So, it’s obviously been a while since we’ve updated, but unfortunately, all three of us hit very busy times in our real jobs, and then once you haven’t updated in a while, the inertia builds up, and it becomes more difficult to make a new post. There’s a lot of pressure – if you haven’t posted in a while, the new post has to be noteworthy. As such, as the most noteworthy storyline in the NBA right this second – including the Playoffs – is LeBron’s elimination from the postseason and what he’s going to do when his contract expires in a few short weeks. Every sports commentator in the world has rendered an opinion… I even watched NFL Live on Saturday morning and the hosts spent a good 6 or 7 minutes talking about LeBron. I figure it’s only fitting that I render my own.
ESPN’s “The Sports Guy,” Bill Simmons, has put it best so far, in my mind – LeBron has three ephemeral ideas he can choose at this juncture. He can choose loyalty, winning, or immortality. Now, I’m not as reliant on hyperbole as Simmons is, but I think it’s a pretty much accepted fact that LeBron has the most physical gifts – and mastery over said gifts – of anyone playing basketball on the planet Earth right now, and some would say, ever. I’m not saying he’s the BEST player, right this very second, but I AM saying that, depending on what he decides, he could end up being the best EVER, if you quantify that sort of thing by the number of league titles a player accumulates over the course of his career. With that said, I’ll try to analyze the three ideas LeBron can select between, and based on what I/we think we know about LeBron, offer up a suggestion for King James’s next move.
Ever since Cleveland landed the #1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft, LeBron’s career has seemed, well…. a little predetermined. Honestly, I don’t know why there’s not a conspiracy theory floating around about a “frozen envelope” for the 2003 draft, because LeBron and Patrick Ewing (of the frozen envelope theory fame) aren’t even comparable. LeBron grew up in Akron, led St. Vincent / St. Mary’s to national prominence with his best friends his senior season (the movie about this is actually really entertaining…and enlightening, too), and moved right on to the NBA only a short drive down the interstate to Cleveland, a town famous for sporting-related disappointments. Despite his undeniable star appeal, LeBron’s carefully cultivated an “aw shucks” demeanor designed to make him more marketable. After all, the best way to sell a 6’8″ 260+ lb African-American man to America-at-Large is to make him seem like someone you’d love to have over for dinner, because he’d probably bring a casserole. The fans in Cleveland love him, partially because he’s local, and partially because they’ve been let down so many times before. They’ve almost successfully talked themselves in to believing that he’ll stay, just because he cares so deeply about their feelings, and he’s been warned (indirectly) about how much his leaving without a championship would hurt them. He made a big show of accepting his MVP trophy this season in Akron, and referred to himself as “just a boy from Akron” multiple times. Personally, I think that’s a little messed-up. LeBron, to me, seems like a really nice, caring, empathetic person. Cleveland seems like the girlfriend who’s MOSTLY OK, and not actively difficult to be with, but you’re afraid to break up with her because she’s dropped some not-so-subtle hints about bad things happening in that event. It’s not that you don’t want to be with the girlfriend, because she’s hot, she’s a good girlfriend, she cares about you… but she’s got you “locked in,” for lack of a better term because you actually do care about her feelings and well-being, and begin to feel an obligation to be with her to prevent her feelings from being hurt and her well-being from going South. We’ve all been there….am I right? Am I right? It’s unfortunate, because that can ruin even the best relationships. You’re with someone because you want to be – not because you feel like you have to be. “Obligation” implies work, and even though LeBron James is a professional basketball player, basketball (and the accompanying lifestyle it provides) is supposed to be fun. Loyalty is great if it’s YOUR choice, but loyalty out of obligation only breeds resentment. I’ve seen multiple relationships fail for that specific reason – romantic and otherwise – and one of the most relevant examples I can come up with is that of Kevin Garnett.
The Big Ticket, KG himself, has gone on record with advice to LeBron: “Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said…. “I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner…” That’s sage advice from one of the stand-up guys in the NBA, and one who’s career can be compared to LeBron’s fairly effectively. Garnett was a straight-outta-HS phenomenon when he was drafted 5th in 1995 by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett was also the first player drafted directly out of high school in 20 years, paving the way for players like LeBron. In his 3rd season, as his rookie deal was set to expire, Garnett agreed to a 6-year, $126 million contract, unprecedented at that time. As a great player with incredible expectations placed on his shoulders immediately after being drafted, Garnett can really relate to what LeBron’s probably feeling right now, and Garnett felt like rewarding the faith the Timberwolves had shown in him by agreeing to the extension. He was richly rewarded financially, of course, but his team in Minnesota was never really built to compete for a championship, and Garnett’s incredibly large contract ended up becoming a handicap to the Timberwolves in that they couldn’t sign other top-tier players because under the salary cap rules, they simply didn’t have the money to pay other elite players.
