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.
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