It's LeBron James' league until further notice.
The Savior of Northeast Ohio delivered a championship to Cleveland—perhaps you heard—last month. But LeBron James did more than win his third NBA championship by coming back to beat the Golden State Warriors.
In doing so, he cemented his legacy—not of winning, but of how today's generation of star players will try to defeat him going forward.
By laying down the blueprint of how to put a superteam together, Shawn Carter-style, and winning titles with two franchises, James begat Kevin Durant's path to the Bay Area.
So close to winning it all with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant chose instead to join his on-court enemies (announced via the Players' Tribune), nWo-style, shattering the Thunder's idyllic rise to a league power since moving to Oklahoma City.
You can rail against the optics of Durant going to play with his vanquishers. But the trend is not changing. It is what players of this age have done since they jumped from one Amateur Athletic Union team to another, like a bee hopping from one pollen-filled flower to the next.
Durant wants to win, and joining the Splash Brothers and company is the easiest path. I know some folks think this is the first or second time that's happened, ever. It isn't.
It is not the optics that matter.
The power does.
Durant has power, bequeathed to him by Oscar Robertson and other former players who fought for unfettered free agency a generation ago and the right to self-determination. And that raw, naked power can change a league, bend it to the will of the game's most talented players.
James has discovered it, used it and wielded it like a cudgel the last half-dozen years in Miami and Cleveland. Chris Paul did the same in Los Angeles, insisting on Doc Rivers as his coach.
And Durant made the whole league stop over the Fourth of July weekend while he decided which way its balance of power would shift.
On paper, the Warriors now look unbeatable, of course.
How do you plan on stopping a team with two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has changed the geometry of the basketball court with his ability to score from anywhere past the midcourt line. There's also his sharp-shooting sidekick, Klay Thompson—whose 41 points in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on the road in OKC helped facilitate Durant's departure. There's a playmaking, facilitating All-Star in Draymond Green and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
And now there's Durant? All on the floor, at the same time?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr will mix and match those five with newly signed center Zaza Pachulia, Shaun Livingston and whatever two or three other vets win the lottery and join the Warriors' party bus on minimum deals.
I almost laughed out loud when I saw all the tweets and social media angst about how Durant's decision will destroy the league's parity and competitive balance.
How many times do I have to say this?
There has never been competitive balance in the NBA. Never. Ever. Not in Bill Russell's era, or in Wilt Chamberlain's, or in Larry Bird's or Magic Johnson's or Isiah Thomas'. Not in Michael Jordan's era, or Kobe Bryant's, or Tim Duncan's.
Bird, a Hall of Famer, played with four other future Hall of Famers—Kevin McHale, Nate Archibald, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. Magic, a Hall of Famer, played with three other future Hall of Famers—Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Thomas, a Hall of Famer, played with three other future Hall of Famers—Joe Dumars, Adrian Dantley and Dennis Rodman.
And Rodman, after a brief sojourn in San Antonio, decided the best way to keep winning rings was to…join his former nemeses in Chicago, where he, Jordan (Hall of Famer) and Scottie Pippen (Hall of Famer) won three more rings.
Nothing is new. It's just new to you.
The Cavaliers became just the 19th team in league history—since 1947—to win the NBA championship. I detailed the lack of parity on NBA.com just a couple of weeks ago, when it looked like Golden State was going to repeat. Ten teams, including the Warriors' franchise, have won 61 of the possible 70 championships in league history.
The Warriors will be must-see TV/iPhone/Android/Mac/VR/whatever device you use next season. They just took part in the most watched Finals since the Jordan era. If the Cavs and Warriors meet for a third straight time next June, with Durant now in the cast of characters, what do you think the ratings will be?
People dream about parity. They actually watch potential and/or realized dynasties.
Once again: The most democratic decade in NBA history was the 1970s, when eight different teams—New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Boston, Golden State, Portland, Washington and Seattle—won titles. And the league was so unpopular that its playoffs and championship series were shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m.
We won't be able to take our eyes off the Warriors, who'll be capable of scoring 150 points on any given night.
Meanwhile, it is a difficult time in Oklahoma City. Anyone of a certain age who's ever rooted for anyone or any team knows the feeling of having your heart ripped out—either by a last-second loss, a trade or free-agent defection. It's still hard for me to watch the last six minutes of the Redskins' game against the Cowboys on Dec. 16, 1979.
But they are great fans in OKC, and they will be back in their white and blue when the season begins, and they will fill up Chesapeake Energy Arena again, and they will cheer and be loud again.
