With Carmelo Anthony on the brink of a trade to New Jersey, we're seeing the logical next step to an era spawned by LeBron James' decision to leave Cleveland this summer. So with superstars wielding more power than ever, what does it mean for the future?
"Will Carmelo be traded?" We've been asking for months now, and even as the Nets inch closer to making their superstar dreams a reality, there's no answer. So the question has become, "Okay, will Carmelo finally get traded please?"
That's where we are right now. It's where we've been since September.
The relationship between Carmelo and the Nuggets has clearly soured beyond salvation, but by now, that's not really the point. What's more interesting here is what this means for the future of the NBA. After the Summer of 2010 prompted head-exploding rumor-mongering and crested with nausea-inducing narcissism, there were a lot of people who threw up their hands and quietly shook their heads. "This is the New Era of the NBA," they said. "Now everyone's going to try to do this."
But as we've seen with Carmelo, that's not quite right. What LeBron created with The Decision™ was more of a once-in-a-lifetime lapse in judgment that won't be replicated anytime soon. That's not to say future free agents won't be just as narcissistic and deluded as King James or that ESPN won't rush to give the next superstar free agent a platform to play out their most grandiose press conference fantasies. But what The Decision™ really meant for the future of the NBA is something more practical. A team can lose their superstar and get nothing.
While LeBron transfixed the sports universe, laid out a blueprint for fellow superstars like Anthony to control their own destiny, and unwittingly made himself America's anti-hero, NBA teams have been paying closer attention to the Cavs team he left behind.
It doesn't take a whole lot of hard-won wisdom to read the tea leaves here--the Cavs have the worst record in the NBA at the moment, stocked with players (and contracts) that they acquired to compliment a superstar that no longer exists in Cleveland. They've lost 19 of their last 20 games.
It's ugly. Like, avert your eyes. We're watching a slowly team bleed to death out there in Ohio.
That's what Denver wants to avoid by trading Carmelo now. When LeBron taught his peers the value of leverage as a free agent, NBA teams learned the same lesson. So with Carmelo's sights set on New York City next summer, we're witnessing the real New Era on the NBA landscape, where empowered prospective free agents force teams to dig in their heels and do their best to preserve some semblance of dignity.
The formula goes like this—Superstar X demands a trade, Team Y slowly accepts that their title dreams are dead, and patiently auctions their superstar off to the highest bidder, Team Z.
Carmelo Anthony today, and Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, tomorrow. X-Y-Z, etc.
And here we are: 2010's insane charade has given way to 2011, and Cleveland's naivete has given way to Denver's mature pragmatism. But isn't mature pragmatism just as depressing as LeBronnukah ever was?
Isn't it just as discouraging to watch Carmelo go through the motions in Denver as it was watching LeBron pretend to be loyal to the Cavaliers? And when you think about the spectacle created by LeBron and all the rumors that put him in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, or Miami... What's the difference between that game and all the rumors that have put Carmelo with New York, New Jersey, or Chicago? And isn't Carmelo being just as much of a cryptic douche as LeBron ever was?
Here's what he tweeted amidst the swirling rumors last night:
The NBA's era of empowered superstars may not end up with a string of ESPN specials the next few years, but thinking on a broader level, this isn't that different. There's just one silver lining.
The team that Carmelo inherits in New Jersey won't be in any better position to actually win than Denver has been the past few years. Does a team built around Carmelo, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Brook Lopez really scare a team like the Celtics? Do the Miami Heat, for that matter?
And how different is it for Carmelo Anthony in New Jersey, where he'll be asked to single-handedly compensate for obvious shortcomings for a team that handicapped itself to acquire him? How different is for LeBron in Miami, bulldozing his way through the regular season just like he did in Cleveland, with a Heat roster designed to please him, destined to get exposed in the playoffs. Just like in Cleveland.
And when the Orlando Magic's latest attempt to appease Dwight Howard inevitably fails, and he demands a trade, imagine how much a team will have to give up to get him. Won't he be asked to do just as much in a Knicks uniform as he ever was in Orlando?
It reminds me of 2007, when Paul Pierce was quietly pressuring the Celtics into trading him. It sounds blasphemous to think that Pierce ever could have played for someone other than the Celtics, but there was a very real chance that he could have gone to Memphis in exchange for Pau Gasol. If it had been 2010, maybe he would pushed even harder, and the Celtics would have been scared into acting. But they refused to deal him, Pierce accepted it, and... We all know how that turned out.
Instead of successfully forcing a trade, Pierce remained the face of the Celtics, and a year later, paired with two cast-off superstars to play his way into Celtics lore for the rest of time.
When anyone's frustrated, the grass is always greener on the other side, but imagine Pierce trading in Celtics green for Grizzlies teal, and how that would have shaped his career.
It's a cautionary tale that never came to fruition with Pierce, but it might with LeBron, Carmelo, and all the other franchise players that look to follow in their footsteps, leaving the teams and fans that loved them first, inheriting the same responsibilities and challenges they were trying to escape.
So while 2010 may have clued players in to value of leverage and 2011 may have teams reacting in kind, the future might just teach NBA superstars like Carmelo Anthony the most basic wisdom of all. The grass is always greener on the other side, yeah. But it's usually not much different.