Mid-July is not commonly thought of as basketball season. But the reworking of the NBA’s power dynamic sis encroaching on the turf of MLB and NFL camps opening this week.
The big news last week was that National Basketball Association all-star guard Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers reportedly doesn’t want to be pals with teammate LeBron James any longer. After going to three consecutive NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, winning one, Irving has asked the Cavs to trade him.
Why would you want to leave such a cushy spot? Cashing big cheques and basking in the reflected glow of James, the world’s best player? A member of one of the NBA’s elite teams?
Rumour has it that Irving is trying to force the hand of both James and the Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Irving, the first overall draft pick in 2011, is looking down the road. James has made little secret of the fact he wants to move to Los Angeles when he can get out of his contract. That may be as soon as next summer.
With no LeBron in Cleveland, the Cavs’ chances of being the NBA East big dog are greatly reduced.
So Irving is looking to get to the next super team while he has options. Forcing the Cavs to deal him to a potential champion like San Antonio or Houston now would give him the advantage of forming the team that succeeds Golden State as champion. Because super teams are all the rage in the NBA.
The first assembled champion was James’s Miami Heat squad, when he brought together Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach to win two NBA titles in their years as teammates. When James decided to return to his original team in Cleveland, it was Irving and Kevin Love he enticed to the shore of Lake Erie for a championship run.
But Golden State got there first as a super squad, with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and (last year) Kevin Durant creating an unbeatable squad in Oakland. So the Cavs have lost two of three NBA Finals to the Warrior machine.
The ascension of super teams in the NBA worries those people who think parity is the way to run a league. The concept of superstars uniting to create these juggernauts offends those who see dominant clubs as contrary to the spirit of expanded leagues and marketable logos ad nauseam.
They point to the lacklustre first rounds of this year’s NBA post-season as proof that benchmark teams are bad for business. While the series were underwhelming, it still didn’t hurt national TV ratings, especially when the anticipated Warriors-Cavs final rolled around. People still want to see the best players on the best teams, not a bunch of franchise players strung out over a lot of meaningless markets.
Much of this concentration of talent is being driven by the players and their agents – not the league or the teams. With endless stacks of money to be made by even the average player, the deciding factor for stars is now winning. As in soccer, NBA players are exploiting the desire for premium content to drive new digital packages to global acceptance.
Basketball is more susceptible to super teams because of its limited rosters. A star of James’s or Curry’s magnitude can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of a game. In the National Football League (55-man rosters), the National Hockey League (21-man rosters) or Major League Baseball (25-man rosters), the chance of dominating based on a core of superstars is less likely.
But it’s hardly a coincidence that Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks and Nicklas Lidstrom’s Detroit Red Wings have dominated the Stanley Cup since 2000. Great players still equate with championships – even with large rosters. Just ask Tom Brady of the NFL’s New England Patriots.
Commissioner Gary Bettman’s NHL will try to resist this market pressure with its suffocating salary cap that punishes star players and with its drive to keep bloating the number of teams in the league.
But the players and the fans want something more in this era of entertainment. Seeing the best against best is always going to triumph over regional rivalries in the digital age.
Lebron James knows this. How long will it take for the NHL to wake up to his message?
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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