and he has worked that system as well as any owner in the NBA. Now, he's leading the charge to scrap it and force the players to bear the brunt of the league's alleged $300 million annual losses.
Assuming a $50 million cap, the Mavs are in better shape over the next two years than the Heat, with Dallas' payroll coming in and $60.4 million next season and $44.6 million in 2012-13. But if Cuban and his comrades are successful in forcing a hard cap on the players, absent an amnesty clause or grandfathering, who does Cuban get rid of? Does he jettison the Jet, Jason Terry, whose $10.7 million salary is partially guaranteed next season? Trade Jason Kidd, whose $8.6 million expiring contract would be an asset at next season's trade deadline? That would only be the case if Cuban and his cohorts fail to achieve their ultimate goal, which appears to be making all contracts expiring.
The question for Cuban is, if he brings back essentially the same team next season, can it once again withstand a Lakers team that will have a defensive backbone under new head coach Mike Brown; the Thunder, who will only get better; and yes, the Heat, who one way or another will be better?
What does the result of the Finals say about the divergent championship strategies being deployed in a league that is increasingly split between star power and team-building? An overreaction would favor teams like the Bulls in the East and Thunder in the West -- teams with one star and enough complementary pieces to beat the elite. But did the Heat's flameout present irrefutable evidence that pairing multiple superstars is a losing strategy? Not so fast. The Heat will be back; ideally, with a humbled, changed LeBron and a more versatile supporting cast, even if that means giving up one of the Big Three. But what about the Knicks, who followed the Miami blueprint and paired Carmelo Anthony with Amar'e Stoudemire -- two elite players who will make $37 million next season?
What does the next big free-agent class of 2012 do? Should Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams blindly go about forming a LeBron/Wade-like alliance, without fully knowing whether it would work? What's the alternative? That's what the lawyers and negotiators will be trying to figure out over the next 17 days, after which the curtain goes down on a memorable NBA season. Cherish the memories.