LeBron James will be a popular topic of discussion on this site, because he, in my eyes, crystallizes lots of what is good and lots of what is bad about the state of the game today.
First, the good: He does things on the court that have never been done before. He’s big, strong, and fast. He can pass, shoot, and rebound. If someone wanted to argue that the game is played at a higher level than it has ever been played before, he would be Exhibit A.
And, he appeals to a wide range of people. He seems to be humble and soft-spoken. He has street cred. He’s intelligent. White parents buy his sneakers, and so do black teenagers. That’s part of the beauty of today’s game.
Now, the bad: He shows how the modern hype machine causes us to lose our perspective. People treat him like the Second Coming, even though he never led his team to a championship. Other great players that were expected to lead their teams to championships but couldn’t are considered disappointments by lots of folks. Allen Iverson, whom I will write about in more depth this week, was a superstar. But he couldn’t get his team over the hump, and the perception of him is that his game, while wonderful, is deficient. Now he can’t even get a job as a starter in the league, a fact that astonishes me. Years ago, Patrick Ewing was a superstar, but was widely perceived as deficient. Only two weeks ago, The Sports Guy posted a column on ESPN.com, saying of Ewing, “The sophisticated Knicks fans saw right through him, endlessly debating his virtues and repeatedly coming back to the same conclusion: As long as this is our best guy, we probably can’t win the title.” LeBron is immune to that type of criticism. When he doesn’t win championships, people blame his teammates. Why? It’s like people assume that LeBron’s good enough to lead a team to a championship, even though he never has.
He also, to some degree, highlights a big problem with the league. It’s now hard to build a winner through the draft. So lots of teams rely on free agency. As a result, they essentially strive to clear good players off their roster, so they’ll have “cap space” to land a dude like LeBron. For the team that’s able to do it, I guess the strategy makes sense. The problem is that there are 3 or 4 teams that are awful, whose only hope of getting better is landing a superstar. For the ones that don’t land one, they wind up being awful for a very long time.
The Knicks, of course are one of those teams, and their desperate attempt to get LeBron highlights this problem. I saw the desperation first-hand on Friday night, when I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the Knicks-Cavs game at MSG. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. During timeouts, there were people shooting t-shirts into the stands, and kids riding around the court on unicycles. There was a group of dudes called the “Bucket Boys,” who used buckets as drums, and dazzled the crowd. Grandmaster Flash was DJ’ing. Chris Rock was in the stands, and so were a bunch of Yankees. And Giants. And ex-Knicks. And Reggie Jackson. And Jay-Z. By the end of the third quarter, I expected the Beatles to walk onto the court with Michael Jackson, and give a concert.
I think I actually smelled the desperation. But none of it masked the fact that the Knicks are, um… not good at basketball. They have no more than one guy who could start on a championship team – David Lee. And he’s no star. Realistically, he wouldn’t start on the Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, Mavericks, Blazers, or Celtics. The only contenders I could see him making a difference for are Cleveland and Orlando.
But I digress. There will be more than enough Knick-bashing on this site. I don’t need to do it here.
One last point about LeBron, that isn’t necessarily a positive or a negative, but is a reflection of today’s game: He doesn’t really have a position. For him as an individual, this is a good thing; it makes him a versatile weapon. But, for the league as a whole, I don’t think it’s a good thing to have too many stars without positions.
Interestingly, the best teams generally have guys that fit the traditional roles. The Lakers and Celtics both have point guards who look to distribute (Rondo / Fisher), shooting guards that can’t be left open from anywhere (Kobe / Allen), small forwards who can attack and also post up (Pierce / Odom), power forwards with good post moves and big bodies (Garnett / Gasol) and centers who generally live in the paint (Perkins / Bynum). LeBron is phenomenal, but when a bunch of teams try to build around guys who don’t really have positions, it can get ugly.