People lined up to see the Titanic sinking /
Instead we rose from the ashes like a Phoenix /
If ya waiting for the end of the dynasty sign /
It would seem like forever is a mighty long time.
Over the last two years, the Heat have gone 23-7 in playoff games with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the starting line-up. Remove an NBA Finals loss to the Mavs, a team with two 7-footers constructed almost perfectly to beat them, and their record shoots to 21-3.
Among their victims: a Thunder team with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, a 61-win Bulls team with the league's MVP and a 56-win Celtics team coming off losing an NBA Finals Game 7.
When Miami lost to Dallas in 2011, the Welcome Party looked like something out of Greek tragedy, a warning of the perils of hubris. Now, after they won the title in 2012, it looks startlingly prescient. What if LeBron is actually able to call his own shot? What if Babe Ruth had pointed out to center field and guaranteed "not four, not five, not six, not seven" home runs?
"The Decision" was a shot across the bow of ownership and the NBA's entire management structure. The workers, so to speak, had taken control of the means of production. But what really captivated the nation was what happened next, when the Heat stars danced and showed out on stage as if their mere presence together guaranteed titles -- how many, they didn't know, but an awful lot. As if there was nothing that organizations worth hundreds of millions of dollars could do over the span of years to counter the work of three guys at a few Olympic basketball practices.
Miami won a title by handing a blank check to three stars, having them divvy it up among themselves and getting out of their way as they recruited some of their friends (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and now Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) to play with them for cheap.
Almost as soon as the words "taking my talents" came out of LeBron's mouth on national television, people had been eagerly anticipating his failure. It was supposed to be a morality tale: LeBron was Icarus, filled with ambition, flying too close to the sun. Instead, the worst fears of owners like Dan Gilbert, a man who made a fortune selling exploding mortgages to elderly homeowners, came true: rather than being chastened, LeBron's peers scrambled to find some wings of their own.
In the words of an entertainer/CEO that LeBron has consciously modeled his career after, the NBA's best player isn't a businessman. He's a business, man.
Mickey Arison may own the Heat, but for all intents and purposes, they are LeBron's franchise. And to understand the challenges they will face to reach his ultimate goal, it's useful to look into their past. "The Decision" was the culmination of events that began in the summer of 2007, while most of the most significant roster moves in the NBA over the last two years can be tied back to the bold gauntlet thrown down in the summer of 2010.
The league was a much different place in the summer of 2007, coming off the lowest-rated Finals series in its history. The Suns, the only team with the talent to challenge the Spurs, had lost in a controversy-plagued second-round series, allowing San Antonio to breeze through the final two rounds against small-market teams from Utah and Cleveland with only one All-Star on their rosters.
The Celtics and the Lakers raised the bar the next year, landing franchise 7-footers in lopsided trades. If Kevin Garnett hadn't torn his knee in the middle of the 2009 season, the two teams likely would have played in three consecutive NBA Finals.
There had been a huge influx of All-Star talent in the 2003-2005 drafts, but as those players were coming into their own, they kept running into a super-team on each coast. In 2010, LeBron averaged 29/9/8 on 50 percent shooting against the Celtics and lost in six; Wade averaged 33/6/7 on 54 percent shooting and lost to them in five.
Carmelo Anthony, the other All-NBA player from their draft class, went 0-2 against the Lakers in the playoffs. Dwight Howard, the NBA's best center, was 1-2 against the Lakers and Celtics; his only win coming in a seven-game series against a Boston team playing without KG. The two best PG's of their generation, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, kept running into an LA brick wall in April and May.
In an era of super-teams, Howard, without an All-NBA caliber teammate in Orlando, could no longer leave his fate up to the tender mercies of men like Otis Smith. Following the lead of Williams, Anthony and Paul, he became the fourth star in the last two years to leave the small-market franchise that drafted him to play in either NYC or L.A.
In terms of haves and have-nots, the NBA is as top-heavy as it has been in nearly 30 years. In the 1980s, Magic Johnson played on a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, while Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Those two teams won eight of nine championships from 1980-88, with a 76ers team that featured Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Andrew Toney winning the other.
The NBA has long struggled with the idea of parity. On one hand, it has lived in the shadow of the NFL, a league defined by the idea that any given team can win on "any given Sunday." On the other, those years in the 80's with almost no competitive balance to speak of? They're widely viewed as the league's "Golden Age".
But the widespread popularity of college football, a sport where the top conferences openly collude with one another to restrict access to the postseason, belies the idea that parity is responsible for the NFL's success. The NFL is the most popular sports league in the United States primarily because football is the most popular sport in America.