And…people in Seattle—thousands of them—would like a word with anyone in OKC crying the blues this morning.
But you don't have to hold a telethon for the Thunder. The team will pivot, going from one that depended almost nightly on pyrotechnics from its two superstars to a more traditional, team-based squad—at least in the future.
Next season promises to be an interesting experiment that you will watch, giddily—how many triple-doubles will Westbrook put up? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? He will have the ball in his hands all the time now, free to do whatever he sees fit.
I don't think he'll shoot worse, or even more often. My guess is Westbrook will be determined to show he's a well-rounded and complete player, not just an idle gunner.
The problem is he is about to see more double-teams than he has in his life, as teams will simply throw defenders at him until he gives the ball to someone—anyone—else.
But Thunder coach Billy Donovan is a smart guy, and OKC will get production from Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter and maybe rookie Domantas Sabonis. Westbrook will be, more often than not, great.
The real issue for OKC is that it's hard to find anyone who expects Westbrook to stick around after next season when he, too, becomes unrestricted.
Whether the scuttlebutt of the last two years is true and Westbrook wants to go back to Los Angeles (it doesn't seem to matter which team, as there are scenarios for him playing both for the Lakers and Clippers), only he knows.
But Thunder general manager Sam Presti can't afford to have this day happen again a year from now, not with Boston sitting there with more than enough room to make a max offer. The Celtics will have Al Horford under contract, a potential top-three pick from Brooklyn in its back pocket, along with an All-Star guard in Isaiah Thomas and a bevy of quality role players.
Or Westbrook's hometown Lakers, with Brandon Ingram and D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, another potential top-three pick on the way and oodles of cap space.
Or San Antonio, which could easily find enough room after next season by dealing Danny Green's $10 million contract somewhere and offer Westbrook a deal to play with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Or how about a dark horse: the New Orleans Pelicans, whose own superstar, Anthony Davis, just happens to share the same agent as Westbrook—and who wants firepower added to the roster, pronto.
There are just too many possibilities.
With Durant gone, there's no more pressure on the Thunder to win a title to keep him. So Presti has some time, until the trade deadline in February at least, to decide what to do with Westbrook.
Yet it's the post-Durant/Westbrook era that's the most important—for Oklahoma City and the league.
The NBA was willing to sacrifice a season in 2011 to get player salaries in check and make it easier for smaller-revenue teams to compete with bigger ones. It got the salaries in line (for a while, anyway) and thought it had reduced the gap between rich and not so rich teams with more revenue sharing and higher luxury taxes.
But the repeater tax—paid by teams who've paid luxury taxes in three straight seasons—hasn't stopped the formation of superteams.
James went back to Cleveland in 2014, but not before Kyrie Irving had a max deal and the Cavaliers committed to trading the first pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.
The Cavs are 24-4 in the last two Eastern Conference playoffs, en route to consecutive Finals appearances and the 2016 NBA championship. There is no reason to believe the East will be any more competitive next season, though Boston will be better with Horford, and Indiana will be livelier.
And Cleveland will be able to keep that team together as long as it likes because of the TV money that has swamped the system.
Next year's tax threshold is $113 million (the cap is set at $94.1 million).
Even if James signs another one-year deal for $27.5 million for 2016-17 (not unexpectedly, he opted out of the final year of his deal last week) to set up the big, big payday in 2017—a five-year deal with the Cavs worth more than $200 million—Cleveland can fold his salary in and not necessarily exceed the threshold, even with the big salaries due to Irving and Love.
It will be close, depending on what the Cavs have to spend to re-sign J.R. Smith, or if Cleveland potentially moves Iman Shumpert.
And if Cleveland can avoid paying luxury tax next season and in 2018, it won't be liable to pay the repeater tax.
The same is true with the new Warriors, having dumped Andrew Bogut's $11 million contract and a second-round pick to Dallas on Monday, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. Golden State can clear enough space to pay Durant a max first-year salary in a new contract next summer, then give Curry his long-awaited max deal.
If it's possible to create and keep these kinds of teams together, what will smaller revenue-generating teams do? Going forward, can an Oklahoma City compete? I don't mean draft well or make astute trades…Presti has done well in those regards more often than not over the years.
But can Oklahoma City—with its rabid fanbase, solid management and ownership—attract difference-making free agents to play there going forward?
That will be much more important than Durant's partnership with the Splash Brothers.