Now, Garnett was certainly not WRONG in signing the huge, long-term extension, but now he looks on that decision with regret. He said himself that he can’t get his youth back, and although he’s earned one championship since moving to the Boston Celtics 3 years ago, the euphoria he experienced after winning was a stark contrast to the consistent years of just barely missing the playoffs, or else losing in the first round and never being considered serious contenders with Minnesota has apparently had Garnett re-evaluating what is important to him in his professional career. Sure, money is wonderful. Being a millionaire, like most NBA players, would be a dream come true for anybody. I tend to think that once I reach a certain level of financial security, however, everything else in addition to that would just be added benefits, since as long as my tastes stayed reasonably the same, I’d be able to afford whatever I wanted for the rest of my life. Garnett’s already made that kind of money, but at the end of the day, his legacy hinges on his winning. Winning even one NBA championship as the focal point of your team cements your place in history, but winning multiples ensures your name’s mention among the game’s greats. If Garnett manages to win another championship this season, I guarantee his career will be considered in an entirely different light. Once you’ve got “money,” like LeBron already has – forever, if he’s even a little bit smart – then the next thing you look to for fulfillment is what you’ve produced. And, so far, what LeBron’s produced is some positive feelings in the Cleveland fans, some disappointment locally as well as nationally for falling short of a title every season, and a lot of sneakers sold for Nike. This season, the Cavaliers COULD have won a championship, but they didn’t – and with the same roster a year older next year, I wouldn’t have considered them favorites even if they did win and everyone returned. That team’s not built to be a dynasty, and a big part of that is because with a player like LeBron commanding the salary that he does, other players who would elevate the team to that status simply aren’t affordable.
No, I think LeBron should go for the legacy. That’s what drives Kobe Bryant, and that’s what has made him the penultimate player in the NBA today — maybe not the BEST right this second skill-wise, but certainly the premier player in the entire league. Kobe and LeBron are entirely different people; that much is obvious from their on-court demeanor. They’re both great players at very different stages of their careers, but the biggest difference between the two men is what motivates them. Kobe has ALWAYS been motivated by legacy. Ever since he came in to the NBA as a high-school phenom, he’s planned on being the best to ever play the game. Even as he was playing Scottie Pippen to Shaquille O’Neal’s Michael Jordan on the early-2000′s Laker Dynasty, the chemistry on that team was always an issue. Everyone could tell that Kobe wasn’t going to be happy being the second banana forever, or even for very long, and that came in to conflict with Shaq’s own substantial ego, resulting in the early destruction of a team that could have won three more titles, and Miami and Dwyane Wade earning one before Shaq ran out of gas.
The Lakers have shown loyalty to Kobe, but interestingly enough, he hasn’t always shown undying loyalty to them. He’s stuck with them for basically his whole career (save from the brief period he was a Charlotte Hornet in name only), but he’s only stuck with them because he’s re-evaluated them every season, and determined that staying in Los Angeles is his best option for winning another championship that season, and multiple championships as the star are what drives Kobe, because he knows if he gets enough, he will HAVE to be considered the best. However, rumors of Kobe going to the Chicago Bulls, or the Los Angeles Clippers, as a free-agent or even in a trade, reared their head as recently as a few years ago, when Kobe had begun to believe that the players Los Angeles’s management had surrounded him with simply weren’t going to cut it. He had no problem calling out the Lakers management or even calling out his teammates specifically, as he has notably done on Andrew Bynum numerous times. That’s the biggest difference between Kobe and LeBron – Kobe doesn’t mind being feared to get what he wants, while LeBron seems to be driven – at least to this point – by an overpowering need to be loved. Could you imagine LeBron making some of the awful faces Kobe has been known to make because of his teammates’ perceived ineptitude in games? I couldn’t. Kobe’s an employee of an organization furthering his own agenda – LeBron is his teammates’ best friend. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but considering the expectations heaped upon LeBron’s shoulders and his universal acclaim as the most gifted basketball player in a generation, LeBron could benefit from taking a page from Kobe’s book.
Could you imagine what would happen if LeBron had a press conference and said “Cleveland’s management has let me down by not putting the correct pieces in place for me to win the championships I expect to in this uniform. Unless serious changes are made to our personnel, I’m going to seek my fortune elsewhere.” Sure, he’d be blasted as a spoiled athlete – AT FIRST. Kobe was, too. But look what happened. The Lakers brought in Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, brought back Derek Fisher, and allowed Andrew Bynum the appropriate time to develop, and the reaction to Kobe’s “spoiled athlete” press conference is ancient history. Now the Lakers are the favorites to win their 2nd championship in a row, furthering Kobe’s personal agenda as well as the team’s.
