NBA in a mess with failed efforts to follow pioneers

Dec 12 2011 - 7:06pm

Pioneers rarely get to be viewed as pioneers as they are pioneering. There is safety and comfort in the familiar, and reflex recoil all around those challenging established norms, so "different" doesn't morph into "pioneering" until after it has succeeded, with the clarity of retrospect -- when it is easy, in other words, for everyone to see what the pioneer first saw.

Van Gogh died poor, having sold very few paintings while he was alive. That dumb guy once fired by a newspaper for lack of ideas and imagination? Walt Disney. The student one teacher called "hopeless as a composer?" Beethoven. The guy who went broke five times before cashing in? Henry Ford. The list of people who were mocked and called crazy for their original ideas stretches from Columbus to Einstein to, well, LeBron James.

(He didn't just do that, did he? Really? Comparing LeBron to some of history's greatest pioneers? There's no way he just did that. )

In the tiny context of basketball, the Heat is indeed pioneering, and you saw that all the more clearly with the unholy mess the NBA became this week not only in Miami's wake but because of Miami's wake. Over here, it is reported that the wacky owner of the New Jersey Nets is illegally meeting with Dwight Howard. Over there, all the NBA owners forced David Stern to make a fool of himself by vetoing the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. The Celtics angered their best young player (Rajon Rondo) by trying to trade him for Paul as the Lakers upset the sensitive Lamar Odom for the same reason. This while the Knicks scrambled to the latest Plan B. All of these were Richter ripples from what the Heat did a year ago, the aftershock of everyone in the league still trying to catch up, the Monkees trying to be the Beatles.

The genius in what the Heat did isn't that Miami did it first, though that was genius enough. The genius is that Miami somehow did it first and better than everyone trying to replicate it now, which isn't usually what happens when others have time to evolve and improve upon invention.

Consider this: Money is often how athletes keep score, making dollars synonymous with validation. It is why even community pillar Albert Pujols left the charming career embrace of champion St. Louis for the strip malls of Anaheim this week, his $254 million contract just a little bit larger than the historic $252 million Alex Rodriguez once received. But the Heat doesn't have a player who is top-20 in the league in salary. Here's a list of some of the players who earned more in salary than James last year: Michael Redd, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, Vince Carter, Andrei Kirilenko, Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas. And, because Dwyane Wade took even less than James and Chris Bosh to accommodate his friend Udonis Haslem, Wade somehow earned less last year than Jason Richardson.

"Who cares?" you say. It is still more than a $100 million each, and those guys make it up in endorsements and lack of state income tax. True and fair enough. But you haven't been paying attention to what just happened with the Knicks if you think a few extra millions don't matter. Those few extra millions are important enough that they are keeping other teams from building what the Heat already did.

Keep in mind, Paul toasted at Carmelo Anthony's wedding about the idea of playing with Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. This was before Anthony was even in New York. Anthony, who was then in the position that Paul and Howard find themselves in today, could have waited until the end of the year without making the Knicks trade anything, but he forced a trade because it meant more dollars. And you've seen what happened after that: Because Anthony wanted a maximum contract, and because New York had to trade a million pieces in order for him to get that max contract, New York didn't have the money to get Paul after this season or the assets to trade for him right now. Instead of three guys sacrificing together, as they did with the Heat, Paul would have been the only one sacrificing to go to New York. So, as the Knicks settled for Tyson Chandler last week instead, that wedding toast was revealed to be til-Melo's-need-to-get-paid-do-us part. And then there's this: You have to wonder how Stoudemire feels about the suggestion this week that, because of what Anthony did, Stoudemire was almost traded for Paul because Stoudemire was the only piece the Knicks had left to trade for him.

Watching the Celtics and Lakers and Knicks try to clumsily catch up, as everyone in the league fights over Paul and Howard, as a Russian billionaire and Jay-Z elbow their way into the Howard party and all the owners create a public-relations nightmare warring over Paul, is like watching everyone in the electronics age trip over themselves to get close to Apple. I know the Heat didn't even win the championship. And I know LeBron's image remains in tatters because of how he did what he did. I also know that James, Wade and Chris Bosh don't fit together perfectly, and don't fit together as well as, say, Paul, Howard and Kobe Bryant might with the Lakers. That's not my point. My point is that pulling off the blueprint first and better and younger, getting three big egos to sacrifice money, getting three superstars to sacrifice money so the team still had room to maneuver around them, is all the more remarkable as recent events reveal just how difficult that is when you are dealing with young, giant egos who want it all -- money, city, winning and great teammates.

The lockout showed you how difficult it can be to get rich, powerful men aligned, even if it is for the betterment of all, because selfish usually tramples unselfish when the fight is over dollars. The recent nixing of the Paul trade to the Lakers is proof of that.

In a huge conflict of interests, the Hornets are owned by the league. That means all 29 of the owners own 1/29 of Paul's team. Once they saw that the Lakers were on the cusp of merging Paul, Howard and Kobe Bryant -- or even close to the possibility of it -- Stern stepped into veto it in what was among the most colossal embarrassments of his reign as commissioner. For all the power he has, and all the arrogance with which he displays it, Stern still reports to the owners. And it is still his job to take the public-relations hit for their selfishness as they sabotaged the Paul deal and turned it into an unprecedented mess. The reason the Paul trade was vetoed wasn't because Paul was a player wielding too much power while still under contract, though that bothers those owners enough. It was because Paul was wielding his power by going to a team that wasn't theirs to possibly build another super team. Rest assured, if the league somehow owned the Cavaliers and could have somehow prevented James from coming to Miami, Stern would have been strong-armed into stopping that, too. It just so happens that one of the big stars in this mess (Paul) plays for the one team in the NBA the league owns.

James, Wade and Bosh made their move as free agents, and shifted the paradigm because Cleveland and Toronto were wrecked by not getting anything in return for James and Bosh. That created today's shift, where Howard and Paul have unusual power while still under contract and can force themselves to the destination of their liking. To create another super team, all Paul and Howard would have to do is stay where they are, wait for free agency in a year and then both go to the same place with another star. But they don't want to wait. Because they only get maximum dollars if they get to the desired destination now in a sign-and-trade that comes with a max extension.

The Lakers are a desirable destination city with the kind of trade chips that New Orleans and Orlando might covet and the dollars both players want. They are one of the few teams that could make that happen now, maybe the only one. But, as last week's mess unfolded, as New Jersey thundered in to woo Howard and all the owners stood in Paul's way, as the noise and criticism fell on the heads of others this time, the Heat somehow flew under the radar as basketball opened for business again, a pioneer waiting to see when and if anyone would make the sacrifices necessary to keep up.

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