BASKETBALL: The King Becomes The Apprentice

There have been oceans of commentary on the LeBron James to Miami story (NY Daily News headline – “WHO CARES” – but they still put him on the front and back covers of the paper for the second day running). On a general level I agree with the consensus: I can’t blame him for deciding to leave Cleveland for a better chance to win a title, but if he was going to leave the Cavs, he could hardly have picked a worse way to increase the pain for his devoted hometown fans than the national TV special crowning a long and probably mostly-for-show public debate. I can’t really blame Cavs fans for rallying behind the sentiments in the Cavs owner’s over-the-top open letter that amounted to the “Fredo, you broke my heart” speech. The Miami signing is death to two proud franchises: the Cavs had the heart cut out of their team and their fans’ loyalty burned in public (three highest paid athletes in Cleveland now: Antawn Jamison, Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook), and the Knicks, moribund for a decade, had no real Plan B after spending the past 4-5 seasons un-building around having the cap room for LeBron (I’ll believe Amar’e Stoudemire and his rebuilt knee when I see him do it in NY, given the ghastly record of Knicks mid-career acquisitions of scoring forwards the last quarter century).
LeBron will have a long way to go yet to top Barry Bonds as the best free agent signing ever, or Shaq in LA as the best post-merger NBA free agent signing. Also: I think the people who talk up how superior a salary cap system is to baseball’s economic system will be quiet for a while. And of course, there’s the inevitable political point to be made on how much more money LeBron will make in Florida than in Ohio due to Florida’s lower taxes.
But here’s the one thing I wanted to weigh in on. There’s a school of thought, emblemized by Bill Simmons’ excellent column yesterday, that by going to a team that already has an ‘alpha dog’ scorer/ballhandler (Dwayne Wade) who’s already won a ring with the team, LeBron has shown that he doesn’t have it in him to be the alpha dog himself in the way that Jordan and Kobe have been.
Well, maybe. And if so, maybe – assuming it works out – people who value teamwork, unselfishness and dedication to winning championships should celebrate LeBron’s willingness to suppress his obviously considerable ego for the good of winning.
But consider the alternative interpretation: maybe LeBron knows he isn’t ready to be the alpha dog. He’s still only 25, and Wade is 28 and has already taken a lot of pounding. Maybe after finding the limits of his ability or willingness to carry a team alone in the playoffs, LeBron wants to learn the finer points of his craft a little longer, bide his time the way Magic did in the early 80s or Havlicek in the mid-60s or Kobe earlier in this decade. Maybe on some level he’s admitting he doesn’t really know how to win – yet. What’s wrong with that?
It’s hard to project whether the Wade-James-Bosh experiment will work until we see what role players the team assembles around them; it wouldn’t surprise me to see some veteran role players take a pay cut for the chance to play with a trio that, when they’re on the court together, will be completely unguardable. Shaq comes to mind – I’m not sure what shape his relationship with Wade and James is at this point, but pretty much everybody who’s played with Shaq has benefitted from the experience. Also, I’d put the over/under around 8 months on Pat Riley returning to the bench to coach these guys, especially if LeBron doesn’t immediately mix seamlessly into the team.
And morally satisfying as it might be to root against these guys, part of me, as a sports fan, really does want to see the experiment succeed to shut up a lot of preening sportswriters and prove that a true partnership between guys of Wade’s and James’ caliber can be formed. Certainly two guys with their athletic gifts and passing ability have the potential to create some really beautiful basketball.

16 thoughts on “BASKETBALL: The King Becomes The Apprentice”

  1. I’ve found the Kobe psychodrama stuff to be outlandish. It took Jordon years to win his first championship. It took Kobe years to win his first. There was a two-year period in the late 90s when the Utah Jazz routinely crushed the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the playoffs, just as Isaiah Thomas’s Pistons had earlier crushed Jordon’s Bulls.
    Yet who would mock Jordon’s or Kobe’s “legacy” now.
    And what about Kevin Garnett?
    Simmons is entertaining, but for a Boston Celtics fan, the team whose most recent championship was based on a big three, he seems to miss the obvious. You could call Garnett the alpha dog on that team, but Paul Pierce was the scoring leader. What made Garnett the alpha dog was the way he led on defense. And Ray Allen? Definitely third on the list.
    For all the attention on Chris Bosh, he’s not in the same category as Wade and James. I don’t know if he knows that. But he doesn’t bring up the ball.

  2. Crap, I wrote Kobe in that first sentence instead of Lebron. It should read: “I’ve found the LeBron psychodrama stuff to be outlandish.”

  3. Crank, I’m going to disagree with you on a few points.
    1) I do understand Lebron wanting to get out of town, and would have been fine with him leaving. What was wrong was the way he handled it, which was as immature and self-centered as possible. If he was going to leave Cleveland he should have told them a week ago. He shouldn’t have strung them along. And the level of ego required to schedule an hour on national tv with ESPN basketball personalities slobbering over him in a sickening display of genuflection is staggering.
    2) Lebron is too old for him to be an apprentice now. He’s been in the league for 7 years, which means he’s already more than halfway through his best years. Also, he was thought of as a possible “greatest player ever”. He can’t be that now that in the prime of his career he’ll be the #2 man on his own team. And there’s no question he’ll be the #2 man – not only because Miami fans will always love Wade more than him, but also because Wade’s game is more suited to be a #1. Wade is more of a pure scorer and more of a crunch-time scorer. Lebron is more of a passer and has wilted in crunch time when his team needed a big shot. He needed to develop that #1 mentality in Cleveland, Chicago or New York. Now he never will.
    3) I don’t see why this Miami team is the favorite in the East. They still need to grab a bunch of new players. First of all, for all of the talk about the Celtics “big three”, that team also had Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, James Posey, Eddie House, Tony Allen and Leon Powe, among others. Not only will Miami become a .500 team at best if one of their big three gets hurt, but they still have to add multiple players to be great even with all three healthy. How exactly will that team guard Dwight Howard? Or deal with the Celtics front line? They still have a LOT of work to do.

