The King is brave: LeBron James chooses to build an actual old-fashioned NBA team
Big Caveat: When I wrote this earlier today I hadn’t watched, and didn’t plan to watch, what became the LeBacle, which I thought would be pretty formulaic: A bio segment, some highlights, some analysis of scenarios, a few words about the decision-making process, LeBron expressing the requisite gratitude towards the fans and city of Cleveland, the big announcement, a little postgame, and done. This was just a basketball piece; “brave” was tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t realize a human disaster had just occurred. Apologies for any seeming indifference/obtuseness.
When LeBron James chose to play in Miami with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he made the right decision, and he made the only potentially transformative decision.
It’s a truism at this point that talent dilution has badly damaged basketball over the past fifteen years. I’d say it’s easily damaged basketball more than anything else.
I grew up in Philly, and I wasn’t quite old enough to fully grasp the specialness of the ‘82-‘83 Malone-Erving-Toney-Cheeks-Jones Sixers, but I was old enough to live and die by them, and I took as a given the frightening arduousness of their postseason hero’s journey: To get to the McHale-Bird-Parish Celtics, they would have to get past the Sikma-Cummings-Lucas Bucks, and the reward for those conquests was the Kareem-Magic-Worthy Lakers. (The Sixers killed everybody.)
Those were historically elite teams. NBA champions should be historically elite—every team in the Finals should approach historical eliteness. They’re ostensibly the world’s best teams. But look at the ‘98-’99 Knicks, the ‘01-’02 Nets, and James’ own ‘06-’07 Cavs. Those weren’t Finals-worthy teams. In the last fifteen years maybe two losing Finals teams deserved their spots: the ‘92-‘93 Suns and the ‘96-through-‘98 Jazz. The parade of lambs to the Finals has diminished the meaning of the NBA championship. (The East-West power imbalance has aggravated but not caused the problem.)
LeBron James, the greatest player of his era, has chosen to play with another Hall-of-Famer, a player who could end up on a top-five all-time list. Historically great teams need a transcendent nucleus, and Wade was the only other transcendent player out there.
At the 2008 Olympics, James, Wade, and Bosh made what then seemed like a comically boyish pact: they would all play together someday, and if they each had to take less money to do it, they would. In a culture of extreme, team-hostile self-interest and impossible market constraints, James has just made good on that pact, and allowed us to envision a different NBA. The way you get around talent dilution is by internationalizing the league to expand the talent pool and doing exactly what James, Bosh, Wade, and Pat Riley did. Otherwise you have Scott Boras ruining the NBA like a developer ruins wetlands.
One criticism of James’ choice is that he has exploited a rare circumstance (great free agent class, much cap space) to assemble a superteam that will manufacture championships—winning will be so easy as to render his rings meaningless. On this theory, his tilting of the playing field is almost cowardly. It’s a strange idea. This new Miami team could have been assembled in a bunch of ways. And it would be hard to call a championship win meaningless if it entailed beating a very good, Dwight-Howard-led Orlando Magic team, a tough, healthy Celtics team, a Bulls team with a core of Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, and another all-star, and, in the Finals, a Lakers team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom.
The more common objection is the opposite: James has fallen into a terrible trap by mistaking talent for team. He is overestimating the limits of his unselfishness. Here are the supposedly insurmountable obstacles to Miami’s success: Wade and James won’t be able to share the ball. Wade and James will bicker over who’s going to control the game in the last two minutes. They’ll fight over who’s going to take the last shot. Miami, now cash-poor, will never be able to assemble a serviceable supporting cast. The whole thing will be revealed to be a personal-brand-enhancing sham. Also, the sky over Miami is known to be brittle and prone to cracking and falling.
James and Wade have crazy assist numbers for superlative scorers. How will they share the ball? Passing. Who will take over the game in the last few minutes? The player who’s having the best night. Who’ll take the last shot? The player who gets the best look. The solution is team basketball, 2008 Olympics–style. James, Wade, and Bosh are betting that they can play good team basketball.
The person building this team is Pat Riley, one of the best team-builders ever. Here is one non-monetary recruiting incentive he can offer prospective players: a chance to play on one of the greatest teams in NBA history.