All of a sudden, the NBA looks more like a fantasy league than a real one.
Talk about the sneaker being on the other foot: On the heels of LeBron James' migration to South Beach, now it's the megastars and their agents, not management, who decide where they want to play, with whom, and even when.
Fearful of getting little in return, as the Cavaliers basically did when James ducked out of town last summer as a free agent, front offices have few options at the moment other than cleaning up the mess left behind.
"I want to offer a personal apology to the Billups family," Denver Nuggets President Josh Kroenke said Tuesday, hours after reluctantly throwing local hero Chauncey Billups into the three-team, 13-player deal engineered by Carmelo Anthony so he could move to New York.
"They mean the world to me, personally, and I know that Chauncey means everything to Denver. He is," Kroenke added, "Denver basketball."
Except that he's not anymore.
Scenes like that will be repeated more often unless commissioner David Stern finds a way to tuck something into the next collective bargaining agreement to stop franchise players from fleeing small-market teams for the bright lights of the biggest cities. At the head of the 2012 free-agent class are Dwight Howard of Orlando, Chris Paul of New Orleans and Deron Williams of Utah, each of whom will have enough leverage to force deals that could unite them with pals in just about any town they choose.
Williams said he was eager to avoid the circus-like atmosphere that ensnared both James and Anthony once they made it clear they were shopping for teams.
"Obviously, I'm not going to do 'The Decision,'" he laughed. "I don't think anybody would tune in anyways."
"I don't think about it," Paul said, "because those guys will probably tell you they got tired of it a little bit. I mean if you're asking the same question over and over and getting the same answer, that's kind of crazy in itself."
But both made clear it would be crazier still not to explore every option.
"When people ask me about it, I just try to shrug it off and say you'll hear the decision live a year from now or two years from now," Williams said.
Stern was asked during last weekend's All-Star gala how he planned to reclaim some of that leverage for the owners, especially in the smaller markets. He answered that every team was trying to compete, conveniently leaving out that guys like Howard, Paul and Williams already belong to competitive teams — and are likely to want out, anyway.
So what to do?
Allowing owners to attach franchise tags to players, as the NFL currently does, might be the option easiest to sell to each side in negotiations. Especially since Paul, one of the players most likely to leave, also happens to be the most valuable piece of a franchise the NBA currently owns and desperately needs to sell.
Beyond that, owners could take a hard line and demand a hard salary cap, or shorter contracts and less guaranteed money, making it riskier for players to depart. As a sweetener, owners could relax those terms for players who re-sign with their current teams.
All that, of course, could be little more than wishful thinking — or simply the prelude to a walkout.
If you want to know just what Stern and his owners are up against, consider this snapshot from that same All-Star weekend. On Saturday, Paul, James and Anthony — all of whom share agent Leon Rose — sat side-by-side at the scorers table after practice, sharing a few laughs.
The three also were together in New York at Anthony's wedding last summer, along with Knicks star Amare Stoudemire. Paul got up to give a toast, mindful of James' move to Miami and his reunion with fellow Olympic stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh just a few days earlier. Paul looked at Stoudemire and Anthony, then laughed, "We'll form our own Big 3."
That joke came up again when James, Anthony and Paul were together again in Los Angeles. Taking note of the hoopla building over the weekend as speculation swirled around where Anthony would wind up, James turned to Paul and playfully said, "You started all this."
No argument there.
But nothing is likely to determine the future of the NBA more than whether it's the owners or players who get the last word on how it ends.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org