In his post-game press conference shortly after his unceremonious elimination in game 6 by the Boston Celtics, LeBron stated that he and his “team” have a gameplan regarding his free agency, and they’re “going to execute it.” Many have speculated that LeBron’s “game plan” involves consultation with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two other top-tier free agents available this summer and teammates and friends of LeBron’s dating from their time on gold medal-winning “Redeem Team” in 2008. The possibility of the three of them joining together on one team exists, however remote due to the salary each could individually command. However, there’s an angle to this option that I don’t think has been explored effectively enough yet that I’d like to throw out there, in terms of “legacy.” It’s generally accepted knowledge that LeBron, as well as Wade and Bosh, will command “max salary” this off-season; meaning, they will earn literally as much money as players are allowed to earn based on the rules of the NBA. Considering the presence of the salary cap, this would likely be preventative towards the three players joining forces in one city. The accepted logic behind this being that your financial legacy and family’s long-term future are the most important things you can insure, and making as much money as possible while your value is at its highest is the logical, obvious way to go about doing this. But, I disagree. Like I said earlier, once you have “MONEY,” then the idea of adding more millions to an already hundreds-of-millions-deep money vault is almost imperceptible (at least in my broke-ass imagination). LeBron, as well as Wade and Bosh, don’t HAVE to take the max contracts. They can sign for whatever they want — they could play for the league minimum, if they WANTED to. If the three of them, or even more than that as other marquee free agents will be moving teams this summer, like Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Ray Allen, Carlos Boozer, David Lee, etc. – if a group of “elite” players decided to, together, sign with one team, long term, sacrificing some (probably substantial) personal salary wages for the sake of legacy, they actually COULD play together.
What’s actually preventing this from having happened already, with other superstars in the past, really, other than the need to get as much money as you can while you can get it? That shouldn’t be the only argument against it. If Michael Jordan hadn’t won six championships, would he be as wealthy as he is today? I guarantee you that a large portion of Jordan’s net worth comes from extra-curricular activities. Winning six championships catapulted Jordan from “great basketball player” to “ubiquitous American personality.” Hell, my little sister used to make up stories about “Michael Jordan flying her to the moon” when she was 3 years old, just because she’d already had it burned in to her brain that some “Michael Jordan” person could “fly.” America is a nation of hyperbole, and if you’re the best at something for an extended period of time, you become far bigger than you actually are. Michael Jordan isn’t just famous for being the best basketball player ever anymore – he’s famous for being Michael Jordan – for being someone that EVERYBODY knows! Winning consistently does that in America, and since we export our culture across the globe, really does it the whole world over. Michael Jordan is one of the wealthiest athletes or former athletes in the world, but much of that wealth is a direct result of his being embedded in our consciousness so deeply that simply “who he is” has great value to it, instead of just “who he is when he’s holding a basketball.”
This summer, if LeBron and some other top-tier free agents are able to somehow get on the same page and agree to sacrifice some personal salary for the sake of joining a dominant team, the sporting world would be turned on its head. Stories would abound about the selflessness of the players, taking less money in order to compete for multiple championships, and if they were able to achieve that goal of multiple championships, LeBron would forever be known as the catalyst – the person so concerned with being loved that everybody actually DOES love him, including his peers at the top of the basketball world – and they love him so much they bought in to the revolutionary idea of building a juggernaut team solely for the sake of dominating the league for multiple years. Yes, their personal salaries would have to be chopped in order for it to happen, but could you imagine the extra-curricular income each player involved could make? Over the course of their lifetimes??? I don’t have any idea of actual numbers, but in the logical path my thoughts have followed to present this option, it seems as though the legacy would become infinitely valuable and provide for the individual players involved more than adequately. So, LeBron, think about it. If someone reading the Transition 3 happens to know LeBron, send this to him. I’m urging you, guy – think it through. KG went years and years without any success due to loyalty, and everybody started thinking he was going to go crazy for a while there, until he actually won a championship finally. Kobe’s got the long-term legacy in his sights right now, and really, has always had it there. LeBron, you’re the most gifted and talented player in the world, and everybody agrees on that, but that means that everybody expects you to perform better than any other individuals active right now because you DO have those gifts and skills. Make the most of who you are – you’re desperate to be loved, buddy. And America loves winners – especially winners who do something differently than anybody’s ever done before. Your buddies in the basketball elite already love you, and look to you for leadership on the USA Basketball Team and in the public eye. Convince them – get them on board. Sign somewhere that can afford you, and dominate the NBA for a decade. You’ll live forever that way.
Thanks for reading, and look forward to more frequent updates in the future! Go Suns!