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.

The Rules Are Different For Superstars
A couple years ago, Shawn Marion forced a trade from Phoenix, where he was a complementary player on a great team, to Miami, where he was a star player on a mediocre team.

This launched a series of criticism from Bill Simmons -- how could he leave a team with Steve Nash?  Why wouldn't he want the best chance at a championship? (Google search didn't come up with smoking guns -- may have been more in the podcasts.  Bu the results will give you a flavor of the tenor of his comments).

Now, LeBron James has left a mediocre set of teammates for Miami so he can play with Dwyane Wade and have the best shot at a championship.

This is almost precisely orthogonal to Marion's move.  Yet, now Simmons is trying to come up with fun chants to jeer James with over this decision.

My point isn't to label Simmons a hypocrite.  More is that the rules are different for superstars than everyone else.  Usually, that works in the stars' favor, but not in this case.  Marion is a fringe All Star, a second or third best player for a championship team.  A team with Shawn Marion as its best player is not going to win a championship.  The best thing for Marion to do is find a situation with good players that complement him and contribute to a championship team.  And if he's lucky enough to find himself in such a situation, for heaven's sake don't screw it up.

Not so for LeBron James.  He is a superstar.  He should be the foundation of a championship team, not a complementary part.

And yet...

If another player on the Cavs had developed to a stature similar to Wade, and LeBron forced the Cavs to trade him so he could be the undisputed alpha dog, wouldn't we think he was a jerk?  Or if the Cavs traded for Wade and James pouted about it?

Being a superstar has its high point, but it's not easy...

The Irony

One interesting aspect of this is that this move, where players come together and decide what kind of teams they will be on, is possible because of the salary cap.

If there was a truly open market and bidding  for their services, would Wade and James end up on the same team?  I don't think so.

But with the cap in place, James and Wade's salary were both essentially locked in to the same value as people like Joe Johnson.  Thus, salary is no longer a meaningful way of keeping score among athletes.  So why not team up and go for championships?

The salary cap, which not too long ago baseball owners were claiming was the only path to competitive balance, has not led to perhaps the most imbalanced of outcomes.

The Essence

I think Simmons came closes to capturing the problem with the Heat with this passage:

In pickup basketball, there's an unwritten rule to keep teams relatively equal to maximize the competitiveness of the games. That's the law. If two players are noticeably better than everyone else, they don't play together, nor would they want to play together. If the two guys have any pride at all -- especially if they play similar positions -- then getting the better of each other trumps any other scenario. They want that test. Joining forces and destroying everyone else would ruin the whole point of having the game. It's like a dad kicking his young son's ass in a driveway one-on-one game. What's the point? When LeBron and Wade effectively said, "Instead of trying to whup each other, let's just crush everyone else" and "If these teams end up being uneven, we're not switching up," everyone who ever played basketball had the same reaction: "I hate guys like that."
So when my wife asked in all sincerity, "What's the big deal if they play together?" I couldn't really explain it to her other than to say, "It's a basketball thing. You just don't do it." Your goal as an alpha dog is to assemble the best team you can and beat the other alpha dogs. 
It's difficult to articulate what's wrong with it because it's just the essence of basketball, of sports in general, of any competition.

Sports are fundamentally a forum for displaying your talents and determining who is the best.  We talk about things like "being a team player" and "sacrificing for the team" and good sportsmanship because the assumption is that we need to check athlete's natural inclination to make it about them.  And we use team sports as a proxy for other (non-competitive) endeavors where effective teamwork is more important than individual brilliance.

But now I wonder if we've pushed so hard that we may need to back up a bit.  Yeah, we still have wide receivers reacting to five yard catches in the second quarter of regular season games as if they just won the Super Bowl.    Still, it seems that we have been so relentless in drilling in the team concept that players like LeBron James have absorbed it to the point where its eaten away at their competitiveness.

Championships Are a Broken Metric

Another theme I keep thinking back to is that our hyper-focus on championships, on "rings," as the almost sole measure of an athlete's worth is broken.

It is pretty much settled now that in spite of his mind-blowing statistics, Wilt Chamberlain was not as good a basketball player as Bill Russell, because Russell won two hands' worth of championships and Chamberlain only won two.

This goes to the cultural messages I referred to above.  We want young athletes to emulate Russell's unselfishness, willingness to do the "little things" to help the team win, and commitment to winning.  We don't want them to emulate Chamberlain's obsession with statistics and occasional selfishness.  So we celebrate Russell and downplay Chamberlain.

Michael Jordan's career arc is probably the best illustration of this.  Jordan came up as a shoot-first guard who led the league in scoring, had phenomenal dunks, but whose teams fizzled in the playoffs.  Then, at least the narrative goes, he "learned to trust his teammates," improved his defense and rebounding, picked his spots more in scoring, and won six championships.  The Kobe Bryant narrative is similar.

A phrase defenders of Chamberlain and others like him use is that Russell has "superior taste in teammates."  Which may or may not be true.  But I wonder if LeBron surveyed the landscape, wondered if he'd share Chamberlain's legacy, saw the opportunity to choose his own teammates, and did so in a way to maximize his chance of winning championships.

The focus on championships has led to intense postseasons, but, in my opinion, the following bad effects:

In a league with thirty teams, it is likely there will be some wonderful players who will have long careers without a championship.  Do we need to regard them as tragic figures?

What sports are about is day-to-day competition, not manipulating the environment to maximize one's chance of winning a championship.  I think we need a cultural adjustment to reward everyday competition that stops short of winning championships.

Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Ryne Sandberg, recent Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson, and others can hold their heads high.
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