LeBron James is the perfect American sports hero. His (conservatively listed) 6’8”, 249-lb. cyborg frame, uncanny reflexes and prescient vision, his locomotive-like combination of speed and strength seem penciled in by Marvel. James’ career trajectory—made for the 24-hour news cycle drama—and his industry-changing understanding of leverage and contracts, well those are pretty All-American, too. Beyond the effect James’ revolutionary efficiency has had on our understanding of the statistical side of the game, he’s also made us all too aware of the other numbers involved in America’s beautiful game. As we move into the second pass at LeBron-mania, the Decision Era is influencing the sport more than anything else.
What Does it Mean to be a Franchise Player?
Aside from a few exceptions, most of the iconic players in the league’s institutional and fan memory were classic “franchise players” — guys who were drafted by the teams where they spent most of their careers or who moved to their main destinations early on. Most of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players spent their prime years on one or two teams, usually either switching teams at the beginning of long careers or near the end after they had won rings for their signature franchises. Most with more than two teams became journeymen near the ends of their careers on short contracts as role players. Very few made multiple moves in the middle of their primes, and fewer still left teams during successful runs. In the free agent era, though, Shaq and a few other players did so and, in the immediate aftermath, were derided for it—even if they were proven right in the long run. They were “mercenaries.” Guys who put “personal ambition before the team.” Sound familiar?
LeBron’s Decision changed the calculus on what we deem a “franchise player.” Despite dominant stints in Cleveland and Miami, the first Decision and his current state of flux have indicated that LeBron James is the franchise himself and teams are simply bidding on using both his talent—and his influence on other players who’d take less money—to win. This is a subtle inversion on the typical trope, where players are expected to pledge allegiance to teams that put individuals in a position to succeed; the team used to pick the talent and drawn them to a city, now LeBron has flip-flopped that. For the Decision Era franchise player, the primary duty is to the player himself and there are motives beyond just winning and making the owners happy.
There’s a line here to be drawn between the stars and the superstars. We consider both sets to be franchise players, and both have been empowered, but the special powers of superstars like James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to push for transactions while still under contract and make organizational demands are unprecedented. It’s an important distinction in a league where an organization might be willing to max out Gordon Hayward. Salary does not equal influence. While LeBron initially suffered withering criticism for The Decision, it’s clear that now the view on superstars has somewhat shifted. As Carmelo hopscotches his way out West to have teams pitch him, (and not-yet-free-agent Kevin Love maneuvers through informal visits to cities) it’s evident that true franchise players are exerting newfound power, partially granted by LeBron’s precedent, to chase their own interests.
The Avengers Save The Day
Along with the unprecedented fluidity of players to play where they want, comes the ability of players to play with whom they want. Ever since Kevin Garnett mounted up with the Celtics it’s been the Team-Up Era. From Boston’s Big Three to Miami’s to the ill-fated Laker triumvirate, players have collaborated (some would say colluded) to join forces with each other, lobbying each other one-on-one for salary concessions in order to create a clique. Now Dwight Howard is in the midst of a SECOND superstar team-up; Mikhail Prokhorov has literally bought a collection of All-Stars to play together like a big-time soccer club. Kevin Love’s contract isn’t even up and he is transparently talking about teaming up with LeBron, Carmelo or Rajon Rondo.
The Team-Up Era has come with an increased sense of hope for teams that were traditionally poor markets for aspiring players. Every team thinks they have a shot at landing the big fish, and with superstar players looking at personnel and cap space as closely as team legacy and market, those teams may have a chance. Small-market teams that traditionally could only land stars in the draft and hope to win with them before they left for powerhouses now have means, if not the likelihood, to land groups of stars in free agency. Tanking isn’t the only way forward now and fans of smaller-market teams understand that. While the current collective bargaining agreement was intended to balance competition, penalizing teams that repeatedly stack of the deck, elite players have found a way to penalize the owners for salary limits—signing shorter contracts that give them the flexibility to bounce on owners and GMs who aren’t performing to their liking. That volatility creates less balance short-term and more single-season powerhouses, but also means that over time (every four years or so) there are large shifts in power. Fans of bad teams have more chance of seeing their team land superstars and contend.
Savvier Players, Savvier Fans and Teams
The CBA and the newfound player volatility of the Decision Era have led to a synergistic change in the dynamic between fans and teams. While teams understand that smarter fiscal and personnel decisions are necessary to land franchise-altering players, fans have also increased their understanding of analytics and salary cap machinations. Along with the heightened focus on advanced analytics that players in LeBron’s generation have engendered, even casual fans know plenty about complex union and contract minutiae in the NBA. Nowadays, barbershop conversations can detail Bird Rights or Repeater Taxes or MLEs. Fans have been arming themselves with the information to understand this new era of money and fluidity and that knowledge has consequences for teams.
Franchises simply can no longer get away with the kind of continual gross incompetence that led to contract inflation and generational awfulness in the late nineties and aughts. While the CBA makes it harder for teams to make truly awful decisions (because they simply aren’t allowed to offer contracts as long and loaded as before), fan knowledge makes it more difficult for certain squads to saddle themselves without at least offering a methodology. Fans now have access to advanced analytics and financials on every team, developments in step with the fantasy-oriented culture that has also arisen since before the Decision Era. Cap flexibility is paramount as fanbases countdown to the next big free agent summer (Kevin Durant’s an unrestricted FA in 2016!) Fewer players being locked up long-term means more good players enter the market and make destination decisions every July. For NBA franchises that means they’ll have to have something to show, some sales pitch to make to the top tier of free agents every summer, all the better to keep up with an increasingly fast-paced and player-driven media environment. They can thank Mr. James as for their new way of business.