Commentary

Are NBA free agents colluding?

Is meeting of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson innocuous?

Updated: June 1, 2010, 3:50 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Did you feel that? Or did the newest paradigm shift in the NBA blow right past you without your picking up the vibration?

These movements can be stealthy, after all. Sometimes they arrive in the subtle form of a new contract clause, an opt-out or no-trade sentence that sets the tone for future superstar negotiations. Sometimes it's simply the height of a money stack that either changes things or changes the way people look at those things.

And then, every once in a while, a person like Dwyane Wade puts it right out there for everyone to see, hear and feel.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James & Dwyane Wade
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James and Dwyane Wade have played together before, in the Olympics and on All-Star teams.

So did you feel it? Because Wade sure isn't trying to keep the latest shift a secret.

Wade's recent words to the Chicago Tribune, in fact, were as innocuous-sounding as they were enormous. He described the new power structure in a few casual sentences, making the whole thing seem no more significant than a coffee klatch with some buddies at the local Java Joint.

But make no mistake: When Wade talks about sitting down with LeBron James and Joe Johnson (and perhaps Chris Bosh) to discuss free agency and where each of them will wind up playing, he is absolutely suggesting 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.

Moreover, Wade has no problem saying exactly that. Read again his precise words. As Wade told the Tribune's Fred Mitchell, "You don't know what guys are thinking and where they're going. I think we'll all sit down, and before one of us makes a decision, all of us will have spoken to each other and [listened to the] thinking."

The kicker? "A lot of decisions [will be based on] what other players are willing to do and what other guys want to do. So it's not just a 'me' situation here. We all have to look and see what each other is thinking."

Wow. That's your modern-era power grab, that is. That's the top handful of free agents in a supposedly open marketplace conferring about what each of them will do, which is essentially the same as those free agents pooling their bargaining power to leverage decisions around the NBA. If the owners did that outside of a collective bargaining session, they'd have a grievance slapped on their noggins within the hour.

In this case, it's apparently perfectly acceptable. Heck, it even has its roots in a time-honored act.

Be afraid, NBA owners. Be very, very afraid.

There certainly is no news value in the notion that players talk to fellow players about their futures. They've only been doing it since the advent of contracts. More recently, the idea of the stars on an NBA team openly wooing free agents via text, e-mail, voicemail, etc. is so common as to be unremarkable. You'd almost worry if it didn't happen.

Beyond that, the league has no rules to address this sort of thing. David Stern may be able to tell Mark Cuban when to clam up (or at least to tell Cuban how much it's going to cost him to speak), but the commissioner would have a hard time convincing anybody in America that D-Wade can't chat up LeBron about who is going to get his millions where.

But wait: Is this really the future of the NBA? This is collusion, correct? Collusion, pure and simple. What Wade is saying is exactly that: He and the other top players will get together and sort things out, and talk about who is going where. Wade said it: It's not just a "me" situation.

So when did free agency become a collective?

The idea that Wade might be curious about where James is going makes plenty of sense. The idea that Johnson's destination might affect Bosh's destination, or vice versa, is right on. You can construct a few scenarios in which a couple of these guys wind up on the same team; the Knicks and the Nets, to name two, could afford more than one top-tier free agent.

smoke-filled room
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty ImagesCould a conversation among NBA free agents turn into the kind of backroom deal associated more with robber barons and gangsters?

But those scenarios generally play themselves out on the open market, with no predetermined winner. In an open market, bids come and go unexpectedly. Coaches get moved around. Owners make surprise impassioned pleas. Free agents do strange things.

Not this summer. Not with the Gang of Four on hand. (Wade mentioned James and Johnson, but by several accounts, Bosh will be included in the "meeting.") There is nothing on the record to confirm that one meeting of a bunch of NBA stars is going to completely decide which teams get which players; but on the other hand, you do the math.

Again: If the owners did this, they'd be getting sued yesterday.

Maybe the most remarkable facet of the conversation is how casual Wade makes it all sound. You know, it's a bunch of friends getting together to talk hoops, and what could possibly be controversial about that?

It is not until you parse the words that you realize what's going on, and honestly, what is going on is impressive. It is a transfer of power from owner to player -- and on the players' side, a union within a union. Welcome to the NBA's summer of shift. Seat belts no longer optional.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the top 10 sports books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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