Posted Jul 9 2010 8:50PM
Nobody roots for Goliath.
That's one of the NBA's legendary quotes, attributed to (or said of) Wilt Chamberlain and his perception that the giant, the bully, the one considered most likely to squash the competition, doesn't engender much affection or enthusiasm in a world where most of us feel like Davids.
The Miami Heat became Goliath Thursday.
By corralling LeBron James and Chris Bosh as free-agent imports to join re-signed Dwyane Wade in south Florida, the Heat became a pebble-grained, sun-bleached version of the New York Yankees, with a disproportionate, gluttonous number of superstars. And to dust off another old sports quote that applies, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. [That dates back to the 1950s, so an updated version might swap out, oh, Walmart].
There used to be a happy boast around the MGM lot during Hollywood's golden era that the movie studio had "more stars than there are in heaven." That sort of applies to the Heat now, but it was achieved with all the subtlety of a James Cameron blockbuster. This is a butcher shop where the thumb on the scale is Shrek-sized. It's Vegas with the house odds on steroids. It's a stacked deck where no other team is going to be able to beat the Heat's three aces, now that James' five disappointed suitors in free agency -- none more than the Cavaliers -- have been royally flushed.
The NBA got the July it craved, in terms of unprecedented offseason chatter about a limited supply of high-profile, game-changing players in a market unusually deep in demand. The question now is, at what price? Crowding out major league baseball, the NFL and the World Cup in the summer is fine, but not if it leads in the fall, winter and spring to competitive imbalances and apathy toward a less compelling product.
This was done, it must be noted, fair and square and well within the rules available to all 30 franchises. In the past, when the Celtics, Lakers or Bulls rounded up inordinate shares of the top talent, it was Red Auerbach, Jerry West or Jerry Krause gaming the system and using their wiles to create lopsided -- yet permissible -- advantages. This time, it was the players themselves making the plans, while making other owners and GMs look silly.
Wade, James and Bosh set this plan in motion when they synchronized their shorter-than-available contracts in 2006. What began as a baby cartel and some amusing daydreams, though, turned this time around into a full-blown OPEC, with potentially nightmarish repercussions on the league's appeal to the widest possible fan base.
As it turned out, all these guys needed -- once they had a critical mass of eager teams tripping over themselves to create salary-cap space for two or even three maximum contracts -- was a destination acceptable to them all and an ultra-competitive team architect who would so value stars over rank-and-file role players (and the quaint notion of a salary "scale"). They got both in Miami, the professional athlete's second-favorite playground after Las Vegas, and Heat president and chief carnivore Pat Riley.
So Wade, James and Bosh are off to South Beach to track sand onto the hardwood at AmericanAirlines Arena, to suck up 90 percent of the Heat's cap amount (while essentially ponying enough to pay newly signed Mike Miller's middle-class salary) and to divvy up a responsibility -- chasing a championship -- that each shouldered fairly effectively by himself till now. The rest of the league -- and you've got to think that even the Lakers, the Celtics and the Magic are nervous about this convergence of two Top 5 and one Top 15 talents -- is left to hope they fail or at least hit some speed-bumps along the way.
A lot of fans, it says here, will want that as well, even among those of us who root for the sport rather than for any particular teams. For reasons beyond the obvious.
Here's one: Are we really ready to see these Alpha dogs turn into the Beta Band? That's much more likely, given their personalities, than any worries that they'll go all king-of-the-jungle on each other (though I do like the possible nickname, "The Three, Um, Egos").
Almost immediately after James' awkward announcement in Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, the Heat's stars were talking about sacrificing aspects of their individual games to coalesce as a team. That's what coaches preach daily in more mortal circumstances, from NBA to YMCA, but it generally happens and works best when there is a gradation of talent. When your top three guys are all so even -- first-bests or near-first-bests -- you could end up with too much deference, each too sensitive to trampling the others' turf.
Then there's this: Should James and Wade, in particular, be worried about blending and smoothing their games at this point in their careers? It ought to concern hoops fans that players that gifted would do anything but flaunt and push their games in all their in-your-face glory. LeBron picking his spots? Wade fitting in and around others? The sum total of dazzling highlights would go down with their scoring averages and we would be the losers.
"It's not about sharing. It's about everyone having their own spotlight," James said after announcing his decision. "I feel like this is going to give me the best opportunity to win, and win for multiple years."
This is different from Boston's Big Three, who came together in 2007. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce via trades, not by design, and were all past their primes -- sentimental favorites, even, since each had toiled long and hard without reaching The Finals. They were getting close to separate, ringless ends.
Maybe people wouldn't begrudge Wade, Bosh and James if this were 2015 and their ages were 33 (Wade), 31 (Bosh) and 30 (James) respectively. But this just seems too soon, too easy or maybe too panicky. [It could even breathe new life into those rumors about James' actual age, too, since everything with this guy seems to be fast-tracked: Shaving at 10, millionaire by 18, takes Cavs to Finals at 21, ring grab and move to south Florida at 25, AARP card at 33, forgotten turn-signal blinking endlessly down the interstate by 45.]
One of the central themes in the NBA is that great individual players need competent teammates to chase championships. The most fortunate of them get sidekicks, sometimes with a third or fourth key contributor mixed in. But James getting Wade and Bosh as helpers? Or Wade getting the other two? It's overkill, howitzers as mouse traps. And the bullying could get worse each summer as some coveted free agent takes Miami's mid-level exception to hop aboard the jewelry express.
As for slogans, the "Amazing Is..." campaign might have to yield to the old compromise of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Time was, the most skilled players in the world were the most ferociously competitive, cordial when appropriate but driven to beat the best for a title that truly would mean something. Now they are independent conglomerate-nations, fraternity brothers who prefer to link up rather than butt heads when some challenge becomes a little too difficult.
Next up in a year or so: Chris Paul, a point guard for this fantasy team. You wait and see. Somehow, some way.
Oh, this could prove to be a fascinating experiment all around: A coaching clinic on how to maximize the production of elite players in a starting five, a personnel case study in fleshing out a top-heavy roster, a psychologist's trial for meshing ambitions and egos. Some fans will tune in via League Pass for every twist, turn and soap-opera development. Others, though, will be rooting for an injury that's just serious enough to thin the Heat's ranks. And you've got to think Cavs owner Dan Gilbert already has a promotion in mind to distribute leftover LeBron puppets at The Q this season, complete with straight pins for the full voodoo-doll experience.
"We welcome the bull's-eye on our backs," Wade said on ESPN Thursday. "We know that every night when we head into [a road] arena, we're going to hear some boos. We're going to get every team's best shot."
Hmm, a love-them-or-hate-them crew to polarize fans and keep everyone talking, good or bad? I don't think the NBA needs or should ever risk that. For every fan drawn by the star power of Wade, Bosh and James together, there could be two in places like Memphis, Minnesota or Cleveland turned off by the rich-getting-richer profligacy, the potential for 73-9 regular-season records and the prospect of annual June reruns.
Nobody roots for Goliath.
And on those rare occasions when we have identified with the bigger brutes, it has taken something really special. We liked the various Olympic Dream Teams because, at their core, they were us, the U.S., pounding on the other guys. We don't like them when they're Miami pounding on our guys, which is how 29 other teams might be feeling about now.
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