Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Dr. Lawyer IndianChief.
We at FREEDARKO have often championed the NBA as a League of Stars, one that exhales the breath of Iverson, one that stomps with the tree-trunked quadriceps of Tim Duncan. In the age of fantasy sports, each morning the nation's groggy eyes whiz past boxscore outcomes to check who put down 30, who grabbed 15, and who dished out 10. When Commissioner David Stern boasts of taking the league from the days when the NBA finals were shown on taped delay, to a successful televisable commodity, he should thank Larry, Michael, and Magic. When he talks about the success of the league's expansion into markets such as Toronto, New Orleans, and Florida, he should thank Vince Carter, Chris Paul, and Shaquille O'Neal. When he speaks of world domination, he should place his palm in the sickle and hammer-wielding hands of Yao Ming to say, "You have done so much for so many."
The NBA as it currently exists is the direct offspring of MJ and AI, one that markets and emphasizes outstanding individual performers to the point that every silver-haired analyst in the country becomes purple-faced in preaching a right-way/team-first approach to counteract the supposed evils of this 21st century game. We tend to ridicule these fogeyfied former players and coaches in the same manner that the mohawked 14-year-old smirks at the drooling elder who screams at nobody in particular to turn down the Melt Banana. Yet this year, I may have to side with the silver-haired; not for their advocacy of right-way basketball, but because of their disdain for individual superstar. Yes, this is the year I must admit that stars are in fact killing the league that we clutch so preciously.
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade are at the root of this league's doldrums, yet it is not necessarily their doing. That is, the expectations of what a star deserves and what a star must be — that stars are to win championships, be serviced by ideal role-players, play in densely populated markets, and serve as spokespeople (not ambassadors) for the NBA — that has brought about the current dreadful state of things. It is time to realize that the faux importance granted to superstars is no longer warranted. Many stars don't make the all-star team — Michael Redd, Carmelo Anthony and Elton Brand have all been snubbed in recent years — and even more fail to make the NBA playoffs. It is also time to realize that, for stars, Larry O'Brien trophies, playing in American metropoli, and cultivating a supporting cast are things that must be earned. Case by case, I shall go through the prime suspects to detail how they have adversely precipitated shit upon the NBA universe.
Kobe Bryant. It isn't enough that Kobe sent one franchise into disarray; he had to discombobulate the Bulls as well, and to a lesser degree any team (e.g. Houston) with an ounce of interest in Kobesmith Black Mambazo. Sure, things seem to be going fine in LA, yet the Lakers' record may not reflect the internal turmoil and hurt feelings amongst players like Andrew Bynum and forgotten co-star Lamar Odom. With regard to Chicago (who, via GM John Paxson, has tried admirably to diffuse the K8 situation), I attended Toronto's 30-point shredding of the Bulls as the crowd chanted "Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!" and I can assure you that those chants aren't lost on young fragile players or on coach Scott Skiles. Of course, Kobe's story is really no different from that of any other disgruntled superstar asking out (see Vince Carter, Allen Iverson), yet the ripples his trade requests sent throughout the league were far more seismic.
Now, let's take Kobe's ostensible foil, Kevin Garnett. Garnett never uttered the exact words "I want out" to the Minnesota brass, but he certainly moped his way out of a town that put their faith in an unproven high-schooler and paid him record-breakingly large piles of money. Garnett's departure to Boston may benefit the league in a number of respects (making the Eastern Conference competitive, reviving a storied franchise); and in fact it is the prospect of Boston's tenacious three winning a championship that constitutes the only hope of stars reclaiming the league — if Pierce, KG, and Ray Ray triumph, sweet 1980s-caliber star-oriented order will be restored to The Association. Nevertheless, the whole exhausting process of KG departing set a standard for future handling of the "beleaguered superstar." Evidently, such a figure should be pitied for never winning a ring and nursed back to health when paired with substandard teammates. From Bill Simmons to Barkley, from Skip Bayless to Stephen A. Smith, members of the media and a unified public practically airlifted KG out of Minnesota and treated him like a recovering tsunami victim upon his arrival to Boston. Let's just see what happens LeBron starts to mumble in a year or two...
Which brings me to the next culprit, LBJames. What I am watching happen to the Cavs right now is scarily similar to the KG situation, except LeBron hasn't even made a full declaration that he always wants to play with the team that drafted him (like KG did). LeBron's smooth contract maneuvering, his robotic responses toward every question about his future, and his seeming numbness toward most of the Cavs' post-Boozer transactions should scare the life out of any self-respecting Cleveland resident.
LeBron's silhouette started looming over the league a couple years ago, when NBA-pundits were begging and prodding Michael Redd to ditch his faithful Bucks to sign with the Cavs and be LeBron's hypeman. Since losing Carlos Boozer and failing to sign Redd, Cleveland has made a series of questionable front office moves that didn't seem to faze LeBron much last year ... but give him time. People are so concerned with LeBron's daily mood that certain Cleveland contract hold-ups have already generated a barrage of "OH MY GOD HOW COULD THE CAVS NOT THROW MILLIONS AWAY TO SASHA PAVLOVIC AND ANDERSON VAREJAO" stories. As good as LeBron has been playing, it's almost as though he is preemptively sticking it to the Cavs to say, "Man, you guys sure would love to see 30 and 12 and 12 for the next ten years wouldn't you ... Wouldn't you?"
And then there is the uproariously perplexing tale of Dwyane Wade and Shaq down in South Beach, where the Heat's performance has been so poor, they have managed, after a mere handful of games, to rile the ever-so-cool Pat Riley. Every time Riles opens his mouth to spit venom, he appears to be saying, "I can't understand how our team sucks so badly? We have Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane f**king Wade?!" Those superstars will set you up for disappointment every time.
So what is to be done about this toppling league of stars? How to construct the ideal team to restore enthusiasm for the NBA and well-being for teams around the league?
I say we look to last year's Golden State Warriors, the most enjoyable team in NBA history, who constructed a team not of stars, but of a constellation. The new formula for NBA team-building to reassure sportsfans everywhere that this is the greatest league in all of sports is to follow the lead of Nellie and Mully down by The Bay. Basically, stack your team full of seven or eight different guys that would be able to average 20 points per game if they played on the Atlanta Hawks, roll the basketball out on the court and let the TNT explode. Distribute stardom equally; Matt Barnes is just as star-worthy as Mickael Pietrus, and maybe even both are as star-worthy as five-star general Baron Davis. Until this more democratic system is instituted, stars will rule the league in an irresponsible and dictatorial fashion. This is no longer a league sheriff a la Michael Jordan or Shaq-in-his-prime to regulate alpha-dogs when their aspirations or demands become too lofty. This is a lawless land, and to restore order we must invoke further disorder, pitting the Delfinos versus the Barbosas and letting the madness ensue.