The joy was in the moment, in the competition.
Times change. The NBA changes. Back when, the 76ers, already led by Julius Erving, traded for Moses Malone and won a championship. The Boston Celtics, who had been down and out, traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and won a championship. The Los Angeles Lakers, already led by Kobe Bryant, traded for Pau Gasol and won a championship. There are lots of examples.
But times, and the game, have changed again. The Miami Heat stayed perfectly within the rules and created enough cap space to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh as free agents, adding them to
Dwyane Wade to create the league's version of "The Super Friends."
Something is eerily different about that, but whether we will see something similar in the near future remains to be seen. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul joining Amare Stoudemire in New York? Doesn't seem likely.
"I don't think you're going to see it at this level," ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said in a recent conference call. "We're talking about LeBron James.
"[I don't think we'll be talking] about [a James] joining a player the caliber of Wade, and joining them with a Bosh. Ultimately, I give these guys credit, because they were businessmen, and they just made a wise decision. That's something that should be applauded rather than looked down on."
If it makes you (and me) uneasy, let's face it, it's only because it didn't happen here. But Sixers coach Doug Collins still believes people will try.
"You're going to start seeing guys try to do more of that, if they feel like they can get three guys together and can make a great run," Collins said. "The destinations are likely to be warm-weather cities, places like Orlando, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, LA."
It's not just warm in Miami. Like it or not, there's already the vaunted ESPN "Heat Index." It seems as if everybody - everybody - is focused on the Heat. The question remains whether that will be to the good or the detriment of other teams, of other story lines.
(And, 3,000 miles away, you can almost hear Kobe Bryant laughing.)
"Miami fans have high expectations; fans of other teams want to see them crash and burn," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "I think that's normal."
Jackson said: "I understand the reaction around the league, I understand the reaction around the country. To some degree, people are excited; to some degree, people are bitter and upset. Bottom line: If I was running a team and had an opportunity, like the other teams, to sign one, two or three of them, I'd do everything I could to try [to make it happen]."
Miami was first, and that's why the Heat is the clear favorite to win the East, and very possibly the championship. The defending-champion Lakers, who already had enough to handle, suddenly have even more. The Celtics, with Shaquille O'Neal replacing Rasheed Wallace, will gather their forces for what is likely to be one last heroic run. The Magic, with Dwight Howard, the East's best center, will need major contributions from the rest of its roster, and hopes Howard has some effective new post moves or he will find himself swarmed defensively even more. Chicago, driven by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and (eventually) augmented by free agent Carlos Boozer, is the likely spoiler; it remains to be seen what sort of coach Tom Thibodeau will be after years as Boston's defensive guru. Atlanta, basically as it was, is coming off a 53-win season, albeit with new coach Larry Drew. New York, with Stoudemire and Raymond Felton, has clearly improved. Milwaukee, particularly when (if) center Andrew Bogut is ready, is a rising team.
But James and Bosh changed everything.
"Since O'Neal left [Orlando], there's been nothing to change the power structure of the NBA like this," Van Gundy said.
"It's good for the teams getting guys like that," Collins said. "Players understand that, regardless of the numbers they throw up, they're going to be gauged on whether they won championships. A guy like LeBron, I think he's saying he won 61 games and at the end of the day he couldn't get over the top [where he was]. He believes people say he's not a champion."
If the argument in today's league is the best players should try to win where they are, Collins says James already had tried that.
"He's done it for 7 years," Collins said. "Look what he did for that franchise in Cleveland. He did that coming into the league. He played great. When Garnett left Minnesota [after 10 years], he said something about loyalty being a great thing, but you have to think about winning championships."
Some of it, Collins suggested, comes from the players teaming up in USA Basketball to play in the World Championships and the Olympics.
"They develop a bond, get to know each other," Collins said. "It's a little bit like AAU ball, when high school kids play on the same team, then talk about going to the same college together."
Most people had a problem with the way James announced his decision, on a clumsy TV special, waiting until the last possible minute to inform the Cavaliers' owner. Others grumbled about the Heat's wild smoke-and-mirrors introduction of its new trio.
Dislike James if you will, but it was surely his right under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. And, by the way, those rules will change pretty soon.
The real answer is, it's a good thing - a great thing - if a player like James decides in free agency to come to your city, to come to join the star you already have in place.
"Absolutely," Collins said. "If we could do that here, it'd be great."
The Sixers, you might have noticed, have some nice, young players, but no out-and-out stars.
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