As one of the millions spurned by the false advances of LeBron James, I know that it’s easy to get involved in the emotional aspect of “The Decision.” But now that some time has passed perhaps some of the passion has subsided, it’s time to look at the move from a more even headed perspective. (And if your anger hasn’t subsided, then here’s a great way to let everyone know how you feel.)
Naturally people are resistant to change, and LeBron’s choice shocked the public. At the surface was his egocentric media circus. There’s no doubt that James turned some people off based on how he handled this decision. Stringing along a few million fans, having a prime time show in his honor, hand picking the host, then proclaiming “South Beach” in front of children from the North East showed a disconnect from the common person. Had he made his decision humbly, profusely thanked the people of Ohio, and didn’t celebrate with a Heat jersey in July like he won an NBA championship then LeBron’s image might have survived the move largely in tact.
“The Decision” seemed unfathomable; it was a radical departure from history. Last year, the New York Times’ Howard Beck wrote:
[A team signing a free agent superstar] is probably doomed to fail because of one immutable, rarely acknowledged truth: superstar free agency barely exists in the N.B.A.
It has been almost 13 years since Shaquille O’Neal jilted the Orlando Magic and altered the N.B.A. landscape by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a modern anomaly, not a precedent. Few superstars have made free-agent moves since then.
It is not an accident.
“It’s built right into the system,” said Lon Babby, an agent whose client list includes Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Ray Allen. “They don’t want guys to leave.”
By “they,” Babby means N.B.A. officials, whose quest for parity and cost control has created a market that rewards superstars for staying put and punishes them for leaving.
Combine financial self-interest with the N.B.A.’s complex salary-cap rules, and a result is a market in which superstars have little incentive to move.
“This succession of agreements has resulted in a hard salary cap,” said Arn Tellem, one of the N.B.A.’s most influential agents, “and has really, I think, eliminated for the most part free agency for the high-end players.”
The most critical element at work is the cap on individual salaries. Those limits did not exist in 1996, when the Lakers outbid the Magic and signed O’Neal to a $121 million contract.
Today, no team can be outbid for its own free agent unless it wants to be.
The best example is Nash, who in 2004 left Dallas to sign a five-year, $60 million deal with Phoenix. The Mavericks could have matched or exceeded the offer, but they were worried about Nash’s age (he was 30), health and breakneck style.
If the system is a burden to elite players, it is a boon for the league, which prizes franchise stability, and for fans, who almost never have to say goodbye to their heroes.
The choice of James has taken common wisdom and stood it on its ear. It was such a departure from the established definition of “a great player” that even former NBA stars came out against LeBron. Michael Jordan said he would never have called up Bird and Magic in a quest to win a championship. Charles Barkley noted that James tarnished his legacy by going to “Wade’s team.” While Knick great Walt Frazier succinctly stated that LeBron “took the easy way out.”
James’ choice was an affront to the sense of competitive balance. The average fan saw the trio of James, Wade, and Bosh as the playground equivalent of putting the three biggest kids on the same team so they can run the court all day long. For children, there’s no fun in stacking the odds to beat up on the weak. But playground ethics goes against the professional athletes’ rule of winning at all costs. Players are lauded for whatever will bring their team victory, including bending the rules. Fans often enjoy the hometown player who gets away with a fistful of jersey. Players are valued for wins the team earns and on a more granular level the number of rings they own. Jordan validated this theory when he pronounced Kobe to be superior to James, even though Bryant’s only real edge is better teammates.
The problem is that championships are a function of team, but they are often applied as measuring sticks for an individual. In some ways the public has themselves to blame for irrationally setting such odd standards. Jordan didn’t win a championship until he was teamed with Pippen (and Phil Jackson). Frazier played alongside a gaggle of Hall of Famers en route to his two championships (Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Monroe, and Lucas). Barkley chased a championship in Phoenix, and later as a third fiddle in Houston. The rules are clear: players are expected to do everything they can to win, and championships define players. Since good teammates win championships, then the most logical conclusion for an athlete is to find the best teammates possible in order to maintain their individual legacy. LeBron’s choice is simply the next logical step based on the criteria by which he will be judged.
