- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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While awaiting a good nickname for the new LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh collaborative, let's establish that there are three things they can't be called: conspirators, colluders or tamperers.
There are all kinds of accusations floating through cyberspace Sunday after the Cleveland Plain Dealer's account of the multiyear process that led to the multi-star team. Writer Brian Windhorst described ideas that turned to concepts that turned to plans that turned to meetings, all coming before James, Wade and Bosh officially became free agents July 1. Surprised? No one in the NBA is.
"I know the Cavs have thought this was in the works for a long time," an NBA general manager said.
But you won't hear this GM offering sympathy or expressing outrage.
"Indignation? Really?" he said. "Do teams actually talk to agents before July 1? I'm shocked. It's Claude Rains, shocked that gambling is going on in Rick's Café."
"We know that's going on. It's reality. And we're all big boys. If you have an attractive wife, guys are gonna be hitting on her. It comes with the territory."
Is anyone naïve enough to think that players don't share mutual daydreams about joining forces? I once even acted as a middleman, taking a note from one player to another, requesting that Player B go to the management to request a trade to get Player A. When players talk do you think they're brainstorming ways to plug the oil leak in the Gulf? Not exactly. They're tabulating how many games they could win if they played together.
"That's going on every day," the GM said. "Players are always talking to each other. That's nothing new."
Same with the notion that some combination of Wade, James and Bosh would get together this summer. It probably was more a matter of where than if and when. Two years ago, someone who was with the 2008 Olympic team told me he expected James and Wade to play together in New York for Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who was an assistant on the Olympic squad staff.
If D'Antoni was the one who gave them that idea, then that would be tampering. Same thing if Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison's son Nick, who was an intern on the 2006 World Championship the three all played on, was busy laying groundwork. Absent any evidence that either of those things occurred, you're just going to have to accept that three players just took control of the steering wheel.
You've seen stuff like this before, from the livestock taking over in "Animal Farm" to the drug dealers forming the Co-op in "The Wire." But we've never seen players do it to this extent in the NBA, and that has people freaked out. They're so used to having total control over their players in their fantasy leagues that they can't cope when they act independently in real life. Somehow they missed the message that players can represent a city but they don't automatically belong to it.
The fact is, if players want to take less money to go where they want there's nothing the NBA can do. It's the flip side of some teams being more willing to go over the luxury tax than others. The notion of maximum salaries not being the driving force for players in their prime is so unconventional that it's jarring. It's no different from the same principle that allowed the Warriors to beat the Mavericks in the '07 playoffs: if a team is willing to take bad shots, there's no defense that can prevent them from doing it.
Unfortunately, there's no way to stop people from complaining just because players aren't lining up to come to their team. It reminds me of the bad guy when Padme has the audacity to elude the giant creature sent to devour her for an arena filled with bloodthirsty spectators in "Attack of the Clones:" "She can't do that! Shoot her ... or something." Sorry, but these are the rules, as constituted.
"Tampering is a term of art" as opposed to a legal term, according to attorney David Cornwell. That means the law doesn't come into play here, it's just a matter of accepting the parameters of the collective bargaining agreement. And in that world tampering "only applies from team to player, unless it can be shown that player was acting on behalf of the team."
Good luck proving that. And if you do want to go down that road, good luck avoiding getting the reverse thrown back at you. For example, if Wade was accused of trying to get James to come to Miami, the Heat could just as easily claim that James was trying to lure Wade to Cleveland. It's the same reason not every congressman on the opposite aisle was adamant about going after Bill Clinton because he lied about committing adultery. There's an old saying about glass residences that applies.
I called Cornwell because, as a former legal counsel for the NFL, he can explain the lawyerly stuff better than me. Let's get to why it's foolish to use the word "collusion" here. This isn't about those in power capitulating to deny others opportunities.
"It's a term that just doesn't apply," Cornwell said. "It's a matter of a player or players determining where they want to work.
"The draft completely restricts player movement. Free agency was negotiated to give players the right to determine where they want to work."
Because it's the NBA, there's always an accusation that it must be a conspiracy. Strange how that never applies when the New York Yankees stock up on players. (Maybe it's because in baseball the small-market owners would rather happily accept their subsidy checks from the Yankees and keep selling out the ballpark when they come to town, rather than spending to improve their own teams.) Sure it helps the NBA to have a star-studded superteam. But not at the expense of two other markets, including the league's only team in Canada. Keep in mind that Stern works for the owners, and it's impossible to believe Cavs owner Dan Gilbert signed off on this if you read The Letter, which was the harshest breakup response since Ice Cube's "No Vaseline."
Forget conspiracy. If you even brought that up you should question your motives.
"The flip side of what you are describing is the emotional desire for restraint," Cornwell said. "With the draft, the salary cap and the luxury tax we have enough [rules] in place to assure competitive balance. Three guys have gotten together to say, 'The most important thing is playing with these guys, because we can compete for championships for a long time.'"
And that's what seems to rub people wrong.
Like everyone else in America, players have the right to go from North to South or East to West. If you think the Heat have an unfair advantage because of the lack of state income tax in Florida, take it up with your governor and not Stern. (Besides, that no-state-tax thing is mitigated by the fact that players go on the road and play games in states with taxes. See this Los Angeles Times article for an in-depth look at the concept, including why Ichiro Suzuki lived in tax-free Washington but had to pay $218,000 in taxes for the 25 games he played in California in 2009.)
Maybe you don't like how LeBron handled it, or you were sickened by how the Heat celebrated the arrival of Bron and Bosh with a party so grandiose you'd have thought they just won three championships. (After that display and the bold proclamations from Wade and James, they'd better win three championships -- in the next two years.) But don't hate just because the players collaborated.
If James were a CEO who engineered a merger with another giant company in his industry he'd be hailed as an innovator, then his book "How The Deal Got Done" would be atop the New York Times' bestseller list. Among some basketball fans he's considered a traitor willing to play Donkey to Wade's Shrek. (By the way, since when did it become impossible for the Heat to win a championship with LeBron named NBA Finals MVP?)
For his next move I'd suggest LeBron hire Kobe Bryant's publicity people, because it's astounding how the perception of Bryant has completely flipped. In 2004 he was viewed as selfish because he wanted the team to himself without Shaquille O'Neal or Phil Jackson around to steal credit, and in 2006 he was called a quitter because he demanded to be traded from a team that couldn't get past the first round of the playoffs. Now Kobe is the standard to which LeBron is held, with people saying Kobe would never go someplace he wasn't automatically considered the best player and that he would rather stick it out with the players he has.
What changed? Pau Gasol came to Los Angeles and helped Kobe win two more championships. So that's the mandate for the Heat. If they pull this off and have actual justification the next time they throw a huge party, they'll be called winners.
In the meantime, if this whole thing feels sordid to you, you're not required to use complimentary descriptions. Just be sure you get your facts straight and don't use any tampering-type terminology that doesn't really apply.
5hMatt Walks, ESPN.com