LeBron James had become death, the Shatterer of Worlds. If July 8th, 2010 was the date that the bomb dropped, the NBA’s Manhattan Project had started long before. It has been said that while all three of Miami’s Superfriends were affable since their arrival in the 2003 draft class, it was the 2008 Olympics where their cabal was created and real plans forged. All of them passed on full contract extensions, went into free agency where any team could have them for the right price, but ended up with Pat Riley, who just happenstancely had decided to rebuild in the middle of Dwayne Wade’s prime and had the money to pay all three available. Jeff Van Gundy prophesied they’d win more than 72 games and the era of player-created teams began.
Mere days after the Decision, Carmelo Anthony’s wedding brought together many of basketball’s young superstars. It was there that Chris Paul declared to form his own “Big Three,” supposedly referring to Amare’ Stoudemire, Carmelo, and himself. For all those that had foreseen apocalypse in The Decision, it was now undeniable: the end was nigh. Small markets and less desirable locales would be destroyed by pillars of fire, prayers went up that Michael, Larry and Magic would be raptured before having to see a future where would-be rivals were teammates. These upstarts would rule the Earth soon enough, friendship and collusion would hold the basketball world in an iron grip. And the next shoe did drop shortly behind the first: Amar’e signed with New York in the off-season with Carmelo following in a mid-season trade.
Not all that was foreseen came to pass. Miami failed to live up to its immediate expectations and there was talk of Spoelestra being fired (not that anyone would be silly enough to fire a coach shortly after adding two star players…). The Heat lost in the Finals their first season after adding James and Bosh. As quickly as it had been declared they would set a new record of wins, their loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks brought about declarations that LeBron would never win a championship.
Praise was heaped on the Mavericks from every direction as all those who had foretold the demise of their beloved sport instead were reassured in the success of the previous status quo. The Mavericks won their sole championship on the back of a slow build through draft, trade and free agency, and the continuation of the trusted method of paying the luxury tax to win. Dallas had provided a reprieve with which to review how the NBA’s greatest teams of 2011 had been formed: OKC’s drafted nucleus, Dallas’ free agent and trade, Miami’s player-as-GM foray. One team was noticeably absent.
New York did not find the same success as Miami in their player-led team-building experience. It had not been a Heat-Knicks Eastern Conference Finals. Through those first 27 games with Carmelo, New York was 14-13, with a first round sweep to boot. Which is not surprising because their “own Big 3” never became reality: the weddings quotee has never donned the blue and orange. As far as All-NBA 1st Team goes, Chris Paul would have been the member of the hypothetical Knicks squad with the automatic qualification, the equivalent of LeBron in Miami. After the Carmelo Anthony trade, there was little of value for New York to trade and not enough money in the coffers to pay for Paul outright. Chris Paul did not become a Knick.
But there is reason to question whether that was Paul’s preferred destination in the first place. Regarding an interview with Paul, Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports wrote:
When neither Howard nor Paul seemed interested in playing for the other’s team, they considered looking for a common destination . . . Sources close to both players said Howard and Paul settled on the Dallas Mavericks as an ideal destination, knowing owner Mark Cuban had the means to clear salary-cap space for them . . . Frustrated, Paul eventually grew tired of waiting on Howard, gave up on the Dallas plan and asked the Hornets for a trade.
Suddenly Cuban’s strategy to let the pieces of the championship puzzle go their separate ways can be viewed in a different light. One can imagine the speed of the recantations of disdain for The Decision around the Metroplex should a similar event have brought two superstars to the Mavericks. An immediate disavowal of claims of collusion in what the Heat had done, forgiveness for perceived slights in Carmelo trying to get to New York. Cuban and Donnie Nelson might not have been seen as the physicists that created the greatest weapon ever wielded, but had positioned themselves as the generals to use it. A mere Dwight Howard handshake stood in the way.
Asterisk-be-damned, the Miami Heat muscled through last year’s lockout season with James putting up one of the best statistical seasons ever and defeated the Thunder in the Finals to give LeBron the ring so many declared he would never attain. New York has its own hot streak right now, its best since Linsanity struck. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) Stoudemire is not playing now, just as he wasn’t then.
But ultimately, the returns have not been conclusive. Maybe any team with the league’s best player is in a good position, or perhaps players don’t always make the best team builders.
These new look Mavs bear the mark of speed, youth, and potential. This team’s promise is in the players improving, not just getting on a roll at the right time. A team created in an organic fashion. It’s easy to argue that Superfriends will define teambuilding in the future of the NBA because their team already has two Finals appearances and came out the victor in one of them. But it should be remembered that one of those friends is not only the best at his position, but the best in game and could someday be considered the best ever. It won’t work for just any three players. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are considered by most the best at their respective positions. Even an aging Nowitzki is not far from the best. The combination makes me think of the horror and beauty that Oppenheimer and William Laurence saw in 1945.
And just at that instance there rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one. … At first it was a giant column that soon took the shape of a supramundane mushroom.
While I enjoy the promise of the future in this season’s roster, now knowing how close it might have been to reality, I’m not above daydreaming of how Dallas could have become a super-power.
Shay Christian Vance is getting his feet wet in writing here at The Two Man Game. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.