What if the Utah Jazz turned the NBA on its ear and did the impossible?
What if — suspend your cynicism here — they won it all?
What if, against all odds, they won the championship?
If you said it would be the best thing to happen to the worst professional sports league in America, you would be right.
It would be the perfect antidote to a league that is anathema to anyone who believes in fairness and parity, to giving every team a chance to win the title.
It would be the antidote to LeBron James, the guy who popularized the collusion of superstars in circumventing the process and surrounding themselves with ready-made championship teams — instead of doing it the old-fashioned way and working for it. Championships weren’t meant to be the equivalent of instant oatmeal — just add three superstars and stir.
And all of the above is enabled by a league that refuses to adopt an NFL-like hard salary cap, thus allowing one or two teams to collect more than the fair share of (expensive) superstars. Even kids know better than this; they don’t allow one team to take the first three picks on the playground.
Every NBA fan should be cheering for the Jazz, or, for that matter, the Bucks, Mavericks, Suns and Nuggets — teams that are thriving without having been deemed by an elite few players as a gathering point by other colluding players.
The NBA is broken. It needs remedies. It needs a change in management. Meanwhile, it needs the Jazz, who, through some quirk in the universe, have the best record in the league halfway through the season.
James is universally celebrated as a player, but he is one of the worst things ever to happen to the league. When he took his talents to Miami 10 years ago — as he so ineloquently put it — he took the NBA down with him. Who knew the long-reaching effects it would have.
You might think that it’s a good thing that players have been empowered to create their own teams; you might equate it to the freedom and free agency that Curt Flood brought to professional athletes. But sports don’t work if player movement has little to no restrictions.
All a player has to do is force his way out of a contract by pouting, then pick his superstar pals and the team they want to join, and, voila, you have Instant Championship contender (see Anthony Davis, James Harden, etc.).
If teams had a hard cap — no exceptions, no pointless luxury taxes allowed — this couldn’t happen.
Unable to win a title in Cleveland during his first seven years in the NBA — unable to raise his own team to championship heights a la Magic, Bird and Jordan — James chose to create his own championship team by arranging a union in Miami with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. He started a trend that has taken over the game in the 10 years since.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George formed a union on the Clippers roster.
Kevin Durant joined a loaded Golden State Warriors team that had already appeared in the previous two NBA Finals and won two championships.
Then Durant did it again, teaming with Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan on the Nets (which brought in James Harden a year later).
This was after Harden had tried to pair up with buddies Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in Houston, where they flamed out in a clash of egos.
James himself hand-picked two more teams — first, he left the Heat to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers for a union with Kevin Love and a roster (and coach) he hand-picked, and then four years later he hand-picked Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard, among others, to join him on the Lakers roster.
To pull off the latter, James started his own agency and then took on Davis as a client, which facilitated his move from the Pelicans to the Lakers. Anyone see a conflict of interest here?
All of which reduces realistic contenders to two or three teams each year; the other teams are there to pad the schedule. In the decade since James took his talents to Miami, every NBA Finals has featured one of those teams — James’ Heat in four of them, James’ Cavaliers in two of them, Durant’s Warriors in three of them, James’ Lakers in one of them.
If the Jazz won the championship, it would be a win for building teams through a mix of the draft and free agency and player development; it would reward patience and time. It would give us much-needed relief from the era of James.