NBA Free Agency: All in the Game, yo

“Come at the king, you best not miss.” – Omar

With less than 48 hours remaining until all hell broke loose and NBA free agency began, ESPN reported that LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh met in Miami last week. Now, I assumed that they went there for the same reasons everyone goes to Miami, namely, to ride jet skis and do cocaine, but apparently they were actually having a double secret meeting regarding free agency and the possibility of their Holy Triumvirate coming together to play for the Heat. Now there are only two men capable of facilitating such a controversial meeting of power-players, the NBA’s most notorious wheeler-dealer William Wesley, “known as World Wide Wes”, and the man who pulls the strings behind the Baltimore drug game, Proposition Joe of The Wire. The men are similar in their predilection for staying behind the curtain while they control The Game through their alliances, intellect and reputation. But if World Wide Wes is the NBA’s equivalent to Prop Joe, how would the rest of David Simon’s drama be cast if the characters were played by NBA free agent players? Well, read on.

The potential LeBron and Wade tandem is controversial, mouth-watering and risky all at the same time. On one hand you have Wade, the flashy, accomplished scorer who has already been the alpha dog on a championship team, qualities shared by one-time drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, who ran the show for years before being forced away from the spotlight for several years thanks to a jail sentence. And while D-Wade may not have done a stretch in Jessup, when your second best player for three seasons is Udonis Haslem, it sure feels like prison.  On the other hand you have LeBron, who like Stringer Bell, represents the total package in The Game- strong, smart, vocal and a natural talent and leader. But like Bell, LeBron has an infatuation with the business end of things outside The Game. LeBron is seemingly more focused on the LeBron brand, which might as well be called B&B Enterprises at this point, than the Game itself. Also like Bell, his commercial focus could ultimately be his downfall, especially if he spurns a more talented team to play in New York or New Jersey where his “brand” will  be more profitable. But, if LeBron and Wade can avoid the alpha dog issues and work together, ala Barksdale and Bell in season 1- then the sky is the limit.  Meanwhile Shaq, aka D’Angelo Barksdale, is officially out the Game, after enjoying a measure of success with Avon (Wade) but failing to coexist with Stringer Bell (‘Bron).

But if you’re going to build a dynasty in The Game, you need role players, soldiers, and there are some good ones on the market right now. You need these guys to be loyal, hard-working and most of all, not afraid to get their hands dirty when the time comes. You want NBA versions of Bodie, Slim Charles and Wee-Bey. Free agents like Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson and Ray Allen may not be able to run the show on their own, but pair them with an superstar leader and they could lay the groundwork for success across the organization.

Of course, The Game extends well beyond the Barksdale crew, The Greeks, a.k.a. The Knicks, are trying desperately to regain the success and power they once wielded. Their leaders Frank Sobatka and Mike D’Antoni, can still taste the glory days when they were industry icons. They’ve seen themselves slide into near-obscurity and are now forlorn and are reckless in their attempt to recapture their supremacy. Sobatka’s son Ziggy, in this case Amar’e Stoudemire, is a bit of a fuck-up who insists he can be the alpha dog and be successful out on his own. Both have high aspirations but are undermined by serious personal flaws. For Ziggy, it’s his recklessness and poor judgment. For Amar’e, it’s poor rebounding and embarrassing defense. The only way either one can be seen as a valuable asset is if they’re paired with their far-superior partners-in-crime, Nick Sobatka and Steve Nash.

Overlooked throughout the entire offseason, David Lee might be the Tommy Carcetti of this free agent class. Like Carcetti, Lee is a valuable performer who could very well out-perform all expectations and make those who slept on him pay. Tracy McGrady a.k.a Bubbles is also on the market, but buyer beware because for all their redeeming qualities, both of these forlorn former players are inevitably going to end up needing to shooting up- Cortisone or WMD- when you need them the most. Perhaps the one fact that you can count on through all the mystery and mayhem is that David Stern a.k.a. Maury Levy will happily sit back and stack his paychecks while representing  the players and trying to keep them out of trouble and in The Game.

But no matter how the Wade-LeBron, Barksdale-Stringer dichotomy shakes out, they will still have to compete with the current ruler of the game, Kobe Bryant, a.k.a. Marlo Stanfield, and his crew of Pau Gasol and Ron Artest aka Chris and Snoop, respectively. And everyone in The Game, even the stars, have watch their back for Omar, aka Kevin Durant, whose young and improbable crew may not be the best in the game, but they can bang out with the best of ’em.

Over in Cleveland, the Cavs don’t have the resources to keep up with the other teams anymore and can’t recruit Cutty aka Tom Izzo, to get back in The Game and give them the muscle they need in free agency.  Come July 8th, when Stringer Bell takes his business somewhere else, you can expect Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to be rendered speechless, save for a single, distressed, “Sheeeeeeeeiiittt”.

