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Weekly Countdown: Season lessons

From training camps in late September to blockbuster moves through the summer -- what has it all meant?

The players are partners, and their rival is management. I received a lot of mail from readers who questioned my reading of LeBron James' controversial move to play with his rival Dwyane Wade in Miami (see below). Both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have since declared they would not have considered turning rivals into teammates in their day.

But this is not their day anymore.

"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,' " Jordan told NBC. "But ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing."

In Jordan's day, the players were rivals against one another. Jordan had his vicious rivalry with Isiah Thomas, which was preceded by the emotional triangle of Magic vs. Bird vs. Isiah.

The landscape is different now. Bird, Magic and Jordan didn't grow up playing AAU together. They didn't play together for USA Basketball summer after summer.

The best players today view themselves as partners. Chris Paul has recently joined LRMR, the marketing agency formed by James. Paul, James, Wade, Bosh and Carmelo Anthony are all represented by the same agency, CAA Sports. On the court they were competing against one another for the championship, of course, but in other crucial ways they are united against a common rival.

That rival is the NBA ownership.

The joining of LeBron, Wade and Bosh is entirely foreign to the stars of previous eras, and that's because Magic and Jordan weren't raised in the AAU system. Instead, they were raised on high school and college basketball, which was a system created on the strict authority of coaches and rules that could not be broken. You grew up playing for the high school coach in your town and he was your boss; you went to college for at least two years; you were drafted by an NBA team and if you were a star, that was your team for life. (Yes, I know that Jordan played two farewell seasons for the Wizards, but he did so as president of that team -- by then he was foremost an executive who hoped to improve his franchise by recruiting himself out of retirement.)

Players of Magic's and Jordan's era viewed themselves as employees who knew nothing else than to respect authority.

Players of LeBron's and Wade's era view themselves as entrepreneurs. They grew up forming their own AAU teams outside the authority of the high school coach. James and his boyhood friends took it one large step further by choosing as a group to attend the same private high school -- St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron -- which is something that never would have occurred to Magic or Jordan either.

The lucrative market for players has changed everything. There are a few great players and a large number of coaches and executives trying to get their hands on those few players. The players grow up understanding the market, and no longer are they willing to be told where they are going to play or what they are going to do for the entirety of their careers.

As Jordan said, "Things are different."

People will complain that this difference will be the death of the NBA, but, of course, that isn't true. How many times have we heard similar complaints over the years about the changing business of pro sports? It used to be said that free agency was going to be the death of sports. Wrong. Then player strikes and owner lockouts were going to kill sports. Wrong again. The high price of tickets, the proliferation of games on pay-subscription TV channels, the best players skipping college or leaving early, performance-enhancing drugs, the sponsorships and naming rights for everything -- all of these incremental changes have been followed by larger audiences and more money for pro football, baseball and basketball.

Now we're entering a phase of player power in which the stars are exercising their rights in an unprecedented way. The real story isn't that these three players decided to play together for the same team. The important story is that they view themselves as entrepreneurial free agents at a time when their union is negotiating for a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners -- owners who want to view the players as employees in an old-school way. The owners want to turn back the clock and reduce salaries and make the contracts shorter and put themselves back in control of the NBA.

The league's best players want no part of that old world. So here is the key question: Will LeBron, Wade and Bosh be able to persuade the NBA's lesser players to join with them in an extended fight against the owners next year?

The conflict between owners who want to be boss and the players who want to be their own boss is the reason why so many league insiders are anticipating an extended lockout after next season. The resulting labor stoppage figures to be something that Magic and Jordan could not have imagined in their day either.

Cap space is fool's gold. A half-dozen teams spent two years developing major cap space, and in the end Miami was the only winner. The Knicks (Amar'e Stoudemire) and Bulls (Carlos Boozer) landed consolation prizes, and everyone else struck out.

Over two decades of unrestricted free agency, the results have been recklessly disappointing for teams with major cap space. Shaquille O'Neal remains the only major free agent to win a championship with his new club, having won three championships for the Lakers after signing as a free agent in 1996.

Four years after Shaq went to Los Angeles, Orlando thought it would be able to recruit Tim Duncan but wound up instead with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, whose injuries prevented the Magic from moving past the first round. Now the Heat hope they have created a dynasty around James, Wade and Bosh; even if it works, they will be the exception to the rule. Free agency rarely works out as planned.

Now teams with cap space are looking ahead to the summer of 2011, but how can they be certain of the future? No one can predict the rules of free agency that will be delivered by the ongoing negotiations between owners and players. Teams may have cap space in 2011 under the current system, but how can they say whether the same space will exist under the rules of the next bargaining agreement?

Kobe Bryant is the favorite. He may even be the people's favorite to defend his championships next spring. Traditional sports fans will appreciate Bryant for not only sticking it out in Los Angeles (putting aside his frustrated demands to be traded a few years ago) but also because he'll be the old man trying to fend off the three youngsters in Miami. There may actually be feelings of sentiment for Bryant and the old-school values his play represents.

