What's good for the ratings isn't always good for the game
Yesterday in these (web) pages, Allen Barra asked why we—obviously not all of us, but a substantial number—hate the Miami Heat's LeBron James, who last night led his team to victory in the first game of the NBA Finals. Barra offered several unpersuasive rationales for this hatred and proceeded to debunk them.
Do we hate—you know, let's keep things civil and say "dislike" instead—LeBron because he didn't go to the Knicks during last year's free agency? Barra is (I think) a New Yorker and (famously) a New York sports fan, so I suppose it's not completely unreasonable that he'd think this. But the vast majority of LeBron dislikers, myself included, are neither New Yorkers nor New York fans, so that's probably not it. (And no, neither are we mostly Chicago or Cleveland fans, bitter that he passed us over too. Sorry.)
Do we dislike him for The Decision, the overhyped primetime special in which he announced he would be taking his talents to South Beach? This is getting closer, though on its own I don't think it would be sufficient for most of us. But we'll come back to it.
Do we dislike LeBron because he's not Michael Jordan? Well, no, given that taking that position would entail disliking every other active NBA player as well. Still, the comparison can be illustrative. But despite Barra's contention, bolstered by a clip from Bad Teacher, that the primary difference between Jordan and LeBron is the number of championship rings on their respective fingers (six for Jordan, none yet for James), that's really not it either. Again, more on this topic in a moment.
After a brief detour back into his we-must-hate-him-for-not-going-to-the-Knicks case, Barra argues that LeBron is the best player in basketball, and certainly better than reigning MVP Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. I agree absolutely, as must pretty much anyone who had access to a television during the Heat's dismantling of the Bulls in the previous round of the playoffs. But why Barra thinks it should be impossible to dislike the best player in the league is beyond me.
Maybe we dislike him because, now that he's teamed with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat will win a ton of championships? Now we're getting somewhere. Barra answers this concern by saying that dominant NBA dynasties are good for ratings and therefore good for the sport. But it's hard to imagine that any genuine fan, at least upon reflection, would believe that whatever is good for ratings—full contact? legalized taunting? strippers at halftime?—is inevitably good for the sport.
In any case, there are better reasons to dislike LeBron James that evidently eluded Barra. Some are highly debatable: for instance, the perception that he is whiny and entitled (crab dribble, anyone?). Others are somewhat debatable: say, the contention that he shockingly quit on his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in last year's playoffs.
What is not debatable is this: Last year, LeBron, by Barra's own reckoning the best player in basketball, decided it would be easier to join 'em than beat 'em. Wade, with whom he colluded to team up during free agency, was the closest thing LeBron had to genuine competition, at least in the Eastern Conference: same draft class, similar skills and position, and (unlike James) already an NBA champion and Finals MVP. As Bill Simmons put it, "it's a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don't you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you?" Not LeBron, evidently. For good measure, he and Wade even brought along the third-most-coveted free agent on the market, fellow All-Star Bosh.
So, are rings really what distinguish LeBron from the Michael Jordan? Of course not. Jordan banged up against the physical Detroit Pistons unsuccessfully for years before finally surmounting them in the playoffs. It would have been easier to simply engineer a trade to the Motor City (or to LA, Boston, Portland, etc.) and start hoisting banners immediately, but he stuck it out as the pieces were fit and refit around him, until they were good enough to make it to the Finals. Nor was this in any way unusual. Bird never considered teaming up with Magic. Hakeem didn't offer to play power forward next to Robinson. Sure, great players have forced trades now and then. But they haven't invented insta-champion superteams out of thin air.
That's what LeBron did with Wade and Bosh. He cut corners. He skipped the gradual team building and rebuilding. He decided that being the best wasn't enough, he wanted to play with the best, too. This might have been tolerable if he'd done it humbly, if he'd said, in essence: I'm not the alpha male; I'm not the transcendent star; I want to be a facilitator of other great players, more Magic than Michael. Instead, he gave us The Decision. He let all-stars Wade and Bosh—the former, again, more credentialed than LeBron—make their free-agency announcement jointly, and waited another day and a half to make his own alone, with all the hype and hooplah he could gin up: a me, me, me moment in which to announce he didn't want the burden to be his, his, his. As I wrote at the time, he had a choice between greatness and humility and, amazingly, chose neither.
But what The Decision told us about LeBron's competitiveness is only part of the problem. The success of the Miami superteam seems to have half the other stars in the league now wanting to cut the same corners. Carmelo Anthony already forced a trade to New York to team up with Amare Stoudamire, and the rumor mills are running overtime. Will they be joined there by Chris Paul? Or is he going to get together with Dwight Howard in Orlando? Or will Howard force a trade to the Lakers to play with Kobe?
I empathize with stars who are expected to carry a heavy burden as their GMs surround them with inferior talent. But there are competitive reasons that we don't just let the top players choose which teams they'll deign to play for—reasons that, until now, they mostly seemed to accept. Maybe the Miami team-up will prove to be an exception, and the recent trend of stars asserting their desire—and leverage—to play with other stars will abate. But it feels as though a threshold has been crossed, and gradual, committed on-court improvement is taking a back seat to off-season collusion and ultimatums. And a league in which more big-market (or nice-climate) superteams duke it out in May while their small-market brethren are home for the summer will not be a healthy league, no matter how good it is for ratings.
Speaking for myself, that's why I dislike LeBron James.