The King is Dead

I don’t have much in the way of an emotional stake in this thing.  I mean, obviously, I come down pretty clearly on one side (the right side) whenever the Kobe-LBJ thing gets brought up, because I’m from LA, I watched Mamba from his first game in his rookie year, through the airballs against Utah, through the 2001 spanking of the rest of the playoff world, the agony of Phoenix, the agony-er of 2008, and the tears and redemption of the last 2 years.  And, really, scoreboard:  5>0.

And I’m not going to get into the debacle of last night; plenty of other folks online have commented thoroughly on it, and how clearly the look on his face is like the one half-decent guy in a group of bullies (his entourage) when he realizes the joke has gone a bit too far and people are getting hurt.

But I’ve never really hated the guy.  I grew up around rich, entitled kids my whole life, so that goofy, un-self-aware complete lack of empathetic understanding of what the world might be like outside of their “please sir, thank you sir, another sir?” bubble isn’t news to me.  I was a bit sad that he was living through it without having actually earned anything, like an entitled nouveau riche type who isn’t even liquid, just waiting (hoping) for their eight-figure options to vest.  And the antics, the dancing and chalk and 3rd-person-itis…it mostly made me wince, the way you do when any kid is going about blithely making the same mistakes you did that are so stupidly obvious in hindsight.

And it’s odd, in the midst of this incredible hubris, the one thing that stands out to me about him now is:  enforced humility. Because it’s clear, he not only doesn’t care if he’s The Man, is not just willing to “sacrifice” being The Man…he doesn’t want to be The Man.

I’ve seen what it’s like firsthand when great players decide that the only thing important to them is winning a championship, money and egos be damned.  That was the “joy” of the Payton/Malone tour through LA.  They both left millions on the table–guaranteed hall of famers, the clear alpha-males on their respective teams for more than a decade–and came to LA for a last chance to win a ring.  And it wasn’t a small paycut either; I think they split the mid-level exception, so they each made between $2-$6 million that year (to compare, Luke Walton–love him like I do–is making more than that right now).  And they came to a team where an alpha vs. alpha competition was already ongoing between Kobe and Shaq, meaning that there was zero chance that either of them would even be in contention for option A or even option B.  But there was nothing else as important to them as winning, and they did it.

(And yes, I’m aware that LA lost that year, which I blame on Payton’s realization that, contrary to intentions, he couldn’t really relinquish his head-strong nature for the betterment of the team…a realization that allowed him to actually do that very thing a year later, with the Heat, which got him his ring, thanks to the superhuman efforts of NBA superstar Bennett Salvatore.  And it was also Malone’s fault, specifically his karma…seriously, the most injury-safe player of his generation, could jump through a razor-wire-wrapped plate glass window and not even get a bruise, suffers an injury that keeps him out for most of the year and most of the playoffs?  Karma, man, for all those Utah years…and I sarcastically thank him for coming to stand right next to us at the exact moment that boomerang came swinging back around.)

And so, if LBJ’s real, true, only desire was to win–not just in a “30% of me wants money, 30% of me wants fame, and 40% of me wants a ring, so a ring’s the most important thing” way, but in a “I don’t care what number’s on the contract, this is the team that can win, give me a place to sign” way–then there was really only one viable option for him:

Orlando.

But wait, you say, they weren’t a possibility.  They weren’t even in the conversation, how could he have gone there? Well, he could have taken their mid-level exception.  $6 million-ish a year isn’t too bad, especially considering his income from all the sponsorships.  Or, hell, take the veteran’s minimum (like $2 million, I think?), which would allow them to sign someone else (like re-upping Reddick, or a solid back-up for Nelson).  And that line-up–Nelson, LBJ, Lewis, Howard, Redick, and various other assorted parts, all of whom have experience actually winning a game in the NBA finals–that one scares me.  The Miami line-up, not so much (more on that later).  But you have those four on your starting five…holy god.

But he didn’t even consider it.

He could have gone to Chicago:  Rose, LBJ, Boozer (or Amar’e, or Bosh…either of their decisions might have been different if LBJ had handled this differently), Noah…that line-up rules the East and seriously scares me as a Lakers fan.  And he could have gotten max money too.

And didn’t Cleveland have the best record in the NBA the last 2 years?  Seems that would only look to continue, if LBJ wanted to put the team and the city on his back and keep trying to carry them to glory.

But he didn’t.  He went to Miami, where, essentially, he becomes Pippen to Wade’s MJ.  He not only acknowledges that he needed more help than he got in Cleveland–an acknowledgement that he would also have been making had he gone to Chicago or Orlando–but that he isn’t able to carry things on his shoulders alone.  There’s only one way to look at it:  he and Bosh are there to help Wade’s team win titles.  They are his support players, in the hopes that they can out-talent the rest of the NBA into a ring or two.

Which isn’t a guaranteed thing.  They don’t have anyone to deal with Dwight Howard–really only the C*****s have the frontline to do so in the East–so just getting past Orlando will be a wild ride.  And with the rest of the C*****s back, probably playing their final years, hoping not to go out a loser, that won’t be an easy series either.  And really, putting the Bulls lineup–with a few years experience playing with each other under their belts–plus adding Korver as a deep threat, and their new coach putting in the same defense that’s given LBJ fits the last two years when playing Boston…plus the strong hate the Bulls will feel after being spurned by the “big 3″…I wouldn’t put money on that series either way.

But even assuming that they could get past all of those obstacles, there’s still the reigning champs, and I like our chances against the Heat across the board.  Kobe-Wade is a wash, young athleticism against perhaps the wiliest vet the game’s ever seen (and with a full summer to rest and heal too); Artest isn’t the offensive player LBJ is, but in a 7 game series, I give the over/under at 3 games before LBJ wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, expecting to find Artest hovering over his bed, pinning an arm down to fight to deny him the pass; Gasol is to Bosh what a Lotus is to a Mustang (both excellent, but really no comparison 1 on 1)…and then what?  You’ve got Fisher/Blake, Sasha/Walton, Odom and Bynum looking at the guy across from them, asking, “Hey, didn’t I see you playing in the D-League a month ago?”

Sure, years 4 and 5 (and maybe 3) will be different in unexpected ways as that core 3 get used to playing with each other and the rest of the NBA changes around them.  But it’s no sure thing.  There’s no way to say that the Heat are now head and shoulders above the rest, only an injury or lockout away from guaranteed rings. LBJ could have put himself in a situation where that statement was true, or at least less unlikely…but he didn’t want to.

For him, it’s just not all about winning.  It’s about making sure that he’s not responsible for whether his team wins or loses.

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