Monday, January 17, 2011

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

“Pioneers rarely get to be popular while in the middle of the pioneering. Real leadership always risks unpopularity.”

Right now, you’re probably thinking about the quote you just read. You’re probably wondering who said it, or what it was in reference to. This is understandable; it’s actually a pretty profound quote. Was it uttered by one of the Founding Fathers? FDR? Nelson Mandela? Was it in reference to Gandhi? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Bob Dylan? WHO?? WHAT???

Actually, it was written in the Miami Herald, by none other than Mr. Dan Le Batard, contributor to the Herald, Miami sports radio, and member of the Pardon the Interruption B-team. Oh, and he wrote it in reference to LeBron James. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

With college football done for the year and the NFL drawing to a close, the majority of my sports focus is directed toward basketball. (And for what it’s worth, the majority of my total focus is probably directed toward sports, per usual). I’ve always been a huge fan of the sport at the collegiate level, but only in the past few years have I gotten back into professional basketball. Similar to many fans, I grew away from the NBA after Michael Jordan retired in the late ‘90s. But with a nice influx of young talent in the past decade or so and a concentration on improving the overall game, my interest has returned. I don’t necessarily have a team that I specifically root for (an NBA agnostic, if you will), but there are certain teams and players that I enjoy following, and I have come to like the league overall.

But whether you are a fan of the NBA or not, you’re probably aware of the controversy that has surrounded LeBron James the past six months. LeBron has been one of the league’s (and nation’s…and globe’s) biggest stars over the past few years. Coming straight to the league from high school with an incredible amount of hype, he has developed into one of the most talented and physically gifted athletes in NBA history. And after being drafted by his much maligned hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, James signed on with a new squad this past summer in the Miami Heat. The move was controversial for a couple reasons.

First of all, James spurned a franchise that had practically worshipped him for seven years, and he did so in a less than gentleman-like manner. For a city that hasn’t won a championship in about a million years and hasn’t had the best of luck in any major sports (and, in all honesty, pretty much just sucks in general), Cleveland took LeBron’s departure very hard, and he essentially became a national pariah in the sports community. However, a great deal of the vitriol also seemed to stem from the new team he selected. When LeBron joined the Heat, he did so with fellow NBA All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This seemed to bother a great deal of sports and NBA fans, mainly because they viewed it as LeBron taking the easy way out.

LeBron had been hyped, since entering the league, as the next Michael Jordan (or maybe more appropriately now, the next Kobe Bryant). Everyone expected him to dominate the NBA, something he has largely failed to do. Yes, he has two MVPs, but he has zero titles. When he decided to join the Heat as part of the Big 3 with Bosh and Wade, people viewed this as LeBron being unwilling to or incapable of winning a championship on his own. If he were going to develop into the player everyone expected him to be, he would win some titles as the alpha male, as the main guy – and probably would have won a couple already. But evidently, LeBron is not the player we all thought he would be.

This is where Dan Le Batard comes in. He wrote the comment about LeBron being a pioneer back in July, when James signed with the Heat. In many ways, Le Batard had to take that stance in the column – as a writer for the Miami Herald and a voice for sports in Miami, it would have been stupid and futile for him to take an anti-LeBron stance. Nevertheless, after about 3 months of the season, it appears that many of the things Le Batard wrote weren’t very far off.

The Miami Heat are currently 30-12 and leading the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference. Plus, the 30-12 record is slightly deceiving; minus some small growing pains early on and a recent three game losing streak while LeBron has been injured, the team has played extremely well. They won 21 of 22 games throughout most of December, and have become one of the most feared teams in the league. And while it would obviously be ridiculous to say that any number of championships is guaranteed, it appears that this Heat team (if healthy) will at least be one of the top contenders for the title in the foreseeable future. And if they do make a few Finals and win a couple championships, how will that affect the rest of the league? Will we have to re-evaluate what we thought of LeBron? Was Le Batard right?

Professional basketball is really the only major sport in which loading up on super-stars gives you a chance at the title. In sports like baseball and football, there are too many positions to fill; even if you get 2 or 3 top players, you aren’t guaranteed success. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have proven that buying big players won’t always lead to titles, just as teams like the Redskins and Cowboys have shown in the NFL (although with a salary cap, it’s a smaller scale). But in the NBA, with only five players on the court at any given time, 2 or 3 star players can get you a long way.

Yes, NBA teams do need to have chemistry and rhythm and some deviation between role players and game-winning-shot players. But when you have players as talented as LeBron and Dwyane Wade and (to a slightly lesser extent) Chris Bosh, you can often figure out chemistry. You could even argue that the Heat have already proven it: after a rocky start, the squad really came together and started dominating once the players began to mesh. LeBron is averaging 25 points, 7 boards, and 7 assists, Wade is averaging 25-7-4, Bosh is pulling in 19-8-2, and the team is 30-12. As of now, it sure looks like they have it figured out.

I know, I know – NBA titles aren’t won in December and January. But as I said before, it certainly appears as if the Heat will be in contention to win come June. So how does this affect the rest of the league? If grabbing a couple great players brings success for the Heat, will other teams start to follow? Have other teams already started to follow? Look at the Boston Celtics: they have an older Big 3 with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, but it has resurrected the franchise and won them the 2008 title. The emergence of Rajon Rondo and addition of an aging Shaquille O’Neal has stayed true to the form of piecing together big names.

Look at the Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom are a pretty formidable Big 3 of their own. Kobe has been the cream of the crop for years now, Gasol is easily one of the top 3 post players in the game, and Odom is probably a top 20-22 guy in the league. Thanks to them and some great role players, the Lakers have made three straight NBA Finals and won the last two.

Other teams have already started this process, as well. With the emergence of Derrick Rose and the signing of Carlos Boozer, the Chicago Bulls are only one or two big names away from joining the likes of the Miami Heat. With the development of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are in the same spot. With Amar’e Stoudemire in New York and rumors of Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul joining the ranks in the next couple of years, the Knicks could become an even better version of the Miami Heat by 2012. In seemingly no time at all, the NBA could morph into a top-heavy collection of super teams.

At the current rate and direction of things, it is not far-fetched for the league to house about 4 to 6 star-loaded, big market teams within the next half-decade. This would essentially render 80-85% of NBA teams useless, leaving only a handful with a shot at a ring ever year. Is this good for the league? Well, if you are a fan of one of those top 5 teams or so, then yeah, it probably is. And if you are an NBA agnostic with no true affiliation like me, then yeah, it’s probably not so bad either. But if you are a fan of parity or of the other 25 or so teams in the league, then it will basically suck; it would be worse than the partition in Major League Baseball.

In any event, the future of the sport remains to be seen. What will be most interesting in the immediate future is whether or not we have to reconsider our position on LeBron James. The ultimate goal for an NBA superstar is greatness, and greatness is ultimately achieved by MVPs and championships. LeBron already has a couple MVPs; now he’s looking for titles. If he is able to win a few – even if it comes with the help of Wade and Bosh – wouldn’t that mean that he made the right decision? Wouldn’t that mean that we were wrong for questioning his desire, his decision, and his legacy? And in the meantime, could he change the face and path of the entire league?

At the moment, LeBron remains a villain. Despite his early success and the success of his team, he is still chided in NBA circles, still relatively unpopular among NBA fans. But is that a sign? Should that tell us something? His unpopularity could just be a precursor for leadership; he could be the jumping off point for re-shaping the league. Maybe Dan Le Batard’s attempt at winning the man some public support was accurate. Maybe LeBron James really is a pioneer.

And I wonder if – or when – the rest of us will recognize it.

Thanks for reading

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