In 2010 it was hard not to feel swindled by the “Big Three” conception. Two of the league’s top five players, plus another All-Star, took pay cuts to form a glamorous team in an even more glamorous city. But no one had said anything a couple years prior when Boston teamed up Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with Paul Pierce, or when Mitch Kupchak practically stole Pau Gasol away from Memphis (yes, I know that in retrospect it was a good trade for Memphis, but at the time it wasn’t) and paired him with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. What’s funny is that in the Celtics’ and Lakers’ case, the rest of the league was complicit in the super-team construction–Memphis, Seattle, and Minnesota had literally been cogs in the championship machine. But again, it was perfectly fine when Boston and Los Angeles assembled powerful, top-loaded rosters; these were the teams that had won in the past and were supposed to win.
The Miami Heat was an appendage to the league, added in 1988 as an expansion team. In the pre-Wade years, the Heat either lost in the first round or didn’t make the playoffs in 13 out of 15 seasons (and never reached the Eastern Conference finals). This won’t come as much of a surprise when you look at Miami’s rosters from the 90s (linked here); few names, if any, will pop out at you (although I was pleasantly surprised to discover a player named Bimbo). Pat Riley and co. caught a break in 2003, when they selected Dwyane Wade with the fifth pick in the draft, a pick that would shift the the trajectory of the franchise. Two years later, Shaq was shipped from L.A. to Florida, and a year after that Miami had its first ring. Fast forward a few more years and…well, you know. LeBron made a big decision, shared some some of his predictions, and ultimately won two championships.
But ever since James and Bosh signed (and Wade re-signed) with the Heat, there’s been a nasty stigma attached to both the players and the organization. And its a malicious stigma, one that not only stems from jealousy but also aims to diminish integrity. The bad feelings toward Miami go somewhat like this: three great players took pay cuts to play together instead of trying to win on their own. But this is flawed thinking.
Firstly, the financial success of teams in the four major sports has led to rapidly rising salaries and salary caps, and athletes are often criticized for the money they make. Only recently, the media pounced on Kobe Bryant after he signed a two year, $48.5 million dollar extension despite publicly saying that all he wanted to do was win. I agree that signing this type of contract seemed counterintuitive from a winning standpoint and that Bryant should have taken less money to help his team acquire other serviceable players, but the media can’t simultaneously blame James, Bosh and Wade for taking pay cuts and Kobe for not taking one. What do you think the Lakers would have done had Kobe taken a lesser deal? Tried to sign as many superstars as possible!
Others clamor that it is not businesslike for stars to accept less money to control where they play and who they play with, and that this behavior puts players and the league on a slippery slope (how low can your salary go… can it go down low?). Although the free-agency institution is, in a vacuum, a free market (players often go to whatever team offers them the most money), the existence of a maximum salary basically punts this notion out the window. Forbes estimates that if there were no maximum salary, LeBron would command between $40 and $50 million dollars per year, about double what the max would allow. So really, there isn’t a free market anyways. And, if owners and the league set a salary ceiling, why can’t players have some control over a floor? I’m not saying that superstars should take $10 million per year; as Grantland’s Zach Lowe pointed out, at some point below a player’s market value a pay cut does become a way to cheat the system, and this is a line the league should not let players cross. But if a superstar leaves a couple million on the table to aid his team and put himself in the best position to win, then hate toward him is unjustified.
All that said, the biggest thing that legitimized the Big Three construction happened earlier this month, when San Antonio crushed Miami four games to one in the Finals. Making four straight NBA Finals appearances and winning two titles is obviously impressive, but a track record like that doesn’t insinuate foul play. If Miami had hypothetically won four consecutive titles, there’s clearly an argument that the Heat somehow had an unfair advantage over other teams. The last and only time a team won four consecutive titles was when the Celtics won eight in a row from 1959-1966. That was a period when there wasn’t a three-point line, people didn’t want black players in the league, and everyone wore converses on game day. Also, those Boston teams had four or five Hall of Famers in their prime on their roster every year, something that could never happen today. So yeah, unfair.
But Miami didn’t win four in a row. Or three in row. The team struggled to two championships and was outscored, outhustled and out-everythinged by an aging Spurs team this year. The idea that assembling a large amount of talent is unfair is like saying San Antonio’s ball movement is unfair because management signed a lot of great passers and players with high basketball IQ. The Spurs were better than Miami this year, and arguably better last year as well. The Heat could have easily gone one for four in the FInals. That doesn’t sound like an overly-dominant team that took advantage of the rest of the league; it sounds like a team that played its card right and squeezed out a couple titles.
The above does have some ramifications for this summer. Miami’s roster, as it is currently constructed, is not good enough to win more championships. To keep this team in contention, LeBron, Bosh and Wade would likely all need to sacrifice some moola so that Pat Riley can lure additional talent, whether that be role players or another star, to the Sunshine State. More importantly, LeBron just doesn’t have enough rings. He believes he’s one of the best players of all-time, and although I don’t like to toss around the “legacy” word often, LeBron’s legacy will largely be determined by his ring count. Why? For some reason he hasn’t been embraced like Michael Jordan was, so the collective peanut gallery of Twitter and the rest of social media can and will always point to Jordan’s six rings as the reason he’s better than LeBron. James needs to have at least a ring per finger on one of his massive hands to get serious “GOAT” consideration. That’s why I won’t be surprised if he somehow ends up in Chicago, Houston or Golden State; LeBron wants to win now, and those are his best options. Although the second decision might not be publicly televised, it has more implications on James’ future, his team, and the NBA than the first one did. King Joffrey was killed by poison, but LeBron’s fate will be determined by pen and paper.