But can the hatred last? True Hoop’s Henry Abbott likens LeBron’s case to Kevin Garnett who languished in Minnesota before teaming up in Boston with Allen and Pierce.
Sometimes you have to ask yourself what your end goal is: To win the individual sport of being the man, or the team sport of basketball? They usually go together. There’s a reason Bryant and Jordan have all those championship rings.
But sometimes the best thing for basketball is to not put everything on your shoulders, and instead get some help.
Think about Kevin Garnett. There are several different really smart analyses to show that when he was in Minnesota losing all those games he was literally the best player in the NBA (the same analysis, over the last two years, would say James is that player now). If you use some kind of smart objective metrics, Garnett’s is the name that comes up most from those years. But Garnett had no help! After he grew distraught with the team’s endless rebuilding, the Timberwolves found him a home in Boston with some serious help in the form of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Even though Garnett did not play his best basketball in Boston, he did his best winning there, and the result has been a profound transformation of both how the world sees Garnett and how the city of Boston feels about basketball in the 2000s. It’s a model anyone would want to copy — a new home with talented teammates became a story of pure, unrestrained basketball joy for all involved who aren’t Timberwolves fans.
Although at the time, much of the vitriol was aimed above Garnett’s at Minnesota GM and former Celtic player Kevin McHale for handing his former team another trophy. Nevertheless today the Boston trio is no more or less hated than expected. In fact as Henry asserts, Garnett is viewed more positively for his role on a championship team.
Baseball’s Curt Flood, a pioneer of free agency for athletes, was vilified by his actions not just by the public, but with fellow players as well. Flood once returned to his locker to find a funeral wreath on it. In fact there are parallels between Flood and James. Both players simply sought the ability to go where they wished, and the public recoiled because they felt that decision would ruin the game. And although there will be many people who resent LeBron no matter what he does (mostly in Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and whatever cities he defeats on the way to a championship), there will be others who after he wins a title will view him in a positive light. Because as the old saying goes, everybody loves a winner.
More important than how this decision affects LeBron, is how it affects the choices athletes will make. Free agency in a capped league, like the amateur draft, is meant to help the weaker teams become more competitive. Teams with superstars should already be near the cap, and those without should be far enough below to sign them. However reality paints a different picture. Star players bypass the cities they wish to avoid and instead force their way onto a preferred franchise. Kareem did it to the Bucks in the 70s, Shaq did it twice, and Kobe did it before he was even drafted. As a result, the rest of the league usually ends up overpaying for the non-super stars.
Already with the ability to chose their destination (within reason) players have an upper hand in a game considered to be run by front offices. It would be like Karpov and Kasparov sitting down to play, but Karpov’s queen decides it would be easier to win if she decided to play alongside Kasparov’s queen. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s choice could start a trend in the league. The Heat were in no shortage of finding talented players with which to surround Miami Thrice. Other superstars like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have been rumored to wish to team up in order to create their own super team. In a few years, building teams with multiple superstars could be the norm around the NBA. In other terms what is going to stop Karpov’s rooks, knights, and bishops from all seeing better odds by going elsewhere, leaving a bunch of pawns and a defenseless king?
Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic on the course laid out in the future. Change usually brings the negative out in people, and I’m sure there were fans that thought the worst of every change, whether it be racial integration, the three point line, or instant replay. The end of the reserve clause in baseball was supposed to be the death of sports, but just about every league has survived post free agency.
Maybe the NBA can thrive under these new conditions. It didn’t seem that the league was hurt by the dynasties of the Celtics, Lakers, or Bulls in the 80s & 90s. Nor did the rivalry between the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, and Suns bore fans in the 00s. Perhaps franchises will aim for loads of cap space instead of overpaying for marginal talent. A handful of super teams would make the latter rounds of the playoffs much more interesting. Furthermore any Cinderella team, one without a group of superstars, would instantly become a sweetheart to all cities without playoff representation.
By creating a super team, LeBron has changed the rules of the game. Potentially he ushered a new era in sports where the best athletes choose their team and teammates. Although by doing so, LeBron has unintentionally recast himself as the league’s villain. However if this trend of creating teams of multiple All Stars pioneered by James becomes established as the norm, then history might view him in a more kind light.