Bryant has redefined himself as the best postseason player in basketball over the last two years. He has presided over the transformation of his Lakers from a score-first bunch to a team of defenders. Miami will have to make a similar conversion in order to beat him.

Zones will grow in importance. How else to defend Miami but collapse inside and hope that James and Wade can't make jumpers? The Suns' wholesale manipulation of zone defenses against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals showed everyone that there may be more value to be plundered from these packages. Every staff will require an assistant with expertise in constructing and picking apart zone defenses.

Oklahoma City is the owners' favorite model. While players want to play for teams that are willing to spend big in pursuit of a championship, most owners are envious of the disciplined Thunder, who have built a low-payroll roster of promising young players around third-year MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The Thunder have it all -- cheap labor, upside and a team that figures to make the playoffs and eventually contend for championships. The players' union will not appreciate this model.

I saw your comment stating that "The NBA fined [Dan] Gilbert because David Stern doesn't want owners or executives lambasting players for exercising their rights." I'm not sure if you were agreeing or not with Stern's actions in fining Gilbert, but my question is this: When did the right to become a free agent trump the right to free speech?-- Jack, Cleveland

Gilbert's $100,000 fine was predictable, let's put it that way. He was essentially criticizing the NBA product -- James is a two-time MVP and one of the faces of the league -- as a coward and a quitter. It was no surprise he was fined.

Free speech? An employee who criticizes the boss or the company in a public way will expect to be punished. The same dynamic goes here, Jack.

Why should I attend an NBA game in a small- to mid-market NBA city? The attitude of the stars is not about commitment; it's about their agenda and being located in the higher-profile market. I can tell you this as a fan of the Raptors, I have been to my last game for quite some time. I have no belief that the NBA has the best interests of the markets I mentioned in its consideration. I hope people in these markets also take a stand. The NFL does it the best, and the NHL to a lesser extent, of giving their fans belief that there is something to cheer and support.-- Sean O'Reilly, Kitchener, Ont.

That's what the next collective bargaining agreement is expected to address. At the moment, the best teams are the biggest spenders who are willing and able to pay huge luxury-tax penalties in order to hoard the most talent. After next season, Stern hopes to be able to tell you and millions of other fans that your teams have as much chance of contending as the Lakers and the Celtics. First, he'll have to get the players to go along. He'll probably have to convince them by locking them out for an extended length of time until they can't bear to go without another paycheck.

Do you think the LeBron, Wade, Bosh union in Miami will cause a ripple effect of players legally colluding to make their own "Big Three"? I read that Chris Paul said at Carmelo's wedding, "We will make our own big three in N.Y.!" This disturbs me because the NBA is top heavy with teams to begin with and is probably the major sport that has the least amount of parity. If we have 3-4 super teams, and the other 26 have no shot on Day 1, I think it could hurt the league as a whole.-- Chris Olivo, Cherry Hill, NJ

My feeling is that NBA fans love to see a few exceptional teams. The 1980s are viewed as the league's golden era in part because the early part of that decade was dominated by a few teams -- the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers -- who hoarded the talent. Thereafter we heard complaints that expansion had damaged the league, in part because there were no great teams built to challenge Jordan's Bulls.

The difficulty for Paul and Anthony is that they aren't free agents, which limits their ability to demand trades to the same team. The formation of Miami's threesome was years in the making, and I doubt we'll see anything like it again anytime soon.

Does Suns owner Robert Sarver know what he is doing? With all of the good front-office candidates out there (Kevin Pritchard, Jeff Bower), he goes and hires an agent, Lon Babby, to run things? Can this work? Won't there be some huge conflicts of interest?-- Ray R., Scottsdale, Ariz.

Does anyone care about conflicts of interest anymore? It's obvious that Wade was recruiting James and Bosh to come to Miami when both of those players were working for other teams. Babby's player contacts give him inroads that could help the Suns, and his understanding of negotiations from the players' view won't hurt Phoenix either. In addition, he'll hire a traditional NBA executive to work under him.

The questions on this topic were so good that I created an extra mailbag section to deal with them.

The problem with your column ("LeBron's decision could redefine greatness") is that you ignore the fact that LeBron has allowed himself to be sold as The Man by Nike, Gatorade, etc. He is expected to be The Man because he created that expectation, not because Jordan or Kobe or whoever else did it first. If a guy makes hundreds of millions of dollars pretending to be something, then people expect him to be that.-- Jason, Chicago

I'm sure LeBron will be marketed to the same high level in Miami as he was in Cleveland. It's also worth noting that Magic Johnson was marketed in a similar way with the Lakers even though statistically he wasn't "The Man" on his team.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar owned a championship ring when Magic arrived as his teammate. Abdul-Jabbar was already a five-time MVP and he was well on his way to becoming the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Look in the record books and you'll find that Abdul-Jabbar scored more points and won more titles and MVPs than Magic. And yet, none of those achievements changes the impression that Magic was the star of those teams.

