Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More LeBron James thoughts...

For some reason, I find the LeBron James decision very interesting, so I've got few more scattered thoughts about it.  I'll put them under the fold.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What We Want From Athletes

We want athletes who are willing to sacrifice individual glory, statistics, and money in order to win a championship, right?  

If the reaction to LeBron James's decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the Miami heat is any indication, maybe not.

On the surface, it seems like James (and Bosh and Wade) are doing what we always say we want star athletes to do.  Go for the rings.  Value your teammates.  Make winning your first priority.

Isn't that what we would do with our careers?  What would we do -- bang our head against the wall trying to drag a group of incompetents to success, or join some friends who also happen to be outstanding in their fields and kick some butt?

Still, something doesn't seem quite right.  The superstar leading his team to victory, "learning how to win," etc. is a great story.  A group of stars getting together and stacking the deck in their favor is not.

But sports is ultimately about competition.  I'l enjoy having the All-Star Game on tonight, but I'll be on the edge of my seat for a tight postseason series.  What we want when we watch sports isn't just moments of brilliance and great plays, but intense competition between teams at the top of their game going all-out to beat each other.   I don't recall any jaw-dropping plays from Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but I watched the whole thing.  I can't remember the last NBA All-Star Game I watched.

This sentiment is captured by Bill Simmons: "Michael Jordan would have wanted to kick Dwyane Wade's butt every spring, not play with him."  

Perhaps.  In terms of judging LeBron James as a human being, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing, judging by things like Jordan's Hall of Fame Speech.

But as an athlete and entertainer, it puts him behind Jordan.  LeBron can never be David; he will always be Goliath.  He will never put a team on his shoulders and carry it to a title, and neither will Wade.  Both players appear to have the potential to do that, and if everything goes according to plan, they never will.

What this feels most like is A-Rod joining the Yankees, A-Rod swung from one extreme to the other.  He joined a team that had to invest all its resources in him and couldn't afford anyone else, then moved to a team that was already dominated by other personalities. 

LeBron is doing the same thing.  Even if the Heat win five titles, we will never know if LeBron could have led a a team to a title.  He's set the difficulty down a few levels.

I'm not a fan of the Orlando Magic and the way they play, but I'm hoping they or another team from the East hand it to the Heat on a regular basis.  And I hope Kevin Durant leads the Oklahoma City Thunder to greatness.  Maybe Kobe can lead the Lakers on a couple more runs.

Because I don't want to see this work, and have every generation of stars get together on the same team and dominate the league.  It's just that not fun to watch.  The Dream Team was one summer.  This is five years.  I want sports to be about competition, not the best players getting together and stacking the deck in their favor.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture on NBA Supporting Casts...

The LeBron James decision is fascinating, and promises to get even more so.

Never before has someone who is such a significant portion of a championship team had an opportunity to choose his next destination.  One player has more impact in basketball than in any other sport, and no player with the stature of LeBron James has ever been a free agent.

Of course, a superstar gets you part of the way to a championship, but not the whole way.  So, if we assume that James should make his choice to optimize his probability and frequency of championships (an assumption I don't completely buy), then the question is what kind of team he should surround himself with.

The Lakers and Cavaliers both played the Lakers in last year's playoffs.  The Lakers won; the Cavaliers lost.  The main difference, as far as I could tell is that when LeBron had a terrible shooting game, the Cavs went in the tank, whereas when Kobe Bryant went 6-24 from the field in Game 7, the team kept him in the game.

So, the fundamental question is whether this is due to the quality of their teammates, or the culture of the teams, as defined by the coach and, yes, the star player.

For sure, anyone would trade the Cavaliers' 2-12 players for the Lakers'.  The Cavs had nobody comparable to Pau Gasol, no veteran leader like Derek Fisher, or anyone with the versatility of Lamar Odom.  In a choose-up game, six Lakers would probably go before the second Cav.

