LeBronathon Finally Over

I’m going to be a bit off topic today.

I’m about to go off on a major rant.

Now that LeBronathon 2010 is over, I’m going to say: I hated every minute of it.

For the record, there are rumors that we could see this again in 3 years if the principals all sign 3-year deals.

It really bothers me when the inmates get to run the asylum.  Not that having James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the same team guarantees even a single championship, but it sure seems that’s where things are headed — assuming, of course, that the Miami Heat can afford to surround them with any warm bodies whatsoever.

I have always hated free agency.  Most will argue that the players should have the right to choose where they want to play, and I don’t completely disagree.  But I always liked my teams better, even when they were lousy, when they were built through the draft, or through trades.  In baseball, I could watch the players come up through the organization, see the future double-play combo playing in AA ball, knowing that in a couple of years, this would be the big league combo, no matter how inept they might be.  It was still my team.

If I were a Yankee fan, I could boo Roger Clemens, comfortable with the thought that he would never play for the Bronx Bombers.

I used to love getting baseball cards of players that had played for years and years with only one team, seeing the statistics on the back of the card that listed the same team for 18 seasons.  There just was some kind of beauty about a whole column of sameness.  Sure, even Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves; and Willie Mays played for the New York and San Francisco Giants and New York Mets; but then you’d have Mickey Mantle, who played his entire career for the Yankees; or Carl Yastrzemski, who only played for the Red Sox.

Now we have Roger Clemens, who should have retired with the Red Sox, but who instead played for the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, then Yankees.  Bad example, I suppose, since my recollection is that the Red Sox declined to re-sign him.  But how about Mike Mussina, who left the Orioles and signed with the Yankees?  I lived around Baltimore when Mussina came up, and to me, he will always be an Oriole.  Can you imagine Derek Jeter leaving the Yankees?

Now we’re into rent-a-players, where the guy you hated last year is now on your favorite team.  Even worse, we’ve gotten to the point where the players can swing the balance of power; where they can, to some extent, decide which team is going to win.

Take baseball, and Clemens, for example.  How many years did Clemens sit out the first half of the season, see which team had a chance to win the division (usually the Yankees), then decide to join in midseason?  (Of course, some are now claiming that it helped him avoid drug testing) Pedro Martinez played the waiting game last season with the Phillies, and may do so again this year.  Fortunately, there are not a lot of players with the ability to do this, but it still bugs me.

I’m not a big fan of the late season trades, either.  It really bothers me when the contending teams go on buying sprees in late July, especially since it always seems to be the “haves” that benefit.  Even after the trading deadline, teams manage to find a way to acquire players.  I mean, this is like the Major League version of the NASCAR chase: narrow down the field, then all of the teams that have a shot to get to the playoffs start restructuring, bringing in players for a couple of months to buy the pennant.  Personally, I’d like to see the trading deadline moved up, to reduce the possibilities.  Take it to an extreme: what if there were no trading deadline?  You’d see teams making deals to rent players for one key game, or one key series, to win a playoff spot.  Can you imagine the Mets cutting a deal with the Rockies to get Ubaldo Jimenez in September, then trading him back at the end of the season?

Deion Sanders had his own version in the NFL, signing with the 49ers for one season and helping them win Super Bowl XXIX.  He then swung the balance of power to the Cowboys by signing as a free agent, helping them to win Super Bowl XXX.  Deion could actually survey the field, decide which team had the best chance to win the championship, and sign with that team.  He improved the Cowboys enough, and weakened the 49ers enough, that he swung the balance of power.

College sports, especially basketball, have not been immune.  At least three of Michigan’s Fab Five played together during summer leagues, and decided they wanted to play together in college.  More recently, it seems that Kentucky is pulling together Fab Five-like recruiting classes, based strongly on the players banding together.  For 2011, they’ve already received commitments from the #1 and #3 ranked players, and are in the running for others.

