The Trickling After-Effects of LeBron James' "Decision"
We're years away from seeing the fullest effects of LeBron James' televised free-agent spectacular, but it's already safe to say that "The Decision" was one of the most important moments to date in the business of sports.
The event itself may always be more strongly associated with its implicit self-congratulation, but at its core, "The Decision" was a willing exercise of an uncommon agency; few players in any sport have been able to command the attention and investments that gravitate toward James, and none had taken control of their free-agent process in the same way.
Yet considering how desperately every other superstar player has avoided free agency since James' PR debacle, it's hard not to wonder if "The Decision"—if only as a megaphone of sorts—may have played a role in triggering the prevalent movement of top-tier players.
James' arrival in Miami undoubtedly started a league-wide arms race, but we shouldn't overlook the fact that exercising free agency as a coveted star made him the most hated man in sports. Frankly, it's beyond doubtful that the vilification of James has eluded those who find themselves in potentially similar situations.
Perhaps Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul weren't quite so concerned with how free agency might impact their individual brands, but in the case of Dwight Howard—a man forever concerned with being the good guy—can we at all rule out James' binding precedent?
Howard clearly wants out of Orlando, and yet he remains disgustingly preoccupied with keeping up appearances; he threw an arm around Stan Van Gundy, claimed that he had every intention to stay, and confusingly committed to the Magic through the 2012-2013 season—all as report after report linked Howard to Brooklyn or L.A. or any of the teams on his highly specific list.
Howard should have known that the length of his trade saga alone would rub people the wrong way, and yet he still approaches the entire process with a smug lack of awareness.
It's one thing to have a preference to be traded, and another to express that preference, follow through until a coach and general manager are both fired, deny the entire ordeal publicly, and then waffle in your commitment to said decision ad nauseum.
Howard is a case study in trade demand failure, in no small part due to the fact that he doubled back on his demands in an attempt to cater to a certain image.
Howard has seen what switching teams in celebration can do to a player's reputation, and though James temporarily embraced his black hat, Howard could never follow that lead. Every possible indication thus far suggests that Howard is a player who needs to be loved, making his bumbles through this entire process all the more glaring and unfortunate.
No one is getting what they want here; Magic fans are understandably bitter, general NBA fans are irritated (to put it lightly), Howard's lack of practical knowledge of the salary cap and deadline flip have kept him in Orlando far too long, and the Magic—who would assuredly love to move on from all of this—are stuck sorting through their trade options.
That's all a shame, and perhaps some of it can indeed be traced back to the fallout from James' spectacle—if not in Howard's perception, then certainly in the nature of the media's coverage.
James provided the truest model for obsessive, rumor-ridden coverage in the NBA sphere, as people the world over empowered vaguely sourced reports with their click-throughs. Any slightly suggestive tea leaf was made into a full-blown prophecy, and soon enough there were claims that James was headed to Chicago, New York and Miami, not to mention plenty that had him staying in Cleveland.
James' free agency was the first event big enough to make rumored intent a truly viable media option, and in the void of that coverage came Anthony's tale, then Paul's, and then Howard's.
Did the coverage of LeBron James' free agency set a media precedent for the coverage of Dwight Howard's trade saga?
Even if Howard was never individually influenced by the backlash against James, the coverage of Howard's demand was shaped by the strategy used to cover James' decision. And it's that coverage that's gone on to mold the Howard narrative; if not for the established appetite for obsessive, up-to-the-minute, wish-washing coverage, Howard would be far more well regarded than he currently is, and his journey to Brooklyn or Los Angeles or wherever would have been a bit less sour.
The sports media complex has a way of drawing out every bit of life from certain storylines, and Dwight—who should have accounted for the nature of the times when piecing together his miserably short-sighted plan—fell victim to his own media ignorance in the plotting of his own narrative.
Those on this side of the wall surely aren't without blame in the bloated coverage of James, Howard and their most prominent contemporaries, but the die has been cast. This is the sporting world we live in, and James—for better, worse and every degree in between—helped to make it.
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