Creation of a contender: Free agency and the Big Three

The sports world is in the midst of what some have referred to as its own miniature Y2K, NBA free agency. Basketball, with its smaller rosters, is unique in the impact a single star can have on the fortunes of an entire franchise. So perhaps it is little wonder that every summer speculations rises to a frenzied level surrounding every free agent and potential trade. But like the year 2000’s overhyped “computer apocalypse” which had little actual impact, most summers end with the stars returning to the incumbent teams. But that’s only most summers.

The Big Three

Four years ago three of the NBA’s stars subverted the traditional free agency process and collaborated to join in Miami, forming an instant basketball powerhouse. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh combined to reach four finals in four years, winning twice. In the process the Miami Heat became among the most divisive teams in recent history. This summer looks to become as memorable too, but this time as an end to the Heat’s Big Three. LeBron is returning to Cleveland, and most fans are celebrating.

But is the probable end of Miami’s run a good thing for the NBA? Miami brought together basketball nuts and casual fans in a hatred and grudging appreciation for a great sporting villain, and provided a fascinating glimpse at a “super” team built by player choice.

From the instant LeBron James, the most talented of the Big Three and best player in the world, announced his choice to play in Miami, the vitriol toward the Miami Heat was palpable. At best, fans of other teams hoping to lure LeBron were disappointed. Others decried what was seen as a backstabbing of his hometown and former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Cleveland disparaging fans tore down his posters and burned his jerseys.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote an emotionally charged letter to the public which included words like “narcissistic,” “selfishness” and “betrayal.” When the Heat later reached the finals, teams that might have previously been seen as obnoxious for their owner (the Dallas Mavericks with outspoken Mark Cuban) or boring for their style (the Spurs) became heroes for denying the Heat a championship. The Heat and their fans did little to dispel the hatred.

After the Heat fell short in their first visit to the finals, LeBron famously dismissed detractors as needing to “get back to the real world at some point.” The fans became infamous for leaving the games early when the team struggled. With the Spurs apparently on their way to victory in game 6 of the Heat’s third finals run, fans left in droves only to be locked out of the arena as Miami rallied in astonishing fashion. It also can’t be denied that many aspects of the Heat run could have been handled in a better manner.

LeBron’s “Decision” to join Miami was overhyped. Victory parades thrown before the Big Three had even played a game resulted in predictions that would blow expectations beyond any reasonable level. As LeBron announced his intention to return to Cleveland earlier this summer, effectively ending the Heat run, many have expressed their excitement for the players to try to win a championship “the right way” — through the natural team-building process of drafting, retaining key players and managing tight budgets while negotiating through free agency.

But the Heat also created a sports phenomenon that brought attention to the NBA unlike anything else. We’ve seen national conversations and excitement over Olympic athletes and teams. We’ve just seen Americans come together to support the national men’s soccer team. We’ve seen the Yankees hated for buying up stars; the New England Patriots, for their unrelenting football dominance (and getting caught red-handed cheating along the way).

Subverting the salary cap

Had we ever before seen the sports world come together against a group of players who bucked an entire salary cap system and all expectation to play on the same team? Could that be, as much as the other acknowledged missteps, the reason the Heat united fans to root against them?

Traditionally the team and the city are bigger than the players. But the Heat taught us that in basketball, a few stars can maneuver around the financial and practical restrictions that balance the league. They can in one summer turn a team from playoff bubble expectations to finals favorites. Miami turned fans’ expectations on their head.

Perhaps they didn’t play for a city’s glory, for money, even for the sake of winning itself. LeBron, Dwayne, and Bosh, all close friends, did what any athlete would want: each played at the highest level with his buddies.

The Big Three weren’t beholden to the expectations of fans and owners, but to each other. It’s no mistake that in announcing his decision to leave Miami last Friday, LeBron compared his four year stay to college for many young adults.  At the height of their dominance the Heat weren’t just playing to please fans or meet expectations, they were playing for the joy of their craft.

So as the Heat phenomenon as we’ve witnessed it over four years draws to a close, fans should remember the unique team they’ve witnessed. In an era of free agency it’s difficult for a team to come together by traditional measures. It’s even more remarkable that a group of friends and stars took less money to play together, and in doing so dominated their sport for nearly the entirety of their run. Even the fans that rooted against them flocked to discuss and watch. And their formation four years ago, while decried, has changed expectations for future NBA free agencies.

Who will be the next super star, or stars, to take less money in the name of creating an instant title contender? Could it happen with Carmelo Anthony or Pau Gasol? Kevin Durant in 2016? Can a team quite like the Heat happen again at all? Until the Big Three fade from memory, look for fans to ask that during every NBA summer free agent frenzy.

Thad Morris, programmer analyst by day and a sports podcast enthusiast, is a contributing writer of Three for Ten Sports.

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