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The South Beach Experiment Is Over- It Worked

I knew I had to have better teammates, in order to win the ultimate. I had to surround myself with guys that not only had the resume, but behind the scenes worked on their game each and every day. That’s what a lot of people don’t see. We coach ourselves. We police ourselves.  -- LeBron James

In many ways, defeating the San Antonio Spurs completed a journey for LeBron. In the 2007 Finals, his first appearance on the NBA’s biggest stage, San Antonio exposed his lack of a jumper in a business-like sweep. Seven years later, he had an answer when they went under screens. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the player tagged with a reputation for coming up short in big games had 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. It was the ultimate validation for everything LeBron has done in the last three years.

Three years ago, Pat Riley essentially handed him the keys to the franchise. LeBron has the type of power that Michael Jordan wish he had in Chicago: he's been allowed to pick-and-choose his supporting cast. Almost every player in Miami’s Game 7 rotation came through free agency. LeBron is why Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Shane Battier were all willing to take less money to play on South Beach.

One of the most common criticisms of the Heat is that they “bought” their championships. The real story, though, is who exactly is doing the buying. In San Antonio, the players are cogs in an organization. In Miami, the players are the organization. As LeBron said, we coach ourselves. We police ourselves. They’re a worker-controlled factory, employee-owned and operated. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the players have seized control of the means of production.

Over the last two weeks, they went punch-for-punch with the best in the business. San Antonio has a championship-level organization with 15+ years of experience in finding and developing young talent. Miami has LeBron’s cell phone. Neither strategy is necessarily better than the other. The 2013 NBA Finals was basketball at about the highest level it can be played. From top-to-bottom, the Heat proved to be every bit the equal of the model organization.

The grand experiment on South Beach is over. It worked. In three seasons, the Big Three won two NBA titles and three conference titles. Their victory over the Spurs moved their record in playoff series to 11-1. They’ve won 74 percent of their regular season games. With all three in the starting line-up, their playoff record is 39-14. Many will ultimately judge them by the standard they set for themselves at the Welcome Party, but they are incredibly successful by the standards of an NBA organization.

That shouldn’t really be a surprise. As complex as basketball can be, it’s still just ten guys in tank-tops throwing a ball through a cylinder raised ten feet in the air. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich are great, but there aren’t any big secrets to what they do. It’s nothing LeBron can’t figure out from having played the game his entire life. A great basketball mind is a great basketball mind, no matter if it’s a 29-year old from Akron or a 64-year-old graduate of the Air Force Academy.

LeBron is an employee with management potential. There hasn’t been a player-coach since Lenny Wilkens and there probably never will be again, but if anyone could pull it off, it’s LeBron. Next season, Jason Kidd will lean on X-and-O’s assistant coaches while he handles the big picture element of NBA coaching -- rotations, game management and relationships with the players. If LeBron retired tomorrow, it’s hard to imagine a team not being willing to give him a similar deal.

In 2014, every team with cap space will be dreaming of ways to lure him from Miami. Many fans cringe at free agency because of the disadvantage it gives to small-market franchises, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If the money is relatively equal, of course LeBron would rather play with two future Hall of Famers on South Beach. The money, though, doesn’t have to be. How did Mickey Arison convince Riley to come to Miami in 1995? He offered him equity in the team. He made him a partner.  

How much is winning a championship worth to an NBA franchise? According to Forbes, before LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010, the franchise was worth $364 million. As of January 2013, it was worth $625 million. That’s how much money is actually flowing into the business of professional basketball. That’s the money the players never touch. If a franchise offered LeBron a 25 percent ownership stake to play for them, he would at least have to think about it, regardless of the market.

Of course, that can never happen. Thanks to some borderline illegal negotiating tactics, the owners capped the maximum player salary at $20 million. Professional sports are more glamorous than most industries, but the basic economic superstructure is the same. The players supply the labor, the owners supply the capital and both sides try to capture as much of the revenue as possible. The forces of capital, needless to say, would rather keep labor as powerless as possible.

One year after “The Decision”, the owners tried to strangle Miami’s fledgling dynasty in the crib when they locked out the players. Their initial demands, including a hard salary cap, would have forced the Big Three to be broken up immediately. Instead, they settled for a luxury tax system that would strangle big-spending teams over a longer window. Many think the Big Three will have to be split apart in 2014, the first year they can all exercise their player options.

As long as LeBron can choose his teammates, there are no limits to how many titles he can win. Who wouldn’t want to play with the best player in the world and live on South Beach? For LeBron, it will come down to money or control. The more money he takes in salary, the less control he will have over his supporting cast. Imagine the team he could put around himself if he took the league minimum in 2014. He could make all of the money back in endorsements. There are games beyond the one on the court.

No matter what happens going forward, LeBron has proven that star players can control their own destiny. It’s something Chris Paul and Dwight Howard will have to think about this summer. Soon enough, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge too. Maybe one day, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker will have a Welcome Party of their own. In three weeks, LeBron will be holding a camp for the best high-school and college players in the country. Or, as the Spurs call it, scouting.

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