Now we have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh banding together to try and bring a championship to Miami.  While it’s not a given that it will happen, one only needs to look at the trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston to see that it’s possible.  That trio delivered on a championship in their first season together, then nearly delivered a second one this season, leading the deciding game 7 until late in the game.  The difference is that Pierce, Garnett and Allen are older than James, Wade and Bosh, and age and injury have limited their championship runs.  James, Wade and Bosh are young enough that if their talents mesh together, they could win multiple championships.

Why does it bother me?  When a GM puts together a team, the players still have some control of their own destiny: free agents can decide whether or not to play for that team or for another team.  A player might choose to take less money to play for a winner, or may go for the maximum payday by being a superstar on a lousy team.  And the NBA can not decide that the Knicks should sign LeBron James to restore the NBA spotlight in New York for the good of the league; or that the Lakers should sign Wade and the Celtics should sign LeBron to virtually guarantee another heavily watched finals.  Owners can not band together and decide that no team will sign free agents this season: that would be collusion.  But a group of players can decide to stick together, sign with the same team, and have the inside path to deliver championships.  What if the entire USA Olympic team had decided to sign with the Heat?  Don’t tell it couldn’t happen because of the salary cap: I can see players giving up money to win a championship or three, especially since the endorsement money can dwarf the salaries.

In this case, LeBron James, and to somewhat of a lesser extent, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, held the entire league, or at least a handful of franchises hostage.  Those three had the ability to dictate which team, which franchise, which city is going to benefit from their talents.  There was little that the franchises could have done differently:

Chicago:  They seemingly had a pretty good team set up for LeBron — but did he want to follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps?

New York: What more could the Knicks have done at this point?

Cleveland: There wasn’t a lot that Cleveland could do, other than hope that LeBron would stay home.  Bosh supposedly did not want to play in Cleveland — did that kill the deal by itself?

New Jersey: There is too much flux and uncertainty.

Los Angeles Clippers: Seriously?

No, this result was orchestrated by James, Wade and Bosh.  Miami won, because Wade was already there, and because for whatever reasons (weather, no income tax, social life, etc) it was more desirable.  Bosh reportedly didn’t want to play in Cleveland.  In the end, only one other team had a reasonable chance of landing LeBron: the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The Cavaliers had a chance because they’re his hometown team, he’s played there for years, and they could offer more money.

I hated the hype, the drama, the suspense.  Too many theatrics.  If they were all going to sign together, so be it.  But it all was orchestrated, and hyped.  The press conference even had a name: The Decision.  This was all about LeBron being LeBron.

You’re seeing the same thing in college basketball recruiting, with recruits holding press conferences, announcing during all-star games, orchestrating the whole deal — and it’s only going to get worse.

In the end, LeBron opted for the safest bet, his most likely path to a championship.

I heard announcers go on and on yesterday about how none of this is new; how Wilt Chamberlain demanded and orchestrated trades; how Kareem Abdul Jabbar did the same.  I suspect that some of this is true; however, there are big differences between trades and free agent signings.  In a trade, there is some value received by each team.  With a free agent signing, the team that loses the player may not receive any compensation.  The big winner in this deal?  Miami, of course: they get LeBron without having to give up any compensation.

I still haven’t seen the details of what they’ll give up to get Chris Bosh; my understanding is that officially he will not get signed as a free agent, but will end up on the Heat as part of a ‘cap and trade’ with Toronto, which allows him to be signed for a higher salary.  The Raptors will play their part because by doing so, they will get something in return, probably Michael Beasley and/or draft picks, in return for doing Bosh a favor.  Regardless, the Raptors will not be getting back anything approaching equal value.

I also heard a lot of talk saying that LeBron’s legacy will be tainted now, even if he wins multiple championship — the thought being that anyone should be able to win with this kind of All-Star team.  Fair enough, though it’s kind of ironic that any player who soldiers on and shows loyalty to the team that drafted him, no matter how bad they might be; no matter how inept the front office might be; ends up with the knock: couldn’t win a championship.  Patrick Ewing and Dan Marino come to mind.  But play with a great surrounding cast of lesser known players, and you’re considered a winner, a la Michael Jordan.  Jordan had a very good cast around him, including Scottie Pippen, and the Bulls won a lot games and made a deep run into the playoffs even without Jordan.

Okay, I’ve ranted.


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