Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An NBA Reality Check

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, this past summer to join the Miami Heat, people seemingly took offense. The reaction was similar through the first half of the NBA season, when Carmelo Anthony made it clear he wanted to get out of Denver once his contract was up this season, preferring to join the New York Knicks -- who signed Amar'e Stuodamire in the offseason.

With a "Big Three" already in place with the Boston Celtics -- though one could argue it's a Big Four, adding point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix -- recent moves seem to point toward a consolidation of talent within a few of the league's teams.

Especially if you believe the rumor about Dwight Howard opting out of his deal next year, leaving Orlando and joining ... the Los Angeles Lakers?

That may be true, or it might not be; it's worth noting that Kevin Durant has re-upped with Oklahoma City (small market) in the offseason and the team with the best record in the league is also from a small market (San Antonio).

What gets me is how everyone's screaming like it's the Apocalypse, accusing players of having too much power and holding their organizations hostage. I don't follow the NBA religiously -- I prefer college basketball -- but I follow it enough to have a general idea of what's going on. What I've seen in the last several months is a case of free agent athletes exercising those rights to play where they want.

James and Bosh were free agents after last season; they both had the right to choose where they wanted to play. Dwyane Wade was also a free agent, but he chose to stay in Miami. Stoudamire was a free agent as well -- one the Phoenix Suns chose not to re-sign, so he decided to sign with the Knicks.

The Utah Jazz decided not to re-sign Carlos Boozer after last season, so he signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz also decided to part ways with point guard Deron Williams, sending him to New Jersey.

In the case of Stoudamire, Boozer and Williams, the decision rest with the teams, not the players. James, Bosh and Anthony have also exercised their rights as free agents; in the case of Anthony, he told Denver that this season, his last under his current contract, would likely be his last with the Nuggets -- unlike James, who waited until after the season to decide and held an hour-long ESPN special in which he ripped out Cleveland's heart on national television.

So with that knowledge, what was Denver to do? Let the season play out as it was, watch Anthony leave at the end of the year and get nothing in return? Or work around the league to see if they could get a trade done, just so the team could get something in return?

Denver would never get equal value, but the trade was better than just letting Anthony walk.

Just ask the Cavaliers.

The fact of the matter is, free agents have the right to go wherever they please once their contracts have expired. Sometimes they give notice of their intentions (Anthony), sometimes they don't (James, Bosh). And especially in the NBA, the stars drive the interest and the business of the sport.

When Anthony decided to play for the Knicks, it wasn't just because he'd be going home again; it was a business move. Let's face it, New York City is basketball-crazy, and if Anthony helps resurrect the Knicks, then the team and the league benefit.

Likewise for the league's other major markets. This isn't to say the small-market teams are hopeless -- San Antonio and Oklahoma City are perfect examples of viable, competitive teams in small markets -- but the NBA is a far more viable and interesting product when the New Yorks, Miamis, Chicagos, Bostons and Los Angeles of the world are competitive.

In reality, what's happening in the NBA today is no different than it's ever been; it just seems that way, given the evolution of 24-hour sports media over the last decade. It's really business as usual in the NBA, and -- pending CBA battles aside -- the league is as healthy and popular as ever.

You want something to bitch about? The NFL's about to have a lockout; try there.

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