And if you look at sports besides America's new pastime, the arguments for parity quickly fall apart. Did men's tennis become less compelling when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic won every major for nearly five years? Was Tiger's success bad for golf? The Yankees, hate them or love them, drive more interest in baseball than any other team.
It isn't in the best interest of the NBA, or the sport of basketball as a whole, for the best players to play on bad teams in small markets. The most talented stage actors work on Broadway for the same reason that Cristiano Ronaldo plays in Madrid and Lionel Messi plays in Barcelona: that's where the most fans can watch them perform. In that respect, basketball is no different from any other form of entertainment.
The NBA Finals are the sport's biggest stage, a showcase to casual fans around the world. There's no reason for a team with as little talent as the 2007 Cavaliers to be on it. The primary goal of the NBA should be to grow the sport of basketball as much as possible: that doesn't come from (not) watching Sasha Pavlovic, Eric Snow and Damon Jones do whatever it is they did. In the words of a memorable viral video, "ain't nobody got time for that."
The only ones who do are the owners, who use the crutch of maintaining competitive balance to protect themselves from the incompetence of their own front offices. It's much easier to luck into LeBron in the lottery and ride him all the way to the NBA Finals than it is to execute a plan over several years and build a legitimate contender through the draft like the Thunder.
When he got his Joe Namath on seven times in one breath, LeBron must have been thinking that the NBA's other 29 franchises would be run as incompetently as the Dan Gilbert-era Cavs. But just as Miami formed partially in response to the trades Ainge made in Boston, two of the best organizations in the NBA answered the challenge LeBron threw down with counters of their own this summer.
After picking up four All-Stars in three consecutive drafts, this offseason the Thunder demonstrated the ability to plan for the long term. First, they selected Perry Jones III with the No. 28 overall pick, a 6'11+ forward with as much talent as Anthony Davis. Obviously, Davis produced at a much higher level in college, but he'd have a much different reputation if he had played for Scott Drew rather than John Calipari. Then there was the fateful Harden trade, which sets them back this year but, thanks to the future assets they received, could set them up to be an even more dangerous contender down the road.
The Lakers, meanwhile, built their team the "old-fashioned way" -- picking the pockets of poorly run franchises in smaller markets. They acquired Nash for a trade exception and were ready to take advantage of an Orlando franchise that couldn't build an elite team around the best center in the NBA. Howard, the only player in the NBA who makes LeBron play in the shade, was always the biggest threat to the grand experiment on South Beach. Now he's on a team with three future Hall of Famers, all of whom perfectly complement his game.
LA's struggles to start the season have been the cause of chuckling throughout the league, but that schadenfreude might be a little misplaced. Many of the Lakers problems are eminently fixable, but if they aren't going to challenge Miami, who will? An Oklahoma City team that took a clear step back this season? Barring an injury to one of the three Heat stars, it's certainly not going to be any of the other flawed contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Realistically, without a dramatic injury in the post-season, it's hard to see a scenario where a team besides the Heat, Lakers or Thunder hoists the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the next few years. Even with Harden now in Houston, the concentration of talent in the league's top three teams is just overwhelmingly high; each could lose its best player and still conceivably be a top-5 team.
In a different era, Bosh and Wade alone would be enough to contend for title, as would Kobe, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Kevin Martin isn't nearly the player Harden is, but he would still form an intriguing contender with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
Here's the scariest stat of all for the NBA's 27 other franchises: LeBron is 27, Howard is 26 and Durant is 24. The future is here. There are no more moves on the board, no more shoes waiting to be dropped. Paul and Andrew Bynum could be free agents next summer but both players, who have already suffered significant knee injuries early in their careers, still have a lot of questions to be answered about their ability to carry a team deep into the playoffs.
Even with L.A.'s early stumbles, a Game 7 of the NBA Finals with Nash, Kobe, Gasol, Howard, LeBron, Bosh, Wade and Ray Allen all on the floor at the same time remains a tantalizingly plausible scenario. That's an All-Star Game with actual stakes, basketball at its absolute highest level.
The storylines, of course, would write themselves. Michael Jordan retired from the NBA a year after the Barcelona Olympics, bored with a league that no longer challenged him. The year after the London Olympics, LeBron could be tested harder than he ever has been before. Jordan won his sixth ring against a team whose two best players were in their mid-30's. If Kobe is going to get his, he'll have to go through one of the most talented teams in league history.
Even if you are a fan of one of the other 27 teams, it's impossible not to be excited about the next few seasons. Not even Gilbert and Robert Sarver can screw this up -- the next lockout won't be until 2017. We're entering the second Golden Age of the NBA.