LeBron James already has left some indelible marks on the NBA, above and beyond that ugly skid of toeguard rubber last week. Like it or not, he’s proven to be a trend-setter among most of the league’s modern-day stars. Not everything he’s inspired has necessarily been good for the league as a whole, but he could change all that by winning a third consecutive NBA title this season.
Not only would it finally provide legitimate grist for the Michael Jordan comparisons—and who doesn’t get a kick out of those?—but more importantly, it would resurrect the idea that winning as many championships as possible is the most important pursuit anyone in the NBA could have.
Saying that championships are all that matter is a knee-jerk statement by every superstar and owner, but their actions never have belied that more than now. Salary-cap sensibility, outsized fame for a video highlight gone viral and elevating the meaning of individual statistics over collective results have transformed the Larry O’Brien trophy as the means to an end, not the end itself.
James had his part in that as much as anyone else, but the beatdown began even before his arrival. The Chicago Bulls dismantled a three-time championship team at the end of the 90s because the coach and general manager had had their fill of each other and it was going to be too expensive to keep the roster intact. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t see past their personal differences to keep their purple-and-gold title train rolling. The Dallas Mavericks declined to give their title-winning team a chance to repeat because it was too big of a financial risk moving forward.
It says everything about James’ transformation that we could possibly look to him to carry the torch on this. This is, after all, the same James whose initial stated aim was to become the first billionaire athlete and a global icon, not the greatest and most prolific NBA champion. This is the same James who invited the Knicks, Nets and Clippers—along with the Bulls, Cavs and Heat—to convince him their team and town could fulfill his first goals. James ultimately had no choice but to make titles the be-all and end-all in Miami after joining forces with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and promising a half-dozen or more of them upon his arrival.
But why would LeBron winning it again this year restore the trophy’s value in a way that, say, Paul George winning one, or Tim Duncan winning another one, would not? Two reasons.
The first: The value of another title in terms of his first-stated aim seems marginal. Now it’s strictly about how badly he wants it, rather than winning to restore his image. He may never regain the aura he had in Cleveland as the local kid on a mission to bring a championship to his downtrodden home turf, but he’s a long way from those days of being the butt of late-night talk-show one-liners.
Two, he is the biggest trend-setter the NBA has right now. He’s the one, after all, who introduced the idea during his Cleveland days that brand-building could be as, or even more, important than winning championships. And that free-agent superstars on the open market should think about collaborating rather than competing. And that there’s nothing wrong with a superstar dictating where, and with whom, he’d like to play. And, perhaps most important, that a star player could do all that, torch his brand in the process and live to make another commercial.
That’s why, for the sake of that golden globe, it’s vital that James not let his restored image and the opportunities that are coming with it take precedent over winning another title. He needs to send one more message to the superstars coming up behind him: Championships matter more than anything else.
That sensibility, once a legitimate priority, has been weakened significantly. Why? How?
Some blame the AAU system, where so many tournaments and games are played that, unlike when the high school system ruled, a player doesn’t have to sit with the sting of a blown championship for six months or more; now, that bitter taste is washed away the very next weekend. Or the weekend after that. Winning an NCAA title isn’t more important than getting to the NBA, and winning an NBA title isn’t more important than picking with whom and where you play.
Individual player rankings have robbed the importance of a team result as well. Nobody blinked when James let on after losing to the Warriors that he was tracking his personal three-point shooting vs. Stephen Curry’s, thanks, I believe, to the growing notion that box scores outweigh scoreboards.
Others would point to the perks afforded to today’s athletes beyond their sport as a culprit. Commercials, movie and television show appearances, fashion lines and music collaborations aren’t the spoils of success; they define success. The Thunder’s Kevin Durant has more endorsement deals than anyone, despite being clobbered by James in his one shot at a championship and now saying he doesn’t have the same maniacal obsession with winning a title that he did before.
Then again, he lost a valuable teammate in James Harden a little more than a year ago, in part at least, because league sources say Harden knew he’d never own, on or off the court, center stage as he does now in Houston. The Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have made more of an indelible mark on the advertising business—as a track-suited time-travelling superhero and mild-mannered insurance agent Cliff Paul, respectively—than on any postseason. Jeremy Lin landed a national car commercial and a movie on his life (Linsanity) off a stretch of 25 stellar regular-season games.
Whatever the case, James has been at the forefront of every recent development. So imagine if he lifts this aging Heat team to a third title and fourth consecutive Finals appearance. No one has reached the last plateau four years running with three consecutive rings to show for it since the Boston Celtics’ stupendous ownership of the ‘60s.
Jordan won three in a row twice, but the effort drove him into retirement both times. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to four consecutive Finals in the ‘80s but only came away with two rings. Kobe and Shaq won three rings and went to the Finals four times in five years.
Today, more than ever, it’s going to require every ounce of energy and focus and, let’s face it, luck, for James to go them all one better. That’s why it soured my stomach when I read this fall that he was working on a TV pilot; now there are reports he’s also working on a movie deal with comedian Kevin Hart for next summer. I’m all for players exploring other interests, but is he really breaking ground moonlighting as a producer or actor?
On the other hand, James has a chance to do something historic with his day job. Miami Heat president Pat Riley seems to agree.
“The opportunity that he has now, the REAL opportunity now, he doesn’t want to blow it,” Riley told me last summer. “He just doesn’t. The growth he has shown as a player and a leader…”
Riley continued, as if he were thinking out loud: “Then again, that may not be important to him. He may not even have the time to do that, because no one has had to live up to a brand the way he has. With Michael Jordan, ‘Brand Jordan’ just became a residual that followed him out the door. But LeBron’s legacy is not going to be in his brand. It’s going to be in continuing to win.”
James’ detractors, of course, will note that the first championship came in a lockout-shortened season, the second came courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs’ blowing a five-point title-clinching lead with 25.3 seconds left and the third would arrive with only one team of any substance in the entire Eastern Conference (the Indiana Pacers). For me, playing 400-some games, cramming nearly a full season more than everybody else into the same four-year span and three-peating shouldn’t be diminished by circumstances beyond James’ control.
Besides, how people outside the league view James isn’t what is important here; how those inside the league do is. He led the way for players flexing their power and monetizing their image; now he has the chance to be a ringleader for a concept simpler yet grander: That being a ringleader means, above everything else, making it all about rings.
• The Cavaliers sacrificing draft picks to deal Andrew Bynum to the Bulls and acquire Luol Deng is the surest sign that GM Chris Grant is under pressure to deliver a playoff team now. The Cavs have made a concerted effort to collect picks in order to get multiple shots at landing a bona fide star via the draft, knowing that chances of finding one via free agency are slim to none. Yes, there are various protections on the first-round picks now controlled by Chicago (from Charlotte and now from Cleveland), but the fact remains this is a decided change in direction. The idea that Bynum was signed last summer so he could be lumped with a collection of picks to land a borderline All-Star small forward doesn't pass the smell test, especially after already investing the No. 1 pick on forward Anthony Bennett. I'm also not buying that the Cavs wouldn't include the same picks to get Pau Gasol because they preferred Deng. The fact is, the Cavs never had a chance of re-signing the Spaniard, which is far more likely to have pushed them toward Deng. League sources were indicating even before the deal that Bennett's disappointing showing had Cavaliers ownership antsy.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.