At the same time, it's also true that some of these guys weren't great players before hooking up with the Lakers.  Five years ago, would anyone have thought that Ron Artest and Lamar Odom would be critical parts of an NBA championship team?

NBA history is full of role players who have been parts of many different winning teams -- Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Fisher.  But it's also true that the list of championship coaches is a short one.  And that these coaches have turned problem players like Dennis Rodman, Stephen Jackson, Artest, and Odom into productive members of championship teams.

Of course, the guys we recognize today as winners are at the tail end of their careers, and probably aren't going to be part of another championship anyway, so it would be silly for LeBron to try to target a team with these guys in place, or with plans to acquire them.

History has shown he will need at least one other solid contributor.  But in terms of role players, I'm not sure you can tell the Mo Williamses from the Derek Fishers before the time comes.

So if I were LeBron James, and I wanted to maximize my ability to win a championship, the single most important factor for me would be the head coach.  Specifically, it would whether I believe the head coach would be an effective partner for me in building a winning culture.

The second requirement would be a solid second banana, but that seems to be achievable for all the contenders.

And right now, I'd take Pat Riley over Byron Scott, Mike D'Antoni, or the void elsewhere.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Soccer, Laws, Rules, and morals.

One of the most fundamental rules of soccer is that except for the goalkeeper, you can't use your hands on the ball.  Even most Americans know that

In the final minute of extra time in Friday's quarterfinal game against Ghana, Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez found himself standing in front of the goal with the ball heading toward him head high.  He swatted the ball with his hand, took the red card penalty.  Ghana missed the penalty kick, and Uruguay ultimately won the game to advance.  Suarez will be suspended for Uraguay's next game.

While some might disagree, most would say that Suarez did the right thing.  The important thing was to win the game.  If Suarez had not swatted at the ball, Uraguay would have almost definitely lost.  His action gave them a chance to win.  You play to win, not to follow the rules.  Suarez did what he had to do to help his team win.  If he had refused to break the rules to help his team win the game, he would be criticized for it.

While perhaps not this stark, in most sports there are times where it is more in a team's interest to accept the penalty for breaking the rules than not.  A defensive back should take a pass interference penalty rather than give up a touchdown.  A basketball player should give up a foul rather than a lay up, and foul on purpose in the final minutes to extend the game.

But this is not universal.  Suarez's action, while against perhaps the most fundamental rule of soccer, was harmless.  If the only way for Suarez to prevent the goal was to cause physical harm to one of Ghana's players, and he did so, I doubt we'd feel the same way.  If he kidnapped the opposing team's players' children to distract them during the game, nobody would be cheering.

It seems to me that a lot of the controversies in the Church boil down the whether the teaching of the Church is analogous to the rule against using your hands in soccer or more significant.  In particular, I am thinking of the case in Phoenix of the abortion given to the woman with the heart condition, and the torture debate.

For sure, some rules should be ignored under some circumstances.  It is a rule that we shouldn't eat meat on Lenten Fridays, but given a choice between wasting prepared food and eating meat, we should probably eat the meat.  Attending Mass on Sundays is a commandment, but if on the way to Church we see someone desperately needing help, we should be willing to miss Mass to help them.

But, in my view, the Church's teachings on the dignity of human life are more fundamental than that.  We don't eschew torture and abortion and unjust war just so that we can have a clean report card.  We do it because it is who we are, who God has called us to be, and breaking those rules takes us away from that.

The Cider House Rules invited us to regard pro-life sentiments as, at best guidelines for order that can be disregarded when deemed necessary, and at worse a tool of oppression.  My view is that living the Gospel, living our true selves, is the true path to freedom.

It ultimately comes down to how we answer the question Jesus posed to Peter in the Gospel two weeks ago -- "Who do you say that I am"  Do we regard Christ and His Church as makers of arbitrary rules that prevent us from getting things done, or as the Lord of our lives who has shown us the true path of life?