As Brinson put it, the inmates have taken over the asylum. The reported cabal of superstars assembling at an undisclosed time in an undisclosed location (a bomb on that would effectively end the NBA, you know) are taking the league into their own hands like never before.
The Bron-pocalypse foretold, somewhat absurdly, is that lone LeBron would wait to make his decision until teams had hired coaches and made other signings, but that no hires or signings -- even in the front office -- would take place until James made a decision. Stalemate would prevail, and the 2010-11 season would just never start.
But while James may be the top dawg in all this, and his word domino-like in its impact, there is another option. That nightmare, which it appears we're about to live through, is one where players have no respect for coaches or executives, and instead figure they can run the team their darn selves. That's a cliche that's been bandied about since the first superstar made demands as a condition of sticking around, forcing a franchise to acknowledge who was the (virtual) boss.
However, what we're seeing here is an ingenious combination of that reviled practice and the ring-chasing. Ring-chasing may not seem to represent the same kind of threat to society as influence-mad stars, but in sports circles, it's almost more frowned upon.
That is, unless it's a group effort, where an entire team assembles and rallies -- like an NBA version of The Dirty Dozen or The Specialists -- to get one task done as equal partners in a fool's errand. That's the mercenary approach, from the top to bottom of an organization, that brought us such great champions as the 2008 Boston Celtics and the 2006 Miami Heat.
What appears to be underway this summer is both a major shift -- the athletes themselves are way out front on this one, making it a clear "power to the players" moment in the NBA -- and the latest iteration of a trend that brought us two champs in the last five years.
Sam Smith, who can only ever be trusted so much with things other than simple mathematical propositions, writes today on NBA.com:
It's entirely possible that Wade, or the others, could be fined just for the hell of it without as loaded a term as "tampering" (self-tampering, here?) being applied. The NBA doesn't exactly favor transparency, or consistency, when it comes to punishing players these days. But the spirit of the lash would remain the same, and it would be thus: Players cannot get together to discuss each other. Only when all are free agents? Especially if all our free agents? Only when the whole world is watching them as free agents? What if only James were a free agent?It's possible the NBA will take action again (sic) Wade for his apparent anti-competitive comments, given the league has rules against tampering for players as well as team executives. The NBA has yet to take action against a player or determine how those rules will be applied.
Tampering suggests, quite reasonably, that if a front office employee asks a player about his future plans, he does so with an eye toward making a move. But get a bunch of players in one room talking guff about each other ... you've got a fantastic Nike commercial. Simply put, it's a fine line between socializing and making like the VIP room is its very own Yalta.
Almost more important, though, is Wade's strenuous -- well, now he's trying to back-pedal, but whatever -- comments about the Bulls organization. What if, heaven forbid, players didn't only want to decide who belonged with whom, but also to swap war stories over which franchise would indeed make effective staging areas for these new partnerships? That's what made me question this Bron-to-Bulls movement from the beginning: regardless of who it hires to coach, that's a bloated mess of an organization.
The question isn't whether or not players have any right to assert themselves, but whether they can stand in judgment over general managers and institutional culture. Supposedly picking the coach (silly, since hiring Phil Jackson is hiring Phil Jackson) is only the beginning. We're essentially seeing players empowered to call out incompetent franchises, and give praise to the ones deserving.
Certainly, the craziness behind-the-scenes at Madison Square Garden will figure prominently for anyone eying the Knicks -- despite the impeccable Donnie Walsh and endlessly alluring Mike D'Antoni. But at the same time, this is no exercise in ego, or necessarily a direct hit on hierarchy. Rather, it's an even more explicitly player-centric version of what we saw with the Celtics and Heat.
Paul Pierce had one foot out the door until he heard that Kevin Garnett might be interested and then saw him actually come into play when Ray Allen was acquired from the folding Sonics. Doc Rivers, a largely harmless players coach, kept the job because he wouldn't get in the way and would do a good job of slapping five with vets. At that point, Rajon Rondo wasn't even a shoe-in for the starting job. James Posey, signed away from either Miami, saw a chance to make another run.
As I've said elsewhere, Danny Ainge deserves Executive of the Year for this season. In 2008, he was just a pawn. The case of the 2006 Heat -- often forgotten, because of how fast that team went, ahem, South, is in many ways more galling. Yes, Dwyane Wade was there already. Shaquille O'Neal was brought in to deliver a title, just as he had been with the Lakers. But if the second time's a charm, the third is ... a gimmick?
Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, and the aforementioned Posey, all ambled into town to ply what was left of their crafts. It was like the Super Lakers of 2006-07, but without the baggage of pre-existing relationships. To top it all off, Pat Riley unceremoniously ousted Stan Van Gundy because he just had to come back for this super-secret operation.
If that doesn't make your skin crawl, you have been the victim of a horrible crime and are reading this is in the afterlife.
Those were transitional teams, where the pride of the Big Three and desperation of the Heat vets were precious gifts handed over to their respective franchises. They also had the capacity to infect, like that "winning culture" you always hear so much about. Now, we're facing the prospect of players swooping in and, without apologies, renting a franchise and expecting certain things of it.
Is that so insane? Many front offices are a mess, and certainly these guys are smart enough to know the difference between hiring Phil Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, and Byron Scott.
That's why I bring up the Bulls. Is it a sin for Wade to go to his brethren and say, however much he denies it now, that the Bulls are a mess, who despite their promising roster won't support one (or two) super free-agents like they should? Forget about anguished, or cool, POWER TO THE PEOPLE, or uppity athletes doing jobs that aren't their own. Or whether discussing who likes who best is a crime. This is just solid labor practice.
In all truth, this whole "collusion" bit becomes far less sinister if Wade really was planning to air some grievances, rather than discuss world domination based on maximum pick-and-roll effectiveness.