Let's see how it plays out, but a few years from now I believe people will have a different view of James than they're expressing now. If the Heat win multiple titles and he is seen as the quarterback, no one will care that Wade won one more title than LeBron, just as no one cared that Abdul-Jabbar had the same advantage over Magic.

I don't presume to speak for everyone, but I disagree with your premise that only because of Jordan is LeBron being viewed as "not measuring up." In my mind it has nothing to do with scoring, rather with leadership. Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon did not lead the league in scoring when they won and were surrounded by excellent (even Hall of Fame) players, but it was always their team. And none of them was paired with another player of their caliber in their prime. Even Jordan had a HOF player with him for all his championships, but again, it was Jordan's team. LeBron has gone to Dwyane's team, and in that has lost his claim to the same level of greatness. Whether he truly wanted that role is immaterial, because he has tried to lay claim to it ever since "King" James entered the league. Even if he wins multiple championships with the Heat, I don't see how you could ever mention him in the same breath with those others.-- Walt, Washington, D.C.

I've got to say I couldn't disagree more with you, Walt.

When you say none of those champions was paired with "another player of their caliber in their prime," you're forgetting that Bird was paired in the frontcourt with Kevin McHale, whom Charles Barkley calls "the best player I ever played against." There were five potential Hall of Famers on the 1985-86 Celtics team -- Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton, and the first four of them were in their prime. Magic had Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy with another Hall of Famer in Bob McAdoo coming off the bench early in Johnson's career. Russell had too many Hall of Fame teammates to count.

You're assuming that James won't emerge as the best player on his team in Miami. How can you make that assumption?

I understand why so many people believe he ran out on his responsibilities as a team leader in Cleveland -- that was my initial reaction, too. But when I started hearing of the idea that he would become Miami's version of Magic Johnson, then I started to understand there may be another dynamic at play here.

You tell me how many championships Magic would have won without Abdul-Jabbar? I'll tell you the answer is zero.

James wants to play with great players, just as Bird and Magic did long before Michael Jordan came along to change everyone's perception of what "The Man" is supposed to represent.

If James wins championships with Miami in the role of Magic Johnson, he's going to receive a lot of credit for acting on his vision to leave Cleveland.

You wrote, "But what if James has never viewed himself as the second coming? What if he never wanted to be the next Jordan?" C'mon, Ian, this guy calls himself KING JAMES and you're trying to say that maybe he doesn't want to be The Man? They hang a giant banner in Cleveland for him that says "Witness" and he doesn't want to be The Man? Then what exactly were we supposed to be witnessing? LeBron being the second banana? I think he tried to be Jordan and got eaten alive by the enormous pressure and now he's bailed out to South Beach to play Tonto to Wade's Lone Ranger.-- Tom, Ocean, NJ

What if he wants to be "The Man" in the same way that Magic was "The Man?" That's the point I was making. There is more than one way to lead a team to championships.

With Larry Bird on LeBron James. We've heard from Jordan and Johnson about LeBron's move to Miami, so last week I asked Bird about it. He wasn't interested in the topic.

I asked Bird if he's given much thought to James' decision to leave Cleveland in order to play with Wade in Miami.

"Not really," said Bird, who is president of the Pacers. "He's a free agent, he can do what he wants to do. He's got to make his own decisions."

How well will he play alongside Wade and Bosh?

"LeBron scores a lot of points, but he's got an all-around game," Bird said. "If somebody's open, he's going to make the play. He's the same as Magic as a playmaker. He'll keep everybody happy.

"I think he's the best or second-best player in the league," Bird said of James. "He's very talented and he does a little bit of everything -- defend, pass, score. He's not going to have any problem."

Will Wade thrive alongside James?

"I think it's fine," Bird said. "Both are talented, both know how to play, and the ultimate goal is to win. They'll fit together pretty nice.

"Obviously they've got lot of talent and a lot of very good players who are going to play together. It's tough to deal with, but other teams are also very tough. The Lakers are champions for a reason -- they're talented, they can play big, they can play small, and then they've got Kobe. The Lakers and Miami are two of the top five or six teams."

I asked Bird if anyone used to talk about being "The Man" when he was playing for the Celtics. He scoffed at that one and said, "No."

With an Eastern pro personnel director. "Chris Paul has to be out of New Orleans. You figure if New Orleans is looking for young players and cap relief, then the Knicks can't do it because they don't have any assets. Orlando has assets. The Blazers could send them a package of Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum and other guys. Maybe Dallas sends them Rodrigue Beaubois and Caron Butler.

"Do I think he's on the move? Yes. You trade him now and maybe you can get 90 cents on the dollar for him; if he starts complaining and now you're going into February looking to deal him, then New Orleans will get less in return for him. They should look to move him preemptively."

For reading. This is likely my final Weekly Countdown for the summer. Training camp will be here before we know it. Many thanks for a terrific season and we'll be back at it soon.

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