So far this summer, the NBA offseason has seen stars changing teams, GMs throwing millions at middling talents like Darko Milicic and Drew Gooden, teams like the Bulls and Jazz becoming contenders, while teams like the Suns and Hawks ensconced themselves squarely in the second tier of the NBA's caste system. If you can look past the elephant in the room, there's been a whole lot of furniture rearranged.
But as you know—as everyone knows—LeBron James, the elephant, obscured it all. The years-long buildup, the week-long buzz of back-and-forth rumors, the crescendo of LeBron's narcissism, and the subsequent cascade of name-calling and wild predictions. He cast a shadow over everything.
It all felt like satire, but it was actually about as real as sports gets.
Media begging for news, then moralizing to no end once they got it. ESPN pulling back the curtains, forsaking the illusion of journalistic independence. NBA teams proving once and for all that it is, indeed, "a player's league." And of course LeBron James, the star at the center, who revealed himself to be what most mega-celebrities are: self-obsessed, detached from reality, and not very smart. He wasn't LeBron the basketball player this past month. He was LeBron, the person with a comically outsized view of himself, one eye on brand-building, another on Miami.
I mention this now because it's tough to get excited about what LeBron decided, because if we do, it feels an awful lot like we're validating The Decision. Like we're validating LeBron's worldview.
For about a week, the nation was entranced by a celebrity that'd become completely detached from reality. And now it's hard to separate our resentment for that celebrity from our current reality. But...
What's our current reality?
Don't let LeBron distract you: This will be awesome. Really, really awesome. LeBron James might just be the catalyst for the NBA's salvation. We've been conditioned to resent him, of course, but hear me out.
With news that Chris Paul has demanded a trade to a team with more talent, you've got a lot of people crowing about lack of loyalty, and the slow erosion of competitive balance in the NBA. That's the LeBron-effect. LeBron's whole charade felt wrong, so its implications can't be much better. Right?
As Ken Berger wrote when he broke the news of Paul's trade demand: "Call it the Miami Model, the South Beach Effect, or whatever you want. It's the new normal for young NBA superstars looking for a new home and a better chance to win."
You can feel disgust dripping through those words.
But basically, now that LeBron's established the standard for great teams, his peers are no longer satisfied with "good." They want great, too, even if it means forcing the hand of franchises that would otherwise give them the world. But if New Orleans' world isn't enough for Chris Paul, who seems like pretty great guy, shouldn't we be concerned?
For the answer, we turn to this outstanding scene from Wall Street:
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms.
Greed—for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.
Yep. Gordon Gekko hits the nail on the head with the NBA in 2010. Greed is good. Greed works.
Think about what Chris Paul means right now. He's an insanely talented athlete playing for a team that's average at best, and forgettable in the long run. Aside from his significance in New Orleans, what does that do for the rest of us?
Will we tell future generations about Paul's 45-win Hornets teams?
Will we wax poetic about the Chris Paul-David West fastbreaks?
Will we watch the Hornets' 58-point playoff loss on ESPN Classic?
Right now, Chris Paul is a superstar at the height of his powers, toiling in relative obscurity.
Now think about what Chris Paul could mean on the Orlando Magic. Think of the rivalry with Miami that would take hold of the league for the next five years. The best point guard in the league running pick-and-roll with the best center in the league. Can that combination beat a team with two of the best players in NBA history? Imagine the possibilities. Where will amazing happen this year? If Chris Paul goes to Orlando... "Florida."
Or think about what Chris Paul could mean on the New York Knicks. Bringing prestige back to the most prestigious basketball city in America. The Knicks with Chris Paul and Amare Stoudemire might score 120 points-a-game, regardless of whether Carmelo shows up in 2011 to create equal and opposite reaction to Miami's big three. Would we wax poetic about CP3 running the break with Carmelo and Amare? God yes.
Or Oklahoma City, the dark horse here. Wouldn't CP-and-KD be the perfect candidate in our search for the "Good" to battle Miami's "Evil"? After LeBron, a lot of people have said, "I never thought I would root for Kobe, but now..." Except, that'll never feel right. But rooting for Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, two of the NBA's most beloved young superstars? They'd be the perfect foil for both the Lakers and Heat, giving Kevin Durant the help he needs to unseat LeBron as the face of this basketball generation, and giving America a rooting interest for the next years.
See how greed works? In any of the above scenarios, basketball fans win the chance to savor the prime of the best point guard in the NBA, and enjoy rivalries the likes of which we haven't seen since the 1980s. If Paul stays in New Orleans, none of that happens.
It's perfect. There are just three counter-arguments that need to be addressed.
1. LeBron Ruined Everything. Listen, I understand why people see what's happening with Chris Paul and want to blame LeBron James for ruining the NBA. But this is not the "LeBron Era." Lord knows, James deserves every bit of scorn thrown in his direction after the nauseating journey he engineered over the past six weeks. But don't let LeBron distract you, and don't think that Bron has somehow "poisoned" Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, or any other superstar that wants to go somewhere and play with teammates befitting a superstar.
As much as Maverick Carter and the rest of "Team LeBron" would like to take credit for establishing some grand ideology, it's not like LeBron performed inception on Carmelo and Chris Paul. These are players that want to win championships, and given the salary cap and other constraints, that's not always possible in a place like New Orleans or Denver.
LeBron just allowed players like Chris Paul to say that out loud. Because the Heat demand a counterpoint. Do you really think the other superstars in this league are just going to concede the next six years to the Lakers and Heat? No, and they shouldn't.
