— The most curious element of Free Agency 2011, is, of course, that the prime players in the process, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, aren't even free agents.
In fact, to a degree, even as Friday's projected start of training camp looms, Free Agency 2011 essentially has been held hostage by the Class of 2012.
There is little doubt we have reached the era of the pre-free.
To some, it started last season, when Denver and Utah took proactive stances with their impending free agents, the Nuggets shipping Carmelo Anthony to New York and the Jazz sending Deron Williams to New Jersey.
To others, the era of the pre-free started a couple months earlier, when Cleveland and Toronto lost LeBron James and Chris Bosh, respectively, to Miami for nothing but a sack of draft picks. It opened eyes to many that those who wait are left with nothing more than a bunch of late-round selections.
The problem with this era of the pre-free is that the threat comes earlier and earlier. Remember, the Jazz could have held on to Williams for another full season before risking losing him in free agency.
The question now therefore becomes when does the free-agency clock truly start ticking? July 1 has become an almost meaningless date. The trade deadline comes off as a period of desperation. To a degree, the Nuggets managed to soak the Knicks for additional assets that could have currently been used on Paul because they moved swiftly and decisively with Carmelo.
The question now is whether the Magic could have gotten more for Howard than they'll currently get if they had opened their auction sooner. Ditto with the Hornets and Paul.
The standing offer from New Jersey for Howard is garbage. Can anyone say definitively that Brook Lopez will ever emerge as an All-Star? And what exactly are first-round picks from the Nets worth when they're determined by a roster that would have Howard and Williams driving them to the top of the standings in Brooklyn?
Similarly, the fact the Knicks actually believe they have the opportunity to acquire Paul in a sign-and-trade is laughable. For what, the expiring contract of Chauncey Billups, the overstated promise of Landry Fields and the unknown potential of Iman Shumpert?
At a time when the NBA is moving to shorter contracts with the new collective-bargaining agreement, shouldn't it be moving toward longer ones?
Remember Magic Johnson's 25-year contract?
And mock the NHL and the New Jersey Devils all you want in the attempt to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year deal, but it certainly has a way of removing impending doubt from the process.
If the NBA had a lockout do-over, something close to the NFL's transition and franchise tags could have gone a long way toward disarming the tension in Orlando and New Orleans. Taken further, once players are so tagged, they can only be traded for players similarly tagged, therefore creating only star-for-star trades.
No, superstars should not be forced to stay in the hinterlands, away from bright lights, big cities. But when you place franchises in economically deprived markets, in sleepy towns, frankly too far off the beaten path, this is what you get:
The irony is how the race for Howard and Paul has blown up in advance of the owners' final vote on the new collective-bargaining agreement, an agreement that many small-market owners already are lamenting as coming up short in satisfying their needs.
Now those same franchises stand poised to lose additional superstars. This year. Next year. Every year.
New Orleans, and God bless that city for all it has been through, should never have been force-fed basketball in football country.
Orlando has been a franchise propped up for decades by Pat Williams' remarkable lottery fortune.
For as much as the NBA lost in this labor standoff, two months ripped from the schedule, thousands of ancillary employees robbed of essential supplementary wages, this hardly feels like victory for anyone outside of the league's most attractive markets.
That's what makes these next two weeks so essential.
Instead of propping up small markets with revenue sharing, the NBA has to move toward something closer to the very mediation utilized in the darkest hours of the lockout.
There needs to be some sort of "independent executive NBA counsel" able to create additional assets for franchises such as Orlando and New Orleans that are about to be pillaged.
Extra draft choices, quality draft choices, not the flotsam the Nets and Lakers are offering.
A one-time exception, the way the league used to significantly open the door for a quality replacement when a player was deemed disabled.
Perhaps a rearmament draft, where teams can only protect a certain number of players on the eve of the season, perhaps top seven or eight, and teams deemed to have sacrificed (been fleeced of?) a superstar in a trade can make a pick or two.
But is it any more ludicrous than teams with players still under contract being forced into panic mode months, sometimes years, before those players can become free agents?
The Nets, Knicks, Lakers and other predators have been nothing short of vultures in this latest affront to the notion of NBA competitive balance.
In this case, states rights have gone too far.
In this new era of the pre-free, fans don't even get to see things through to a logical, end-of-season, end-of-contract conclusion.
Instead, franchises are now being held hostage on a month-by-month basis, as the 2011-12 NBA season will be as long as Howard and Paul continue to overshadow what otherwise could be a compelling free-agent free-for-all that actually involves current free agents.