More than the fate of individual players and teams is at stake during NBA free agency.
Superteams have gradually transformed from an attainable free-agency standard that players and teams actively and sanguinely chase to a wilting model certain parties pursue in unstated protest of a parity-promoting, tax-exacting collective bargaining agreement.
Star-stuffed rosters are not obsolete within the Association, to be sure. They still exist. Fairy-tale visions of pairing one top-level bigwig with another one, two or, in some cases, three All-Stars are alive as well.
Those ambitions aren't going anywhere. They've just diminished in volume thanks to austere luxury taxes and—for teams with foresight—a dreaded repeater's tax.
Declines in lion-laden rosters are so often attributed to the heightened importance of depth. The San Antonio Spurs dethroned a Goliath in the Miami Heat using aging stars and an extensive list of role players. But while depth is paramount, there is a lot more to think about.
There is more about the state of modern-day superteams this summer's free-agent decisions will help us understand.
LeBron's New Decision
The dynamic wasn't especially new. The Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Spurs all boasted indomitable star pairings before the Heat. It's the way team president Pat Riley and friends successfully built their kingdom that changed everything.
This wasn't an in-house trio the Heat drafted and developed. This wasn't a team assembled through trades, though Bosh and James were signed and traded to Miami. This team was scrapped together with cap space and individual sacrifice—the same individual sacrifice that is approaching extinction.
Four years have passed since Miami's three stars teamed up. This is the first summer since then that will really test the shelf life of their previous decision.
Plenty of stars are available—from Carmelo Anthony to the Big Three themselves—and it is their decisions this time around that will serve as a superteam tell-all.
Opportunities to continue—revive?—the past superstar trend are out there. The one stark difference between now and 2010 is players might not exploit them.
Talk of a Big Four in Miami died quickly. When James, Bosh and Wade, among others, opted out of their contracts, something special was thought to be brewing.
Would the Big Three accept unprecedented pay cuts? Was Kyle Lowry or Marcin Gortat on the way? Perhaps Anthony himself?
Reality inevitably sank in.
Though reports to the contrary are still out there, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed James was seeking a max contract. No pay cuts for him. The best player in the NBA wanted to be paid what he deserved.
Stances that still posited the Heat would wind up collectively forfeiting money were silenced for good once the team agreed to terms with Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts. Their contracts spoke volumes about the Big Three's intentions, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
Credit to @ESPNSteinLine on report of Heat verbal full MLE agreement w/ McRoberts. Confirms Miami operating "capped"— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 7, 2014
Operating as a capped-out club means the Heat's Big Three aren't accepting pay cuts across the board in hopes of becoming more super. It could mean one of them is taking a little less—most likely Wade—but, at minimum, it suggests Bosh and James are getting theirs.
That's if they plan on even staying together.
Outside competition for James and Bosh has been fierce. James was always going to have 30 options at his disposal if he wanted them. But if he was planning to leave Miami and shirk the opportunity to successfully complete a dynasty, he would leave for a more super situation.
Most returns have him choosing between two teams, though. While speaking on Fox Sports Live, Wojnarowski said that by "every source I have, there are just two considerations at this point—and that’s Cleveland and staying in Miami," per NBC Sports' Dan Feldman.
Cleveland's recent actions further validate Wojnarowski's claims, via ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
Trade can't be completed until Thursday, but Cavs on brink of shedding contracts of Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller & Sergey Karasev in this deal— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 9, 2014
We can argue about the benefits James' return to Cleveland has until we're blue in the face; it doesn't change the obvious: Even with James, the Cavs are not a superteam.
They haven't made the playoffs since James left. Plugging him alongside Kyrie Irving makes them an instant contender, but one reliant on two stars and the development of youngsters like Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson.
Unless the Cavs manage to flip a combination of assets for Kevin Love or another superstar on the chopping block, they won't be a superteam. That doesn't mean they aren't a better fit than the Heat. They could be. It just means they're not a superteam.
