NBA free agency has been a looming topic for several months now, due to the quality of the players available.  Perhaps the biggest rumor is that multiple All-Stars will decide to sign with the same club, creating a new juggernaut franchise in the NBA.  The more this rumor is pushed out there, the more people seem to forget that this simply doesn’t happen in any sport.  Think back and try to remember the last time two guys took less money to play together.  Try to remember guys sacrificing money and statistics in favor of the mere chance to win a championship.  I can think of just one example in the modern sporting era.

In 2003 NHL All-Stars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne left their previous teams (Anaheim and San Jose respectively) to sign with the Colorado Avalanche while both taking massive pay cuts.  The two were close off-ice friends and had been teammates previously with the Anaheim Ducks.  The results didn’t match their desire, as Kariya struggled with injuries and Selanne was ineffective.  Their previous chemistry failed to re-emerge.  In the end they would play just one year together in Colorado.  Selanne would eventually win his Stanley Cup (ironically with the Ducks in 2007) while Kariya has not come close since his 2003 finals appearance with Anaheim. 

This is the only documented instance that I can remember of two star players foregoing dollars and numbers to win.  And it was unsuccessful.  Clearly one or two players can have more of an impact in the NBA than in the NHL, but across all leagues it just doesn’t happen.  It seems like every few years it’s speculated that Team X is “the favorite” to land multiple marquee free agents.  In the end, it turns out to be idle speculation.

The Chicago Bulls cleared the decks in the post-MJ era, expecting a windfall of free agents.  They settled for overpaying Ron Mercer, who played all of one and a half years in Chicago before he was traded to Indiana.  Anybody remember when Baron Davis was supposed to be joining his good friend Elton Brand in Los Angeles in the summer of 2008?  Only to have his buddy Brand sign a free agent deal with Philly only days after Davis signed on to the Clips?  If that kind of thing can go one between guys who are good friends off the floor, how are we supposed to swallow the idea that multiple franchise-level players are going to sacrifice numbers and (more importantly) dollars in order to win?

I think it’s certainly possible that we see one or more marquee free agents change teams this summer, but I don’t buy all the conspiracy theory that one club is going to land multiple players (and even coaches) due to back-room style agreements.  History shows us that just doesn’t occur, and with good reason.  Ask Joe Smith and the Minnesota Timberwolves how dangerous it can be to cut a deal in the shadows.

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For two seasons or more now, the buzz around the NBA has been that LeBron James is going to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Championship.  There was good reason for this buzz.  He carried a downright crummy team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2007.  He had shown himself to be a dominating force both in regular season and playoff games.  He displayed a mix of talent and unselfishness that is rare in the world of basketball.

And yet while he projected an aura of invincibility… reality never caught up to that perception.  His imposing physical stature and tremendous athletic gifts made him seem at times like a man among boys.  LeBron James was so clearly great so quickly, that it seems to have taken a handful of years for observers to really figure out where he stands on the NBA landscape.

One thing is clear now as we stand in the shattered remains of Cleveland’s 2010 title hopes.  The Cavs made change after change to appease their young superstar and entice him to stay.  They resigned players like Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.  They added free agents like Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker.  They traded for known entities like Shaq, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.  What did it get them in the end?  Certainly no satisfaction.  Instead they’re left standing on the precipice, wondering what else they could have done to cement this team into a championship winning group.

While I can’t remember a team that was supposed to be so great failing quite this way, I can remember a team constructed in a similar fashion that in the end failed just as badly.  I’m talking about the Toronto Raptors.  Back at the beginning of this decade the Raptors had one of the leagues premiere young players in Vince Carter.  He was one of the most popular basketball players on the planet, known for his creative and ferocious dunks.  He carried what was quite frankly a pretty ordinary Raptors club to the seventh game of the second round against Philadelphia, where they lost when he missed a shot at the buzzer.  Carter was just 24 then, and looked to have a bright future ahead of him in Toronto.

Following the season, Vince signed a huge contract extension with the club worth over 90 million dollars.  He was told by management that the team was going to spend money and keep their good players together.  The end result of this was outrageous contracts for Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Chris Childs, Jerome Williams, Michael Stewart and other such NBA studs.  After two-plus disappointing seasons with the same nucleus, Vince voiced his frustration and disappointment about the team built around him.  He was ultimately traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.

Conveniently forgotten during Carter’s exodus was that he was the one demanding a competitive roster in the first place.  His demands for a competitive team placed the Raptors in the position of having to put a lot of money into questionable assets.  Even with Vince Carter on the roster, Toronto was not a free agent hot spot.  They felt that they had to shell out the cash needed to keep their existing core intact, and in the end that cost them long-term flexibility and made it impossible to build a true contender around Carter.  Cleveland seems to have reached a similar place with LeBron.  He signed that three-year extension a few years back with the intent on winning a title in Cleveland.  The Cavs tried to appease him by bringing in a variety of veterans and signing big extensions with the likes of Anderson Varejao and Booby Gibson.

They have now amassed a collection of veterans with clear limitations, and yet at the same time have removed almost all flexibility from their roster.  They seem to have finally realized that during this season when they refused to send J.J. Hickson out of town to bring in more high-priced talent.   Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, they may have realized it too late.  The Cavs are financially tapped out, unless they can get a team to take Jamison or Williams off their hands.  They gave up their #1 pick in the Jamison trade.  The ways for them to improve for 2010-2011 are extremely limited.  It would appear to be trade or bust, and that’s simply going to lead to them taking on contracts that are just as bad as the ones they already have, or perhaps even worse.  I’d love to be in the room to hear Danny Ferry pitch the Cavs to LeBron come July 1st, because on the surface it would seem that their biggest addition this offseason will be the subtraction of Shaq and Z.

Perhaps the Cavs have learned their lesson.  They are clearly at their best as a running team with athletes and shooters and defenders on the floor.  Now the question for the Cavs is how can they build that kind of team with no cap space, and a limited window of opportunity before LeBron can breeze right out of town.  At least in Toronto the fans had already long turned on Vince before he was traded to New Jersey for a ham sandwich.  The mistakes the Cavs have made could cost them Ohio’s most beloved sports hero since Jim Brown.