March 8, 2011

Franchises, League Test “Big Three” Model in Pro Basketball

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Between 2002 and 2007, the NBA was dominated by two franchises —the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs — that combined to win four of the five league championships during that period. The model for success was clear. In order to win a Larry O’Brien trophy, a team needed a balanced starting lineup, with each player having a defined role and responsibility on the court — five players complementing each other, playing a particular brand of fundamental, harmonious basketball.Yet that all changed in 2007, when Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, seemingly overnight, compiled the NBA’s first “super team.” While the league has showcased countless star-studded rosters throughout its history, this was perhaps the first instance in which a team brought together multiple high-salary players onto one roster, hoping not just to win a championship eventually, but to win one immediately.In the past few years, the trend has begun to proliferate around the league, particularly since last summer. The Celtics’ “Big Three” model has already been mimicked by the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, and to a lesser extent, the Chicago Bulls. All three franchises made dramatic salary cuts with the intention of signing multiple max-salary players and winning a championship immediately. The New Jersey Nets also attempted to do such, but have had less success.Is now the dawning of a new age in the NBA? Is this a new era in which, as Kevin Garnett aptly put it, “anything is possible” for creative, intelligent general managers?There’s significant reason to believe the trend will only grow in popularity throughout the league, and not just for the obvious fact that “if any of you guys were GMs or owners, you’d want me and Amar’e (Stoudemire) on the same team as well,” like Carmelo Anthony said in a recent press conference.With the growth of youth basketball leagues in the country and the iconic McDonald’s All-American franchise, young NBA players are now, for perhaps the first time in league history, friends with one another. As immaterial as it may sound, STAT and ’Melo wanted to play together not only because of their superb skill sets, but because they are good friends, and have been for years. When the Knicks traded for Earl Monroe in 1971, there was a certifiable frenzy amongst the New York media, who questioned if Monroe and his arch-rival, Knicks guard Walt Frazier, could share a backcourt together. Although Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley all played in the same uniform en route to Olympic glory in 1992, the NBA stars of the 90s would have thought it imaginable to go from hated enemies to teammates overnight at the beck and call of front office management.The culture in American basketball has, however, changed dramatically over the past 15 years. With growing revenues and the even faster-growing popularity of individual superstars, boys in America are picking up basketballs at a younger age and joining ultra-competitive and highly organized youth leagues that simply did not exist in the days of Frazier and Monroe, or even the days of Bird and Magic. NBA stars-to-be are playing together as young as seven or eight, forming friendships and bonding over a shared goal of basketball stardom and wealth.NBA General Managers’ lack of relative success in the draft may also precipitate the Big Three model. Despite the significance of free agency over the past two decades in the NFL and MLB, “building through the draft” is still a common management strategy in both leagues. The New York Jets, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are just a few examples of NFL franchises that have built consistent playoff-caliber rosters through intelligent drafting. A similar trend is not seen in the NBA, which is particularly surprising when one considers the impact that one or two star players can have on a basketball team. The Oklahoma City Thunder (39-23) is perhaps the only NBA franchise featuring a high-achieving roster built primarily around drafted players. Simply put, in the NBA, for every Derrick Rose, Lebron James and Tim Duncan, there are countless Kwame Browns, Pervis Ellisons and Greg Odens. As a result, pressured and desperate general are frequently forced to look to free agency and blockbuster trades to build championship teams.Yet the Big Three model is far from an inevitability in the NBA’s future. When league owners, executives and union leaders meet to negotiate the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the coming months, any number of statutes could be enacted that would effectively kill teams’ efforts to bring together multiple superstars. Caps could be lowered, restrictions could be placed on the number of max-salary players per roster and roster exceptions could be curbed from the league rulebook (without such “exceptions,” it would have been impossible for Pat Riley to fill out the remainder of the Heat roster after signing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James). Even free agency, which may seem like a verifiable certainty for modern NBA fans, could be significantly altered.But even if the new CBA contains none of these particular reforms, the play of the super friends in Miami this season could serve as a very telling litmus test for the realistic success of the Big Three model. When Wade, Bosh and James all “took their talents to South Beach,” basketball analysts were certain that this never-before-seen assemblance of talent would win multiple championships. But the Heat has faced its share of problems this season and perhaps is not even the best team in the Eastern Conference, let alone in the history of professional basketball.Will the Heat’s struggles deter other teams from attempting to replicate the Big Three model? Will the new CBA ensure more balanced rosters, such as those of the Pistons and Spurs in the 2000s?“Anything is possible,” but not everything is realistic, and this “new era” of the NBA is still far from defined.

Original Author: Holden Steinhauer