The "Big 2" Dilemma: Is Shaq Right?

Earlier today the schedules for the 2011-12 NBA season were optimistically released, and Shaquille O'Neal made his debut as a Turner analyst on NBA TV's schedule release show. The topic of the Miami Heat came up, obviously, and here's what O'Neal had to say about them:
"The Miami Heat, they've got a lot of great players, the `Big 2.' They will be back. LeBron James is taking a lot of criticism, but I know LeBron very well. He hears everything that everyone is saying, so I think he's going to come back and have an MVP year this year."
He went on to speak more about James and Dwyane Wade, but never brought up Chris Bosh, making it obvious who he was leaving out when referring to the Heat's "Big 2."
Now, O'Neal does have a history of verbally tweaking Bosh, famously calling him the "RuPaul of big men", but this didn't seem to be quite along those lines. Instead, O'Neal, in his own way, was pointing out that the Heat have two legitimate superstars, and by omission, Bosh is not on that level.
The fact is, on some level, O'Neal is right. The Heat do in fact have a Big 2. That's not to imply their roster is a Big 2 and a Little 13, and that Bosh is no different than Dexter Pittman, but that Bosh simply isn't on the level of Wade and James. But because of a flawed financial system -- the same one that the NBA owners are willing to sacrifice a season to fix -- Bosh gets lumped in with James and Wade and the trio gets a Big 3 label slapped on them.

Realistically, there is a limited number of true superstars in the NBA, and that number is smaller than most people would assume. A true superstar is the kind of player who is a perennial MVP candidate, the centerpiece of a championship contender, a guy who people buy tickets to come see. LeBron fits that bill. So does Wade. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul... those kind of guys. There are certainly more, but it's not a huge list. It's definitely less than 21 players.
Why do I bring up 21? That's the number of players slated to make at least $15 million next season, which is "max money" range (some of those guys aren't making the true max, including the entire Heat trio, but there are also max guys making less than that, so for this exercise it seems like a natural cutoff). Bosh is tied for 15th on that list, meaning 14 players will make more than the Heat's alleged 3rd wheel, including Rashard Lewis, Elton Brand and Jpe Johnson.
Look at those last 3 names. Any of those guys seem to fit the "superstar" criteria I outlines above. Did they ever, at any point in their careers? Of course not. But because the NBA has a "max" salary, any guy who makes a coupleAll-Star teams feels entitled to that, and thus we end up with no separation between the stars and the superstars. It's not Chris Bosh's fault that the NBA's salary structure puts a 6- time All-Star with one All-NBA selection in his career on the same level as a two-time MVP who's been 1st-Team All-NBA five times in the last seven years.
If the NBA worked like it did pre-1999, with no per-player maximum salary, then last summer LeBron James would have commanded $30 million or more on the open market. Same with Wade, or Durant, or any of those other superstars I mentioned above. Bosh would not have. Simple as that. But under the system in place, the Heat landed three "max" guys, so they got labeled as The Big Three without any real consideration as to whether that was accurate or not.
Over the course of the 2010-11 season, there were plenty of "Big 2" or "2 1/2 Men" jokes lobbed at the Heat, designed to denigrate Bosh, but those missed the point. Big 2 shouldn't be a slight toward Bosh, but a compliment to James and Wade. There are few true superstars in the league, and Chris Bosh -- a fine player in his own right -- just happens to play on a team with two of them. Don't blame him for the fact that he gets paid just as much as them.
One last point: technically, none of the Heat's top 3 players are "max" players, because they all took less to sign with the team. Ditto for Gilbert Arenas, who shaved a bit off his deal to help the Wizards cap flexibility (God, that seems so long ago now). But aside from situations like that, I can't remember a team ever negotiating a guy off the max line. It seems like once someone like Joe Johnson gets labeled as a "max" guy, it sticks, no matter how crazy it seems, which just seems like another flaw of having a designated max. If there's no target to shoot for, then maybe last summer, Johnson's offers come in more around the $12M range, and maybe Bosh does too. But guys decide they're "max" guys, and because "max" is a set negotiating point for every team (with the obvious exception of the player's current team) then teams don't try to negotiate down, because they know what the standard offer is going to be.I'm not sure how to fix it, but it seems absurd in retrospect that going into last summer, it was a given that James and Bosh were going to end up with identical contracts no matter where they ended up. Because a team that only landed James is still a solid contender. A team that's only landed Bosh is... well, basically the '09-10 Raptors.