Stars act like stars 'cause they are

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
1:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
The best players in the world aren't powerful because of some cosmic flaw that needs to be fixed.

John Hollinger is imagining how it is the Magic and Hornets might be able to salvage some value from the almost-certainly departing stars Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

In The New York Times, Howard Beck quotes the GM of a small-market team saying the players evidently won the labor negotiations as superstars still have all the leverage.

Nationwide, you can hear the groans.

The Decision, the Melodrama ... it's all back. The best players in the game are still bullying their way wherever they want to go. The most common reaction is somewhere between "how dreadful" and "isn't there something David Stern can do about this?"

And that line of thinking is making me sick. The right to move to another city for a new job is not a special one. NBA players are not ogres to want that now and again.

Chris Paul does not have the right to play in New York because of some error. Dwight Howard's leverage is not because of an oversight in the new CBA. LeBron James wasn't in the power seat on Decision day because someone somewhere screwed up.

Those players are in the drivers' seat because they drive this bus and always have.

Stars move the hearts of millions. Thanks to their abilities, skill and hard work, they capture both wins and the imagination of global audiences.

Stars are the most essential ingredient in making the league a multibillion dollar machine. They put the butts in the seats, inspire the high TV ratings, and motivate millions of people to buy all kinds of overpriced stuff. Superstars are the ATMs of the sports world. And it goes beyond the money fans spend with teams and their sponsors. Think Orlando voters would have approved all those public funds for a stadium without the excitement of a top-five player in town? (Ask the Kings about this.) Think Ohio voters would have embraced Dan Gilbert's casino referendum absent the Cavs-love that came from James and the wins he brought?

This is the power players have. Not by design, not by error, but by simple market realities. Paul, Howard, James aren't enjoying special privileges. They are enjoying reality.

See all those reporters in the crowd in that photo? They're surrounding those players in no small part because NBA fans will read an article, listen to a radio broadcast or watch a TV show featuring one of those guys. Feature other almost-as-good players, though, and fans will punish you mightily. The best of the best fascinate.

In every industry on the planet, from plastics to apps, the key employees will always have plenty of people willing to employ them, and those best employees will sometimes hop from one employer to another.

To deny that normal freedom -- called free agency in sports, but regular life in every other industry -- is bizarre and un-American.

There's also this notion that the NBA suddenly has a shrinking list of contenders. Horse pucky. Nothing has changed in this regard. The NBA is as competitive as ever -- which is to say not very. We know already that 20 teams won't win the title this year -- there might be ten contenders. In the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird there were barely more than two. In the days of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan the number was closer to one! Nothing has changed -- the best measure of competitive balance is the Noll-Scully scale. The NBA's score barely ever deviates.

Also old are agonizing decisions hanging over a team's season.

At the end of Michael Jordan's run with the Bulls, the front office had to make tough calls about whether to bring everybody back for another run at a ring, for instance.

Soon the Lakers and Celtics will have to make decisions about when to start rebuilding. The Bulls know they are a piece or two away, which puts every player on the roster on pins and needles, wondering if they'll be the one to lose a job or playing time when the next pieces move.

The stomach-churning anxiety preceding decisions that might crush or delight fans is old. The slow churn of big-time sports decision-making has long been endured by most fans and commentators.

So long as those decisions were made the traditional way, by owners and GMs.

Seeing those same kinds of decisions in the hands of players, however ... that angers people. The idea is that they have not earned that.

But they have. They absolutely have. If by some combination of luck, skill and work you ever find yourself in the eye of a $5 billion storm, guess what: You'll get to pick your city and coworkers, too.

What's weird in the NBA isn't that superstars have power and exercise it. What's weird is that for so many decades they did not. NBA player earned the right to free agency in 1972, but unlike stars in other industries (Hollywood, music, Wall Street) have been restrained in exploring their market power. Now that's starting to change, which sure might make fans anxious. Nobody likes to get dumped.

But there's no decent argument against it. The players really do have the right of free agency now and again, and stressful though it may be for fans, they really can use it.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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