If LeBron was dead set on playing alongside a superstar assembly, the Houston Rockets would be getting more play. The Los Angeles Lakers—who, with a little finagling, can offer James the opportunity to play with Anthony while earning $16 million-plus to start—would be a bigger factor in his free agency.
The Heat wouldn't be in limbo, waiting to see if James chooses a homecoming over their current superstar troika.
Melo and Bosh's Dilemma
Equally relevant are the fates of Anthony and Bosh.
Anthony was considered the biggest flight risk of anyone ahead of free agency. Wojnarowski had him leaning toward the Chicago Bulls and Rockets at the beginning—two teams that offered him the chance to play with multiple superstars.
But then the Bulls "floated the idea" of Melo earning $16 million next season, essentially asking him to accept a $6.4 million pay cut, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman. Their pitch has predictably lost steam, leaving the team to focus on bringing in Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Source tells HoopsHype Nikola Mirotic's decision to go to Chicago is final. Will pay contract buyout at more than $3 million.— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) July 4, 2014
The Rockets have moved on, too, shifting their focus to Bosh, per ESPN.com's Chris Broussard:
Max offer from Houston to Bosh is 4 years, $88 million— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 7, 2014
Why would Bosh leave Miami for Houston? Why would he leave the Heat at all?
A source told Wojnarowski Bosh would re-sign in an instant if it meant playing with James, but if he leaves at all, it comes down to money. His role doesn't necessarily increase in Houston. He's still the third option behind James Harden and Dwight Howard.
Bosh is in a unique situation since his backup plan entails joining a superteam, but he could throw a curveball. Maybe the Dallas Mavericks come into play. Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks catch his attention.
Moving back to Anthony, his decision is almost entirely financially driven. He's choosing between the New York Knicks and Lakers, the only two teams we know have offered him max contracts, according to Broussard and colleague Ramona Shelburne.
Neither the Lakers nor the Knicks qualify as superteams. Though Berman says Anthony is hoping against hope the Knicks clear enough cap space to chase James, Melo has a better chance of winning Defensive Player of the Year than that does of happening.
Re-signing with the Knicks leaves him as the team's only star. Signing with the Lakers pins him next to an almost-36-year-old Kobe Bryant who appeared in just six games last season. If he was adamant about joining an instant superteam, the Bulls and Rockets would be getting more post-pitch play.
A Dynamic on Life Support
Rumors won't be the death of superteams. Not even cash-centric decisions this summer will spell the bitter end.
But these decisions will push this dynamic one way or the other.
Pay cuts have become such an integral part of these formations, more so than ever before. Shallow factions are no longer acceptable (thank the Spurs). To add depth to a superstar core, players need to make less, something Grantland's Zach Lowe basically says they're are unwilling to do this side of the 2011 lockout:
The CBA provides team-building mechanisms for everyone, even the mega-spenders, and deep-pocketed owners could always green-light tax payments when a championship window emerges. The salary rules in the NBA are so complicated that players are losing the public relations battle because it’s just simpler to point to Duncan and say, “Be like him.”
But sacrifice is a two-way street, and every situation is a beehive of complex variables. No choice is easy, and the hero/villain lines are never as clear as we’d like. If it’s so virtuous for a great player to give up salary, why shouldn’t an owner also be called upon to lose money if it will help his team win?
The players were hosed in the latest CBA. And they know it. This blatant refusal to take less prioritizes individual earning potential over winning, because that's essentially what the owners have done.
It's survival of the richest.
Players have less of an incentive to take pay cuts to create superteams when they're seeing firsthand how difficult it is to sustain them. The Heat aren't considered locks to keep theirs intact. That says everything.
New superteams won't crop as frequently—or at all—if it only gives players a three- or four-year window that promises absolutely nothing thereafter.
“The group down in Miami agreed to take less money to play together so that’s, I think, a precedent that’s been set,” Knicks president Phil Jackson said, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola.
Another one is about to be set four years later.
Either the Heat stay together, proving their dynamic is sustainable, compelling others—like Anthony now, Love in 2015 or Kevin Durant in 2016—to do the same, or the CBA claims an intended victory, crippling the plausibility behind once-standard superteam designs.