The NBA is a league centered on superstars. Success traditionally involves having a clear best player. Aside from the 2004 Pistons (who were the quintessential team one through five) and 2008 Celtics (a team with three superstars), every NBA champion has had a definable best player.
The Lakers won the last two titles with Kobe Bryant. The Spurs won four titles with Tim Duncan. Miami won in 2006 led by Dwayne Wade. The Lakers won three straight championships at the beginning of the millennium with Shaq. The Chicago Bulls won six titles with Michael Jordan. When Jordan left the league to play baseball, the Houston Rockets won two rings with Hakeem Olajuwon. Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons won back to back titles after Magic and the Lakers and Bird and the Celtics dominated the eighties.
This isn't to say that these exceptional players won rings without help. A strong supporting cast is essential to success in the NBA. Kobe had Pau Gasol, Duncan had Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Shaq had Kobe, Jordan had Pippen, Magic and Bird played on teams loaded with talent.
Regardless of how talented a supporting cast may be, the proven way to build a championship team starts with a superstar.
The San Antonio Spurs are often pointed to as a model franchise. For all of the great decisions made by their front office, much of their success was a result of how the ping pong balls bounced in 1997. Tim Duncan is one of the most versatile big men to play in the league. His presence and unselfish play has allowed Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to reach their full potential. In return, Parker and Ginobili have greatly contributed to his success.
Sam Presti is considered one of the best general managers in basketball. He put the Oklahoma City Thunder in prime position to contend for the next decade. Despite his obvious skill in building a team, he may not enjoy the reputation he has if the Portland Trailblazers took Kevin Durant with the No. 1 pick in 2007. Would the Thunder have made the playoffs with Greg Oden instead of Durant?
I'm not trying to take anything away from the Spurs or Thunder. Parker and Ginobili were not No. 1 overall draft picks. Other teams could have taken Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. Still, even the best talent evaluators need some luck to put together a great team.
Finding a superstar in free agency is a risky proposition. On the plus side, a team's future is not dependent on how the balls bounce or who is draft eligible when the balls do bounce their way. Long term financial commitment is the price to pay to eliminate the lottery.
It's easy to forget that basketball, like all other professional sports, is a business. It's easy to see the benefits of having a superstar player. While it is important to have an elite player, paying an above average player like he is an elite player can destroy a franchise.
This brings us to the much anticipated summer of 2010. Many teams have created cap space to be involved in what is quite possibly the greatest free agent market in NBA history. General Managers of these teams will be expected by their fan bases to utilize their cap space.
While this summer promises to be exciting, I have a feeling that a lot of teams will hurt themselves trying to please their fans. It is likely that multiple above average players will be given maximum contracts.
The question that every general manager needs to ask before offering a max contract is "under normal circumstances, can we win a championship if this player is our best player?" Putting together a team reminiscent of the 2004 Pistons or 2008 Celtics are not normal circumstances.
An obvious exception to this question is if a team with cap space for two maximum contracts lands LeBron James or Dwayne Wade. Overpaying an above average player to compliment one of the best players in the league would be acceptable. By above average I'm talking about Joe Johnson or Amare Stoudemire.
Guys who can win a championship while being the best player on their team are a rare commodity. Using this criterion, I see only two players who undoubtedly deserve max contracts in this free agent class: LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Wade has already proven himself as a winner, giving the best Michael Jordan impression since Jordan. LeBron has shown glimpses of crunch time greatness (25 straight points against the Pistons), but has also disappeared in big games (Game Five against the Celtics this year). However, one would think that a player who is often mentioned as the best in league could be the best player on a title winner.
Aside from James and Wade, Chris Bosh is often mentioned as someone who is likely to receive a max contract. He is coming off a 24-10.8 season for the Toronto Raptors. 20-10 guys are a valuable commodity in the NBA, but I'm not sure he can lead a team to a ring. His 11 playoff appearances are hardly a good body of work to judge is his ability to play in crunch time.
Bosh is a talented player. It is hard to know how much of Raptor's lack of success is due to Bosh's supporting cast and how much of it is an indication of Bosh's limitations. If Bosh moves to a team with another superstar this won't be much of an issue.
If we assume that Bosh can give max contract value to a team that gives the 2010 free agent class three players who deserve the max. Giving anyone else a max contract is a dangerous proposition.
Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire are the most likely candidates in the next tier to receive max deals. Johnson played for the talented but dysfunctional Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks struggled in the first round of the playoffs and got destroyed by the Orlando Magic in the second round. He played alongside Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Jamal Crawford. I don't think he can be "the man" on a championship team.
Stoudemire is one of the most athletic big men in the league. The Suns have been contenders for awhile now, but have failed to win a championship. The argument can be made that Amare is not even the best player on his own team considering he plays with two time MVP Steve Nash. I don't think that qualifies Stoudemire for a max contract.
Johnson and Stoudemire are great talents. They can contribute on a winning team. However, I think any team that signs either of them with the expectation that they can lead them to a title will be disappointed. Both players are capable of taking a team over the proverbial hump, not taking a team on the fringe of the playoffs to Finals glory.
Not every team with the cap space to add a max contract is one player away from a winning championship. The Knicks, Nets, and Wizards have cap space and multiple needs. If these teams lose out on the LeBron/Wade sweepstakes, doing anything possible to get Johnson or Stoudemire may help pacify their fans. However, if the price is a max contract, these teams may only rise as far as mediocrity.
Despite the recession, a lot of money will be thrown around this summer. Unfortunately, this probably means that a lot of players will be overpaid. While some teams will significantly improve via free agency, I expect there will be a few teams that will severely cripple themselves moving forward. Investing too high a percentage of the salary cap in the wrong player is a quick way to damage a team's future.