Why in the world were the Detroit Pistons willing to offer Ben Wallace, a player with a limited skill set (no offense), a four-year, $49.6 million deal, even if the soon-to-be 32-year-old would likely be an overpaid shell of himself in its final season or two?
Not that it mattered, because the Chicago Bulls quickly trumped that bloated deal with an even richer offer, for four years and nearly $60 million, one that Wallace accepted Monday night according to multiple media reports. Wallace's addition thrusts Chicago, if you can believe it, back into championship contention.
That move is something, but it still isn't as gutsy as the Boston Celtics plotting to trade half its young prospects to the Philadelphia 76ers for Allen Iverson in a roll of the dice that he and Paul Pierce immediately can jell, share the ball and win big. Or, perhaps, even as surprising as traditionally sleepy franchises such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors quickly swapping young talents T.J. Ford and Charlie Villanueva to improve their clubs immediately.
Why in the world is all of this happening? The answer, which makes perfect sense, is threefold:
You know how they are always talking about windows for sports teams – as in the window to win a championship is about to close? Well, in the Eastern Conference at least, everyone who doesn't have James, Wade or Howard (Cleveland, Miami, Orlando, respectively) is about to have their window close; if not next season, then certainly by 2008-09 and beyond.
James, 21, Wade, 24, and Howard, 20, are not just three good young players with bright futures. They are generational basketball talents, guys so good, so determined, so clutch that it is impossible not to envision them dominating the NBA (and certainly the East) for years and years to come.
In some ways, they already have. It is Wade, of course, who is the reigning Finals MVP, the guy who led the Miami Heat to the championship by getting past both Detroit and the Dallas Mavericks, which boasted arguably better teams. Wade, though, was unstoppable. He's the reason Miami held a parade.
Despite that, he isn't a better all-around player than James, who despite being surrounded by a forgettable cast in Cleveland pushed the Pistons to seven games in the Eastern semifinals. And Wade doesn't play a position as important as Howard does as the Orlando Magic's utterly dominating young center.
Fast forward to the spring of 2009 – is there any doubt that James, with a better roster around him, has the Cleveland Cavaliers as the team to beat in the East? Certainly, unless you think Howard has anchored a quickly improving Magic team into that status. Or Pat Riley has rebuilt the Heat (post-Shaq) around Wade.
Yes, there are other great young players in the East – Toronto's Chris Bosh is 22, and the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas is just 24 – but at this stage, from what we've seen in this conference, these three are the guys. This is the future.
And everyone (except perhaps Detroit) knows it.
If you want to win a championship, you had better do it right here, right now. You can't build up a team with young players and hope it works in three years because the fact is that your young players aren't as good as the young players on Cleveland, Miami and Orlando. It isn't even close. You're going to lose.
You can't worry about whether a contract is a dog in 2010 and will affect your team's ability to compete for a title because James, Wade and Howard already are going to overwhelmingly affect your team's ability to compete for a title. You aren't getting out of the second round.
For the rest of the East, the future isn't coming; tomorrow's gone. You'd have to piece together a genius roster of lesser parts to win it; a gamble with far longer odds than whether Iverson and Pierce can somehow turn into Bird and McHale.
As bad a contract as Detroit was willing to give Ben Wallace, a guy who displayed almost no offense at all under Flip Saunders, the Pistons will rue the day they allowed Chicago to outbid them. It's not that Wallace is worth that money – he isn't. It is that with Big Ben it is the Pistons – not the aging Heat – who enter next season as the favorites in the East. There still was time to take a run at one more championship.
Instead, Detroit won't win this year so it can be more competitive – but certainly not title worthy – in 2010 and 2011. It is my guess that fans would have traded a shot at the Finals in 2007 for losing in the first round, rather than the second, in a couple of years.
In the Pistons' case this is the fallout of their disastrous decision to select Darko Milicic No. 2 in the 2004 draft, passing on Wade, Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and others in a historic draft. GM Joe Dumars is terrific at putting teams together, and the Pistons overcame the mistake in 2005, winning the title. But even with the best starting five in basketball, Detroit was pushed by James and doused by Wade this year.
And those guys haven't even hit their prime. Yet.
This is why Chicago made not only the smart move but the only move if you really care about winning a championship. It will pay more to go all-in right now, the season when Detroit suddenly is reeling, Miami is hoping all its old guys hang on and Cleveland and Orlando aren't quite there yet.
It is, in some ways, the exact formula – one and done – Pat Riley used to make a series of daring moves last summer. In Miami's case it was because of their age. In this case it is about others' quickly maturing youth.
Either way, in the wild, wild East the here and now is about the here and now. Sit back and wait, and you might be waiting a long, long time.