Now, as for how each team should approach the whole free agency debacle, epigraphs from The Wire offer some sage advice:

“Come at the King, you best not miss.” – Omar
This is the warning for every team that has spent the last few years dumping salary and trading away talent in order to clear up cap space to sign LeBron James. Teams like Miami, New Jersey and New York have an embarrassing dearth of talent on their roster and failure to bring in King James will mean not only a terrible 2010-11 season, but a frustrated fan base on the brink of mutiny.  If they can’t successfully court The King, or at least a reasonable max-contract stand-in,their fanchise will be crippled for years to come.

“… and all the pieces matter” – Lester Freamon
The pressure on G.M.s is multiplied by the fact that signing a LeBron or Dwayne Wade is simply not enough for any team competing for their talents.As noted, teams like the Cavs, Knicks and Heat have little more than a couple second round picks  and aging veterans on their roster and the last few seasons have shown that that’s simply not enough to win a championship with James or Wade. You need role players in the NBA, quality guys who can make the right pass or rebound in crunch time, and whatever teams sign the big names will have to immediately shift their focus towards finding quality role players and convincing them to play for minimal contracts.

Crawl, Walk, and then run.” – Clay Davis
It has yet to be seen whether Russian super-billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov knew what he was doing when he bought the New jersey Nets last season. The only thing we know about him from an NBA standpoint right now is that he has lots of money and no experience. G.M and Team President Rod Thorn is stepping down from his position, leaving much of the responsibility in the lap of Prokhorov, whose market naivete could undermine their entire effort to make a big free agent splash.  For the Russian to step in and immediately make some of the biggest signings in NBA history might be too much to ask, no matter how big his yacht may be.

“It’s a thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” – Bubbles
No franchise can ever be comfortable in the NBA thanks to the ever-shifting thin line that stands between contenders and lottery teams. Just one year ago New Orleans and  Washington were on the brink of success, led by capable stars and talented rosters. But cap mismanagement, injuries, a bad trade or two and, oh yeah, that guns-in-the-locker-room thing, have completely derailed both teams’ visions for the future. Let their plight stand as a warning to all of the teams looking to make a big move or two this offseason, because a single short-sighted signing or trade could cripple the franchise for years. Just ask Ed Stefanski and the Sixers, who spurned Josh Smith for Elton Brand two years ago, and are now perennially stuck in the lottery with Brand’s $80 million contract to thank.

“…while you’re waiting for moments that never come.” – Freamon
No matter how many “famous” Clevelanders, Clevelandites, people from Cleveland they get to remake “We Are the World”, the Cavs are quickly looking like they’ll be on the outside looking in at the LeBron sweepstakes.  This franchise, no, this city has put all of their eggs into the LeBron basket and anointed him the Chosen One who will rescue Cleveland sports from the mire and bring them the championships they’ve longed for. Alas, the more realistic scenario is a 25-win 2010 season led by Rudy Gay or Luis Scola. It’s just sad, to be honest, to watch the Cavaliers become the Wallace of the NBA as they slowly suffer the same fate.

“The Bigger the lie, the more they believe.” – Bunk
“If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie.”- Slim Charles
The Knicks fans have seemingly convinced themselves over the last three years that LeBron would be calling Madison Square Garden home in 2010. The reality, however, is far more bleak for a team so talentless that they may not be able to win a championship even if they do get LeBron and Bosh. Try as they may to hold on to the dream of King James in the Big Apple, it is now just a matter of days until they start convincing themselves that Carmelo will come to save them next summer.

“No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” – Prez
You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to know that the following scenario is going to play out over the next few weeks: Several teams- say, the Knicks, Nets, Cavs and Clippers- are going to miss out on LeBron, Bosh, Dirk and Wade. But with a furious fanbase and money to burn, they’ll throw max contracts at guys like Johnson, Amar’e, Boozer, heck maybe even Paul Pierce, and try to convince their fans that they are contenders, or will be very soon. This is a LIE.  After the cream of the free agent crop is gone, no team left is going to come out a winner, they’re just going to lose more slowly. Why? They’ll have used their money on a “franchise” player or two who will not and can not bring them championship. With the possible exception of the Bulls, all of the teams in the free agent market need a massive overhaul or a true superstar like James or Wade to carry them anywhere past the Conference Semis. And using all their financial freedom to sign a couple players who haven’t even played in a championship game since high school is the best way to keep a team out of the Finals.  Is it fair for the tortured fans of the Cavs, Knicks or a half-dozen other franchises, who have pined for July 8th, 2010 for YEARS, to know for a fact on July 9th that they won’t see a championship or a real superstar for at least another five years? No, it’s depressing really, but in the words of  Omar Little, “The game is out there, and it’s play, or get played. That simple.”

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