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Jul. 9 2010 - 3:50 pm | 280 views | 1 recommendation | 14 comments

The King is brave: LeBron James chooses to build an actual old-fashioned NBA team


LeBron James as a Cavalier

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    The story is how he did it, you seem to have missed that.

  2. collapse expand

    “Miami, now cash-poor, will never be able to assemble a serviceable supporting cast.”

    That part’s particularly weird. Folks seem to think it’ll be Chalmers, Miller, and whoever they can get for the minimum. They also say that Bosh’ll hate having to man up against big opponents. This ignores Miami’s two draft picks (big men and ones that take up a lot of space in different ways). That still leaves Miami with enough room under the cap to find another good player; maybe better than that if the three follow through on getting sub-max contracts.

  3. collapse expand

    Jeff, saw the caveat. That said, can’t see this team as one of the best in NBA history. Do think it will win and win often. I think the Big 3 will blend nicely together, much like the Big 3 in Boston. All comes down to who Riley can put alongside them if they are to win a title. Not sure that will happen in the next year or two.

    As a Yankees fan, I’m used to following a team that everyone else hates. It was good for baseball, but I’m not sure it’s going to work for basketball.

    • collapse expand

      Kill me, shoot me where I will live the longest, OK so I got carried away. You wrote the best article of anybody I say, I read about everything, yours is a masterpiece. You scared away people I tried to get to cover this i think, at a boy, meant respectfully.

      I think they will break apart for two reasons: 1) its Wades team 2) Le Bron is going to pout about that and feel betrayed; he does not know what second fiddle feels like yet, can’t wait to see how this pans out!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Hey Jon. I appreciate your warranted skepticism, but to me even the possibility of a dynasty is exciting. It’ll be fascinating to watch Miami try to make this work, though if they succeed your question is the right one: How healthy are dynasties for basketball? My fantasy is that we avoid a too top-heavy league because 8 or 10 of 30 teams are able to use the Riley template (clear cap space, seek great players committed to playing together and therefore unusually flexible re salaries …). Yeah, it’s a dream.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Hey Jeff,

    I just watched Miami lose to the Bulls for the third time this season, and it seems like the poor supporting cast is the problem that they can’t get around. The galling thing about this loss is that it came because Mike Miller neglected to box out the foul shooter (Deng), who missed the second shot with the Bulls one down, and then earned two more on the ensuing foul from behind when he got his own rebound. And Miller was supposed to be one of the good ones.

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    When I was in college I ran across an anthology called The Literary Journalists. I’d already begun doing painfully reverent imitations of writers like Joseph Mitchell and Alec Wilkinson and Joan Didion—but the book's editor, Norman Sims, was even more reverent: he had collected their work and declared it to have as much value as any other kind of writing. I had a come-to-Jesus moment. I first got published in extremely well-camouflaged journals like The Cream City Review. Eventually, with the requisite amount of luck, I got into The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone. I'll keep writing for those magazines and others, but I'm happy to be telling stories here. (You can read any of my posts anytime! They don't age that fast!)

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