Without question, the Miami Heat are the villains of the 2011 NBA Finals, just as they have been the villains of the entire season. Since LeBron James uttered the words "South Beach" on ESPN back in July, and since he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took the stage at the AmericanAirlines Arena to celebrate their very existence, and since King James -- already hated by many for, well, being King James -- said the goal was to win "not one, not two ... not seven" championships -- since all of that, the NBA Most Wanted Moral Criminal List has been the Miami Heat roster, replicated in full and sorted by minutes played.
That isn't changing now, and should the Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks, as they are heavily favored to do, it won't end there. There will be a dozen columns bemoaning the new NBA, written by the self-important and self-appointed nobility of the pundit class. They'll bemoan that James, Wade and Bosh took team-building into their own hands when their teams -- Wade excepted -- couldn't handle it themselves. They'll rail that the ring is cheapened by the dark way in which the superpowers joined. They'll lament that the Mavericks, a team built the right way was beaten by a fraudulent champion, a victor with an asterisk.
Let me tell you something about the Dallas Mavericks.
Only one team has spent more money in the last decade than the Dallas Mavericks. Not the Lakers, not the Heat: only the New York Knicks, for a time led by an Isiah Thomas with a credit card and no conscience. The Mavericks have spent $851 million on payroll in the past decade, some $130 million more than the Lakers and $240 million more than the Heat.
So what, right? Well, the NBA has a little thing called "the salary cap." It's used to cap salary that teams are allowed to pay out in order to keep player payroll down and create an even playing field.
But it's a soft cap, with exceptions and routes in which teams that are so inclined can exceed the cap. Some would call some of these methods "loopholes." Like signing a retired Keith Van Horn to a contract solely to trade him for Jason Kidd, a deal that cost the Mavericks $10 million, and was legal under Bird rights rules despite Dallas being tens of millions of dollars beyond the cap. (Bird rights aim to allow teams to re-sign their own players in excess of the cap. Teams like the Mavericks instead use it to make high-dollar deals over the cap.)
The Mavericks work around the system by including draft picks in deals to get trades done ... then buying back into the first round almost every single year, to the tune of $3 million a pop, cash that doesn't count against the salary cap. Dallas works deals like the Peja Stojakovic buy-out/Alexis Ajinca trade this season. (What happened there? Oh, the Toronto Raptors decided to buy out Peja, taking a financial hit well in advance of the trade deadline. The Mavericks quickly signed him to a minimum contract. In a total and complete coincidence, the Mavs quickly traded prospect Alexis Ajinca to the Raptors with cash to cover his salary and a future second-round draft pick for the rights to a Greek dude who will probably never play in the NBA. The Mavs couldn't legally trade for Peja without giving up a key player -- a Stojakovic for Ajinca trade would have been illegal -- so they borked the system set in place to limit salary, and did it through the back channels, claiming all the way that the deals were totally separate. Riiiight.)
After that shenanigan went down, Mavericks bankroller Mark Cuban had the audacity to take the league-owned New Orleans Hornets to task for accepting more salary in the Marcus Thornton-Carl Landry swap. Cuban has to pay 1/29th of the Hornets' payroll, you see, and that $10,000 or whatever was just a bit too steep ... for a guy paying his roster $90 million.
Mark Cuban and the Mavericks have been abusing the NBA salary cap and trade rules for years, completely ignoring the standards by which teams are supposed to abide for the good of the league, for the good of the fans. The NBA is careening toward a lockout. You know why? Because teams who cry and plead about how much cash they're dropping every season have to overspend on everything to keep up with The Benefactor and his ilk (James Dolan, Jerry Buss and Paul Allen). The NBA is headed to a lockout because Mark Cuban and friends flog the salary cap until it bleeds, pushing and pushing and pushing for the smallest advantage on the court.
And you're mad because Miami clears the decks, signs three of the best players in the NBA, and marches to the NBA Finals? Give me a break. LeBron and Dwyane and Ch Bo and Pat Riley ain't the villains here. The Heat played by the rules (more or less) to assemble this team. The Mavericks stretched salary rules to the last thread, and have done so for a decade, and have done more than every team but the Knicks to send payroll on its upward trajectory over the past 10 years.
Root for the Mavericks if you choose, but don't root against the Heat because they're the bad guys. If you do, you're indicting the wrong suspect.