  4. We all have to wait till June 2011 to know if this hullabaloo was about anything. Great column ‘crank.

  5. One good thing did happen last night as the one hour shit show proved once and for all that Stuart Scott is the most annoying person on the planet.
    Boo-yah indeed you talentless, ass-kissing fuck.

  6. I think it was Joe Posnanski that compared Lebron signing with the Heat to A-Rod signing with the Yankees. That seems to be a good comparison as even though Lebron (or ARod) is probably the best player in the sport it will still be Wade’s (or Jeter’s) team and he’ll have to defer to him. In fact, Lebron and A-Rod seem pretty alike now.

  7. Can’t blame him for joining the Heat, but the build-up was definitely ridiculous.
    Only under the salary cap is there a big incentive for such players to get together and decide where to play. With no cap on salaries, baseball players cannot know how deep the owners’ pockets really are, and therefore would be reluctant to take a salary cut (meaning, less than their perceived market value) to play on a stacked team.

  8. Also the MLB union will crucify you for taking less than top dollar unless it’s an obvious hometown discount.
    gamecock – I’d say July 2012. If Miami wins a title in his second season there, it’ll still be remembered as a good move and still set up the possibility of multiple titles.

  9. Tom – the ARod comparison is fairly apt, but also a bit off. When it’s crunch time in the NBA, only one guy gets to shoot the ball, and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be Wade. There’s no real equivalent to that in baseball, so “It’s Jeter’s team” has less tangible meaning.
    I do think that after seven years in a sport where your age is more a matter of how many takeoffs and landings your knees have absorbed than when you were born, 25 isn’t really young enough to still be an apprentice. It’s a pretty curious career move to me. I guess LeBron would rather ride shotgun to multiple championships than drive the bus to possibly one or two, though. Makes me wonder whether Patrick Ewing wishes he’d gotten a chance to go to Chicago as Jordan’s sidekick rather than spending his whole career as The Man for a team that almost got there, but ultimately never did.

  10. I think the future is now for the Bosh / Wade / James combo in Miami. They’re under contract together for five years, but I doubt that Wade will still be a superstar at 33, or that Bosh will still be an all-star at age 31. They’re both the type of player that “ages” quickly — the combo guard who takes it to the rack over and over (e.g. Iverson) and the 6’10” guy trying to play center (undersized centers are almost always washed up by age 32.)
    If they DON’T win in 2010-11 or 2011-12 (assuming there is a 2011-12) I doubt they’ll be able to do it later in the decade.

  11. I find all this “LeBron would rather ride shotgun than drive the bus stuff” a little ridiculous. Guys, LeBron is the best player in the world. He is better than Wade. It is his team now. By the way, Crank, it’s spelled D-W-Y-A-N-E Wade. No, I don’t know what his mother was thinking either.
    I’m not sure if the Heat are favourites. Bosh’s through age 25 stats are an absolute dead ringer for those of Pau Gasol and the Lakers just won 2 titles with him as the second best player. Gasol, er Bosh, is now the Heat’s third best player and Lebron is streets ahead of Kobe (yes, he is. don’t believe the “COUNT THE RINGZZZZ” crowd.). However these Lakers teams also had Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest / Trevor Ariza. I’m not sure if Wade himself is as good as those three guys combined. I don’t know if anyone decent is going to sign for the minimum to play with these guys. Not with a lockout coming.
    Simmons is a hypocritical tool. He devotes a 700 page book to the concept that basketball is about sacrificing stats / individual glory to be a winner, and now that LeBron does that he rips him for taking the easy way out. Whatever.

  12. I also think this highlights the shortcomings of the NBA financial model which aren’t exactly what David Stern thinks they are. It’s nice to constrain payrolls, but in a world where LeBron James can only make as much money as Chris Bosh, collusion is the only thing likely to decide where players go. Under the old CBA (under which Jordan made 30+ million, and would sure as hell not give up a dime to pay a Chris Bosh-level player), guys like Bosh would have to choose between making 6-7 million or going to weaker teams. That would be better for competitive balance. Greed actually is good in some contexts.

  13. “Under the old CBA (under which Jordan made 30+ million, and would sure as hell not give up a dime to pay a Chris Bosh-level player), guys like Bosh would have to choose between making 6-7 million or going to weaker teams. That would be better for competitive balance.”
    Is the old way really better for competitive balance? Under that system, only the large-market teams can afford to pay Jordan-type stars mega-millions in the first place.

  14. If you have to free enough cap space to pay him, a Jordan-level player would almost always stay with his own team, since otherwise he’d have to play entirely with scrubs for at least a year or two.

  15. As much as it hurts to name a Yankee, the greatest free agent signing has to be Reggie, not Barry Bonds.
    2 rings and a nickname for the ages has to count for more.
    What LeBron has now done (and for a player and not an owner to do it is interesting) is recreate the Lakers of the late 60s-early 70s. West, Wilt and Baylor combined were considered sure winners. And they did well. Well, almost anyway. The three of them combined for ZERO titles (the Lakers got it the year Elgin Baylor retired, but he retired early in the season). Their window is probably only a couple of years before Wade’s knees give out, and Kobe and Gasol don’t give much indication that they want to give up those rings easily.

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