Sunday, December 2, 2012

Durant And LeBron: Perception vs. Reality


LeBron James, the two-time defending MVP, has been the face of the NBA for the last few years. But after “The Decision”, the basketball world almost unanimously turned their back on the Chosen One, no longer wanting to be ‘witnesses’.

And just as people turned to James after Kobe’s fall from grace in a Denver hotel room, a replacement was needed. An elite player, someone humble and loyal, the exact opposite of the values James had shown after taking his talents to South Beach. 

By forgoing a press conference to announce his extension with the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder and dominating in the World Championships, Kevin Durant has been thrust into that role. In a pre-season poll of NBA General Managers predicting who would win the MVP award, Durant received 20 votes while LeBron got 1.

Leave aside the question of whether Durant has reached James’ stratosphere as a player – despite being an inferior rebounder, passer and defender. The public perception of the two, and Durant’s ascension to the LeBron/Kobe discussion, can be attributed entirely to the two men behind the scenes most responsible for the pair’s career trajectory – Thunder GM Kevin Presti and former Cavs president Danny Ferry.

Regardless of how “The Decision” had gone down, LeBron would have been roasted alive for leaving his hometown ring-less. Meanwhile, Durant is being rewarded for sticking with the small-market team and avoiding the free agency courting process.

Jared Diamond’s award-winning 1997 historical biography of the world “Guns, Germs and Steel” revolves around the idea of geographical determinism. It starts with a New Guinea tribesman wondering why Europeans “discovered” the rest of the world instead of vice versa. While traditional history tended to attribute this success because of who they were – European brain-power, the Protestant work ethic – Diamond’s insight was that it came from where they were.

Instead, he credits their success to factors inherent to European geography, including the continent’s alignment on an east/west axis instead of north/south (allowing societies to trade easier) and their access to more types of animals suited towards domestication and heavy labor.

So it was circumstance, not character, that allowed the Europeans to conquer the globe before the tribesman of Papua New Guinea, who were trapped on an island not amenable to farming, and therefore civilization.

Just as Europeans began talking of the “White Man’s Burden” to rule the globe, a deceptively easy narrative began to emerge about the NBA: LeBron callously left his small-town team while Durant selflessly stayed. 

But in reality, neither had as much a choice in the matter as the media has portrayed. Almost to a man, great basketball players want to win. For years, people have wondered why more didn’t flock to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and NYC, long considered the league’s brightest stage. The Knicks even gutted their team over the last few years, assuming that location enough was a selling point. But the only big-time free agent they could get was Amare Stoudemire, a defense-less big man whose injury history made his $100 million contract uninsurable.

That’s because the league’s brightest stage isn’t a place but an event – the NBA Finals. After two consecutive playoff implosions, LeBron saw that this team couldn’t acquire the talent he needed to get there.

History has shown that you need at least two, if not three, All-Star type talents on a team to win an NBA championship. Jordan needed a Pippen, Shaq a Kobe, Tim Duncan a Ginobili and Kobe a Gasol.

In retrospect, the best thing to ever happen to Michael Jordan’s career was his broken foot in the 1986-1987 season. It forced him to miss 64 games, pushed the Bulls record to 30-52, and gave them the eighth pick in next year’s draft – which they flipped into a then unknown small forward named Scottie Pippen. Without that injury, Jordan would have been good enough to make his team at least mediocre by himself, pushing the Bulls out of the bottom of the draft and never getting the chance to acquire world-class talent around him. Or in other words, his career trajectory might have looked more like LeBron’s.

In LeBron’s tenure with the Cavs, the team had one other lottery pick – Luke Jackson. Durant, on the other hand, currently plays with three other top 5 picks – Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden.

Aside from the draft, the other main way to acquire assets is free agency. The NBA’s current salary structure, with a soft cap, means teams have a crucial time period in building their rosters. Once an All-NBA player receives a max-salary, the team is usually too good to be drafting very high and no longer has the cap room to pick up someone in free agency.

That’s how Chicago and Orlando, two of the East’s best young teams, were built. Carlos Boozer came to the Bulls before Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah signed contract extensions, while Rashard Lewis came to the Magic before Dwight Howard got paid.

So the roots of “The Decision”, and LeBron’s subsequent vilification, extend at least as far back to the summer of 2005, when Cleveland had enough salary-cap room to make a push for some big-time help for James. Their main acquisitions were Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall.

The Cavs roster that LeBron left was way over the cap and had only one other young player with any potential – PF JJ Hickson. That meant the only way to acquire talent was through teams dumping salary, which usually involves aging veterans like recent Cavs acquisitions Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison.

If Kevin Durant’s two best teammates for the foreseeable future were Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, he’d leave too. And if LeBron could make more money playing with a fellow All-Star like Russell Westbrook, he wouldn’t ever have left his home-town.

So while LeBron became the villain and Durant the hero, perhaps a more accurate draft of history would give the men who built the teams around them these very same labels – Ferry, the Cavs’ recently fired GM, and Presti, universally regarded as one of the best young minds in basketball.

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