The men turn around in unison. One flexes and unleashes a roar. One grins. One folds his arms. They bob their heads and smile. Then , Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh descend stairs to slap hands with adoring fans, like rock stars on tour.
In that moment on July 9, amid the pyrotechnics, the became a national Rorschach test. Everyone saw something: greatness, arrogance, self-indulgence, boldness, cowardice, pride, friendship, collusion, joy, cynicism, heroes, mercenaries.
No matter who wins the title in June, the season that starts Tuesday night — with LeBron and friends visiting the — will largely be defined by the Heat. Even the defending champion will be measured against Miami.
So add one more ink blot to the binder: the Heat as a prism for labor negotiations and the N.B.A.’s future. The conversation will involve a different vocabulary: franchise tags, Bird rights, hard salary caps, contraction.
The N.B.A. and the players union are working on a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current deal set to expire next July. This season’s most compelling stories will be intertwined with the drama at the bargaining table.
For years, the N.B.A.’s labor deal kept superstars at home, with longer contracts and more guaranteed money. It promoted parity and stability and kept the small markets happy.
But the dam broke in July.
James left Cleveland and Bosh left Toronto to play with Wade in Miami. Amar’e Stoudemire left Phoenix to join the . Carlos Boozer left Utah for Chicago. The talent migration was staggering.
It put some executives and fans on edge, and sent ripples across the league. Suddenly, Chris Paul was itching to leave New Orleans and was demanding a trade from Denver. They reportedly want to form their own superstar fraternity in New York, with Stoudemire.
“This summer changed things,” said Steve Kerr, the TNT analyst and former president.
Whether those changes are good or bad is up for debate. But there has been a pronounced talent shift since 2007, with superteams rising in Boston, Los Angeles and Miami at the expense of teams in Minnesota, Memphis, Cleveland and Toronto.
Since 2007, 27 players have been named All-N.B.A. Thirteen of them are playing for just five teams: Miami (Wade, James, Bosh), Boston (Paul Pierce, , ), the Lakers (, Pau Gasol), San Antonio (, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and Denver (Anthony, Chauncey Billups).
“If you’re not one of those teams, and you don’t have the potential of being one of those teams, then it gets kind of scary,” said Kevin McHale, the former president who now works for N.B.A. TV.
The Hall of Famer put it more starkly: “It’s bad for the N.B.A. My concern is that we’re becoming like pro baseball.”
The chorus of alarmists does not include Commissioner , who cheerfully notes that Kevin Durant, the league’s brightest new star, signed a five-year extension with Oklahoma City this summer. Stern also notes that superteams have always been part of the landscape.
“Last time I looked, in a very glorious way, played with Kevin McHale and with Robert Parish and Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson,” Stern said in an interview, referring to the Celtics of the 1980s.
He also pointed to the 1980s Lakers of , and James Worthy; and to the 1990s of , and .
The difference now is that there are now 30 franchises instead of the 24 that existed in the 1980s. The pool of elite players has been spread thin.
The league is also dealing with tough economic situations in Indianapolis, Sacramento, New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis and Charlotte.
Last week, Stern acknowledged that contraction — the elimination of weaker franchises — was being discussed, primarily as an economic solution. Although Stern did not say it, contraction might also solve the talent gap.
Stern said concerns about superstar defections were overstated. But he acknowledged that new restrictions on free-agent movement were on the table.
“We’re looking at other systems,” Stern said, listing the ’s franchise-tag system — which effectively binds superstars to their teams — as one option.
A less drastic approach would be to strengthen the existing “Bird rights,” which allow players to make millions more, and sometimes tens of millions, if they stay with their teams.
The league also wants a hard salary cap to replace its soft-cap system. The hard cap is intended as a money saver, but it could also promote parity by making it nearly impossible to collect superstars. (On the flip side, the N.B.A. also wants shorter contracts, which would put superstars back on the market more often.)
Then again, superstars drive interest and ratings. The Heat will almost certainly sell out every game, home and road, this season. As polarizing as the so-called Miami Thrice have become, they are indisputably compelling.
“The nice thing now,” Kerr said, “is we get to watch them play.”