NBA owners, move over. Coaches, step off. With superstar LeBron James moving to the Miami Heat to join best courtside buds Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the National Basketball Association just allowed players to elbow their way to the throne.
Appropriate enough that someone whose nickname includes the word "King" should pull off such a coup. Worked out among friends at a "summit" earlier this summer, the James free-agency move – aired live as ESPN's "The Decision" segment Thursday night – in one stroke shifted the NBA's power structure and could undermine attempts to achieve parity in a league dominated by a few select teams.
"It is not until you parse the words that you realize what's going on, and honestly, what is going on is impressive," wrote ESPN.com's Mark Kreidler last month. "It is a transfer of power from owner to player – and on the players' side, a union within a union. [It] absolutely suggests that a tiny handful of elite players could conspire – that's the familiar use of the word, not the legal – to determine the future direction of the league. Wow. That's your modern-era power grab."
James's intentions may be good. He gave up more money in both Cleveland and New York to head to Everglades Country in order to "join forces" and make a run for his first championship ring after seven seasons in Cleveland.
Short term, the NBA this summer has fielded the strongest crop of free-agency players since Michael Jordan played the field in 1996. Seven out of 100 TV viewers in the 56 largest US cities watched the ESPN show Thursday night, probably making it the most-watched program in ESPN history, according to Nielsen.
That attention underlined the stakes – in part for Cleveland, where some pinned the economic future of the city on James's decision. And the stakes are high for the NBA world as a whole, with Miami moving from an OK team to a club capable of winning one or two championships in the next five years.
Players discussing their futures, of course, is nothing new. But the idea of a backroom cabal pulling the strings, outside the purview of coaches, general managers, and the league commissioner, worries many analysts. Currently, the league has no mechanism to address what some critics call player collusion – which is illegal for owners – and commissioner David Stern did not step in to thwart the cooked-up Miami plan.
"There's going to be a certain level of cynicism [since James has gone to the Heat] because you have three players deciding, 'We're great, we love each other, and let's go kill all the other teams.' I'm not sure that's going to be good for the league," says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
The move has its potential downsides, especially for James. The two-time MVP seemed taken aback by questions during Thursday's show about fans burning his jersey in Cleveland. The Cavs owner called the Akron native's spurning of Cleveland a "cowardly betrayal."
"The Heat just became the New York Yankees, where a large portion of NBA fans are going to really want to root against them and will hope like so many fans who despise the Yankees that great talent doesn't make for a great team," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles.
Moreover, James made the implicit admission that he will not be a team leader. Wade, after all, has a title in Miami and is the face of the Heat.
What's more, even though James and Wade played well together as part of Team USA in the Olympics – and have undoubtedly played their share of driveway one-on-one – chemistry is still an issue. And on paper, the neighboring Orlando Magic are arguably better, at least on the shooting front.
"LeBron and D-Wade are accustomed to being, more or less, the entire team. As much as they might insist, 'I’ll do whatever it takes to win,' we cannot deny the presence of ego. It broke up the Beatles. It will get to the Heat," writes Mark Bradley in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
From the perspective of big-league athletes, James, Bosh, and Wade have become a dribblers' liberation front – a small band of superstars expressing solidarity and freedom from being chess pieces (albeit highly paid ones) for general managers and coaches to move around.
But ultimately, others say, having three of the league's top stars on a "superteam" is far from ideal for a league whose bottom-tier teams struggle for recognition, success, and revenue.
“Stern and ESPN and ABC and Turner would prefer to have the stars spread out among several teams,” former CBS Sports chief Neal Pilson told Bloomberg news service. “You can’t just show Miami all the time, and certainly the TV carriers benefit when you have attractive stars and personalities on multiple teams."