It used to be that NBA stars would stay with one team for most of their careers. In reminiscing about NBA history, one could conjure up many players that stayed with one team for their entire careers: Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, James Worthy, Reggie Miller, and Isiah Thomas.
The modern era also has its share of superstars that are likely to stay with one team, including Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki.
Yet, this summer has seen a flurry of offseason moves by key players, including Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James. There have also been rumors that Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony would like to leave their respective teams.
We have witnessed moves similar to this before, including the Lakers’ signing of Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. However, it seems as if these types of marquee moves are going to become more common going forward, as players have gained more control compared to the team owners.
While no one is questioning the right of players like O’Neal and James to leave the teams that drafted them to try to win a title with another team, one must wonder: is this type of disloyalty good for the NBA and its fans?
Consider what would have happened if Shaq never came to LA. He probably would have won a championship or two in Orlando, as the Magic was one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference with O’Neal.
In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant would have been able to rise up as the primary star with the Lakers more quickly.
Although he might not have won three championships as quickly, I trust that the Lakers organization would have put the right pieces in place to get Kobe at least a few championships.
And therein lays the problem. After the Orlando Magic drafted Shaquille O’Neal, the team worked hard to build the team around O’Neal. When he left the Magic, the team suffered through some mediocre seasons and failed to make it back to the Finals until 2009.
Regarding LeBron James, the Cavaliers organization built the team with James as the centerpiece.
With James’ departure to the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers are going to have a hard time even reaching a .500 record with good players such as Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, JJ Hickson, Anderson Varejao, and Antawn Jamison. They were all complementary players.
Some people will be quick to point out that other players are not as loyal as they would seem. A common example that is brought up (although not surprising since he has been the most hated NBA player for years) is Kobe Bryant.
In 2007, Kobe spoke up about being displeased with the management of his Lakers organization. He felt that management was not working hard enough to make the Lakers into a contender again. Hence, Kobe expressed a desire to leave and go to some other teams.
In the end, Los Angeles made some moves to appease Kobe, such as signing Derek Fisher and trading for Pau Gasol. Although Kobe’s behavior may not have been the best way to go about it, these moves could be seen as Kobe’s way of trying to get the Lakers to stop being complacent.
The difference between Kobe’s situation and LeBron James’ is that Kobe’s team consisted of starters such as Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Luke Walton—players that would struggle to do well even in the Development League.
In contrast, Lebron’s Cavaliers carried the best record in the league for the past two years and included several highly talented players and veterans.
When thinking of NBA disloyalty, some may also point to stars like Karl Malone who left Utah to try to win a championship in Los Angeles.
The difference, however, is that Malone proved his loyalty to the franchise that drafted him. As a veteran role player, he wanted one last chance to win an NBA championship.
As only highly senseless people would find this move disturbing, even Utah Jazz fans understood Malone’s decision and were OK with it.
Surely, they would have liked seeing him finish his days in Utah. But over the years, the Jazz fans built a relationship with Malone that was mutually beneficial and Malone gave everything he had to that organization.
That kind of relationship is special, and unfortunately LeBron James skewered it with his Cleveland fans.
It seems apparent that James had ideas of leaving Cleveland three years ago when he signed the same similar three-year contract extension, rather than a maximum extension, as Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
While baiting the Cavaliers’ management on by stating many times that he would remain loyal to Cleveland, James then decided to go on one of the biggest ego trips and stab Cleveland in the back by airing ESPN’s “The Decision.”
Regarding this event, it seems appropriate to quote Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight as he said, “Now that’s cold!”
Rather than make a simple tweet about his decision and holding a simple press conference, LeBron made this into a “Summer of Me” while bashing a city that loved him.
In GQ Magazine, James showed no love for Cleveland when he said, “So we didn’t actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There’s a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day.”
When fans started to burn his jersey, James declared that, “Maybe the ones burning my jersey were never LeBron fans anyway.”
Now that makes a lot of sense, right? After paying lots of money to buy game tickets and LeBron gear, of course they weren’t fans! They just didn’t know what to do with their money!
In reality, these fans reacted the same way many would if their best friend sawed their legs off.
True, with LeBron playing for the Miami Heat with Wade and Bosh, the team is likely to win a few championships. But consider what would have happened had James stayed in Cleveland.
It is probable that James would have one or two championships before retiring. Would his legacy have been worse with that outcome versus the one he is likely to have after his decision to leave?
Speaking about “The Decision” after it aired, Reggie Miller remarked that, “One title in Cleveland for James would be equivalent to three or four titles in Miami.”
That’s how special the relationship with Cleveland was—a city that has been winless for decades in professional sports, with more people remembering events like “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” “The Catch”, and “The Shot.” “The Decision” will probably be the worst memory that Cleveland sports fans have to bear for decades to come.
In the meantime, James has sacrificed his popularity and will only be option 2 or option 1A in Miami’s title runs.
He won’t be the clear leader he would have been had he stayed in Cleveland. His lasting legacy, even with winning four or five titles, will not be any greater than had he been loyal to Cleveland and won only one or two championships.
And while fans are excited to see the brand of basketball that will be played by the Miami Thrice, the rest of the league is weaker when a team acquires talent like this and becomes a powerhouse.
With Cleveland and Toronto losing their respective superstars, many of those fans might become disinterested in the NBA.
How can that be good for the NBA as a whole? Doesn’t the NBA have an interest in maintaining more competitive franchises?
Players like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Isiah Thomas who were loyal to their teams are all considered some of the greatest legends of the game.
Even Malone, without winning a title, is still considered to be perhaps the second-best power forward of all-time. That’s not a bad deal considering the millions of players who have played the game of basketball.
There’s something to be said about players who remain loyal to their teams. Like it or not, many children look up to athletes as role models.
Are these players setting a good example by this behavior? Are their careers truly better off because of being disloyal? Have they made the NBA a better league by making these moves?
Hopefully going forward, players will start asking themselves questions like these.