So don't make LeBron James the face of "the Superteam Era." Put Chris Paul on the Magic, and make them your Superteam. Or the Knicks. Or whomever. Because that's what'll define this new era. The "Miami Model" will be awesome, just not in Miami, where it's starring an egomaniac that went on National TV to backstab his hometown.
But with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City? Hmm...
2. What Happened To Building Your Own Superpower? This is a popular argument these days. The idea that this generation's stars don't understand what greatness means, or something.
With LeBron, it's fair to a certain extent. He didn't just go to a better team. He joined forces with one of only two or three players that could realistically be called his equal. This isn't Michael finding Scottie--it's Magic joining Larry. That's lame, and whether it's injuries, chemistry conflicts, or Chris Paul going to Oklahoma City, it'll probably be punished by terrible karma. LeBron-and-Wade is so unnatural and counter-intuitive, it doesn't even make that much sense from a basketball standpoint.
But let's not indict an entire generation, here. Whether it's Michael Jordan shaking his head saying "That's the way the game is today," or this e-mail from ESPN's Bill Simmons' most recent mailbag, the crowing about the current generation needs to stop:
Young kids everywhere are going to see this and think that it's better to take the easier road to success instead of taking the chance at being great. If you have a chance at transcendence but it seems just a little too hard or too much for you to handle, then don't go for it. Take the easy road. That's the lesson learned and the trend set for this generation.
But then again, this is also the generation that airs out their beef on Facebook/Twitter. This is the generation that could never understand what JFK's quote "We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard" really means. Hell, this is the generation that thinks the greatest rapper of all time is a Canadian who got famous because he was on a Nickelodeon show. So maybe LeBron's just a product of his time and he's just doing what he thinks is right.
-- Sopan, New Brunswick, N.J.
While I appreciate the gratutious shot at Drake in that e-mail, and the connection between LeBron's psychology and instant gratification seems self-explanatory, let's clarify: LeBron's personal weakness in choosing not to compete against Wade isn't some sort of generational disease. As a fan that's distinctly of this generation, having watched most of these guys play in high school, and then matured with them as the years passed, I feel like I should stick up for my insanely-athletic, multi-millionaire peers.
We're not all like LeBron.
James joining Wade was weak, and it's completely fair to call out his manhood there. But Chris Paul forcing a trade would be smart, and ultimately, it's the most competitive thing he could do right now. It's not shrinking from the challenge; it's seeking out teammates that'll allow him to become a real threat to the NBA's new superpower.
Look at the Lakers. Nobody questions Kobe for having some of the most expensive teammates in basketball. He's not lazy or obsessed with Twitter and an example of why this generation's doomed. It's just... that's what it takes to win these days.
But how many other franchises could afford to foot the bill for that payroll? Five? Ten? There are certain realities about today's NBA that have to be acknowledged. Which leads us to...
3. Will Chris Paul Kill Basketball In New Orleans? It's a fair question. If Chris Paul leaves New Orleans, can that franchise survive? After all that's happened to that city, it's a sensitive subject. Nobody wants to see New Orleans lose its team. But at the risk of insensitivity, the Hornets are an example of a larger problem in the NBA. It's two-fold:
- There are too many teams.
- There are too many teams like the Hornets, who have no money.
Since David Stern's not going to contract a team anytime soon, and there aren't a whole lot of billionaires walking around looking to sink hundreds of millions into a basketball team, these fundamental realities will continue to plague the NBA. With 30 teams, the talent is spread thin, and the only mitigating factor is a team's ability to exceed the luxury tax and horde the talent. Most teams can't do that.
So if you're a superstar, wouldn't you want to go to a team that can? If you're a competitor, wouldn't you want to be competing with the best of the best, year-in and year-out?
And if the Hornets can't compete with the Lakers or Magic or Knicks, and Chris Paul leaves to go to one of those teams, killing basketball in New Orleans... Isn't that evolution?
The idea that we're witnessing an inferior generation of superstars is just offensive. All the greatest NBA dynasties were cast in a bygone era, before the luxury tax arrived, and before the league had grown to a bloated 30 teams. The NBA's Golden Years were back in the 1980s.
No matter what happens every June, we always hearken back to that glorious decade, and those legendary battles, where manhood was on the line and it felt like time stopped. Well guess what? Today, the 76ers, Lakers, and Celtics of the 1980s would be splintered by the economic realities of the NBA, or separated by the NBA Draft before they ever coalesced. Not even a question.
And Jordan? When Michael Jordan's Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen, there were 23 teams in the NBA. Can you imagine some of the dynasties that would crop up if you divided seven NBA teams among the remaining 23?
Imagine if the Raptors didn't exist and Chris Bosh had been drafted by the Heat. Or if the Bobcats distributed their starting lineup among playoff teams last year. Or if Tyreke Evans and Kevin Love played for contenders. We could do this all day long.
It would suck for the cities like New Orleans, but wouldn't the NBA product be better off with, say, five less teams?
Um, don't answer that.
Besides, it'll never happen. It's just an example of why it's ridiculous to point to guys like Jordan and Magic and say that these players toay are taking the easy way out. What we're seeing instead are players taking the "Miami Model" as a call to action. Where people like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony take their destinies into their own hands, forming dynasties of their own.
It's selfish, it's mean, and it's downright greedy. But to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, "greed, you mark my words, will not only save Chris Paul, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the NBA."
As an NBA fan, would you rather have 10 good teams, or three-to-four great teams?
It's not a sign of weakness or laziness, and it's not LeBron poisoning the NBA punch bowl.
It's competition. It's players using their leverage on the free market. It's evolution. And it could be the best answer yet to the NBA glory years of the 1980s. Gordon Gekko would be proud.