When did it become fashionable to be friends with everyone you play against?
Immediately after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh colluded to play in Miami together earlier this summer, much of the post "The Decision" talk was about the tainting of James' legacy and the NBA's looming power imbalance. What didn't get much attention is a macro trend at work among today's NBA players that might be just as bad as having 27 of the NBA's 30 teams with no prayer of playing in June next year.
Namely, that the NBA's 400 or so active players -- with few exceptions -- seem to like each other more than the teams they play for.
I don't have to explain to old school sports fans why this is bad for the NBA. The NBA thrives on star players and rivalries. It's a double bonus when you get star players mixed into a rivalry, like when Magic Johnson's Lakers were going head-to-head with Larry Bird's Celtics for three NBA Finals throughout the 1980s. But even when an NBA title wasn't on the line, we still cherished watching Michael Jordan's Bulls versus Isiah Thomas' Pistons...and then Patrick Ewing's Knicks. Even Ewing's Knicks versus Alonzo Mourning's Heat was must-see-TV back in the day. And of course we all fondly remember Julius Erving's 76ers dueling with Bird's Celtics, the Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers pushed to the limit by Chris Webber's Kings and so on.
And for two of the last three NBA Finals, NBA fans have been blessed with Bryant's Lakers going up against the Celtics and their "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (amped up with the emergence of all-star point guard Rajon Rondo thrown into the mix...Rondo, thankfully, has no friends in the NBA and that might even include his own teammates). Simply put, there's nothing better than watching two teams and two sets of players go head-to-head who genuinely hate each other's guts.
Even James' Cavaliers were forming a mini-rivalry against those same Celtics, having lost to the guys in green twice in the past three Eastern Conference Playoffs. Since first meeting in 2008, Garnett and Pierce wanted nothing to do with James' friendship and to this day seem to thrive on that mutual dislike. James, conversely, cowered and then opted for the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy, rather than be put in a position to take down a true rival. (If only Bryant and his Big Three rivals in Boston were eight or so years younger right now.) By joining forces with Wade and Bosh, James chose friendship over legacy, loyalty and, frankly, fair play. A friendship forged from years and years playing with or being around Wade and Bosh that goes back to high school.
And now, we're hearing rumors of another "Big Three" possibly forming in New York should the Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony and the Hornets' Chris Paul jettison their respective franchises to join up with Amar'e Stoudemire in the Big Apple. Believe me, Paul didn't publicly pronounce this possibility at Anthony's wedding purely in jest. After all, if LeBron can play with two of his closest friends, why can't Paul?
I blame two things for this disconcerting trend: AAU basketball and technology.
The AAU (which stands for Amateur Athletic Union) is a 112-year old institution originally created to develop amateur sports, basketball being one them. It's since grown to include a series of national events and traveling tournaments showcasing the best basketball players of all ages, from elementary through high school. And it's during these events and tournaments that the athletes -- taken from their families for weeks at a time -- bond on the road while also being wooed by colleges, agents, and so forth. With so many outsiders wanting something from them, perhaps it's only each other that they have to relate to.
The AAU circuit has been around forever. But in the days before the advent of the mobile phone, text messaging and Twitter, the bond struck among AAU players would quickly dissipate as they shuttled off to their respective college programs and eventually, NBA teams. Today, thanks to the prevalence of mobile technology available to kids as young as eight years-old, the friendships among these young athletes continues year round. Hence why you routinely hear from star NBA players things like: "We've been boys since middle school."
Before the now infamous summer of 2010, the worst after effects of the NBA's newfound "Bromance Culture" were too many pre-game hugs, off-season workouts and in-game yuck-yuck fests among opposing players. But now they're colluding to decide who plays with whom, where and when. When two opposing NBA players don't like each other it has become the exception, not the rule.
Never one to complain without offering solutions, I'm at a loss to figure this one out. One possible solution that could prevent the next superstar collusion could be to give NBA teams the right to "franchise tag" a player a la the NFL. NBA players will scream of "restraint of trade", but aren't salary caps and maximum contract numbers restraint of trade anyway? Another option could be to give teams retaining a player's "Bird Rights" (i.e. playing for at least three consecutive seasons for the same franchise) more ammo in terms of salary and guaranteed years versus opposing teams when it comes to re-signing a prized player. When Miami was essentially able to offer James the same compensation package that Cleveland could, all they needed to trump Cleveland was the Bromance card which Miami president Pat Riley played to disgusting perfection.
Changing the entire culture of the players is a tall order. But if the NBA were somewhat cognizant of the players' unhealthy obsession with being friends with each other, perhaps they can make institutional changes today to give the fans rivalries worth watching tomorrow.