It may seem unusual at first to liken the decisions of two phenomenal basketball players and their respective NBA teams to the military philosophies of a two and a half millennium's old Chinese general, and in all honesty it sort of is. But the truth of the matter is, that in this past off-season, LeBron James has kept his friends close, and Kobe Bryant has kept his enemies closer. Now the absolute truth of this proverb really depends on what is going to benefit the individual the most. If your friends are unbelievably talented, and strong willed, and exceptional basketball players in this case, then maybe keeping your friends close is the best decision you can make. If you have already cemented your legacy, are a powerful enough group with the friends (teammates) you already have, then it is probably best to keep your enemies (rivals) closer. With opposite agendas on the opposite coasts, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant used different tactics to improve their situations. LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavalier teams have had the best regular season record two years in a row, must have still felt that he wasn't good enough with his current squad to win a championship, based on playoff performances. And the fact that he had two free agent friends who were willing to join forces, made easy the decision for him to keep his friends closer. In the case of Kobe and the Lakers, a back-to-back championship run obviously shows that the team is a uniform, well tested and well proven group of individuals, and the only way to improve was to bring in rivals and competitive defensive players. When you are on top, as Bryant and the Lakers surely are, eliminating your rivals by bringing them onto your squad with the promise of winning another championship is an obvious undertaking.
Now the aim of this article is not to blast the actions of James, and defend those of Bryant. It is only to examine whether or not these two players made beneficial decisions, only taking winning basketball games into account, referencing the saying: "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer." However, I do have to state my opinions on the matter so you know where my bias lies, so a quick tangent:
Do I think LeBron James should have gone to Miami? No. I am fan of superior players establishing their own teams and competing against each other. If he was leaving, I think Chicago or New York would have been better choices. I think he should have stayed in Cleveland though, because the team seemed to be going in the right direction. I think the pressure of getting a ring and carrying a whole city's championship drought on his back was unbearable. As a fan of the game, I think he took the easy way out. What do I think of "The Decision?" I think it was the most poorly executed excuse for a television segment in sports; it made him look narcissistic, egomaniacal, and very unaware and uncaring of the city who idolized him for several years. But still...it was just a show...that was poorly executed, and an hour long segment about your decision on where to play basketball would make anyone look the same exact way. Do I think he ruined his basketball legacy? No! No! No! Anyone who thinks this is delusional, and a victim of our "What have you done for me lately?" society. Winning cures everything, and this is an undeniable fact. Kobe Bryant went through his own version of public relations suicide and he came out on top. Why? Because the guy is a winner. His skills and talent were always there, but winning kills all the talk. I do think, however, that any time someone puts LeBron's name in the greatest ever argument, someone will say he copped out for championships. But again, winning cures everything, as does time. He might never be loved by basketball fans outside of Miami the same way (Cavs fan nodding violently), but if he wins, his game will always be respected.
Now, LeBron James chose to keep his friends close...real close. Yes, he chose to play in a more appealing city with a glamorous nightlife and beautiful women...beautiful, voluptuous, tanned, sensual, sexy accent having women ("Sports!!! Talk about Sports, Man!"). Yes...umm...so he chose to play with a group of extremely talented guys after the biggest free agent frenzy ever. If James felt he needed better players around him, and he could team up with another superstar and another exceptional player, then what exactly did he do wrong from a winning standpoint? Maybe he didn't do what the basketball fans wanted...maybe he didn't come off as a student of the game, slaving over all the footage of players before him....maybe he didn't stay "loyal" to his city (even though, sadly, loyalty in sports is all but extinct)...maybe he didn't come off as a guy who wanted to destroy anybody who was considered his peer...maybe he just felt he couldn't get it done with the team he had, and so he grabbed his friends and decided to play with them. In terms of winning, he chose the most beneficial route to stardom. He kept his friends close, believing that, together, they would provide each other the help they desperately wanted.
On the other side of the country, Kobe Bryant was celebrating the Lakers' 16th championship, his fifth, his second consecutive ring and Finals MVP. The guy accomplished everything a basketball player aims for in a single season. So when you're coming off three consecutive finals appearances and two consecutive championships, what more is there to do to improve the situation? The answer is to recruit the guys you've battled with, but not the guys who are superstars. The Lakers have their hall of fame superstar and their superstar power forward, and a team that is arguably the best unit in basketball. So when the team is already on top, you recruit your enemies. You recruit the guys who showed no fear when playing against you. Ron Artest came in last year and added that edge. Kobe went after Raja Bell, the person who infamously clotheslined him in Phoenix, and he went after Matt Barnes, the guy who tried to make him flinch with that playground ball fake (didn't work). From a basketball standpoint, he did everything right. When you and your friends are on top, you keep your enemies closer.
Whether or not you think the decisions of one player was better than the other, or if you think one guy did it the right way and the other one did it wrong, just consider that, from a purely basketball perspective, each guy did exactly what they felt they needed to improve their chances at winning the title. They say to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If Michael Corleone was not already the Don of a well established family, he would first need to keep his friends close. He would need to establish his group as a threat for whatever it is they seek, because if you aren't threatening, then you have no enemies. When you are already established is when you keep you enemies closer, not the ones who are threats to your position, but the ones you'd rather have going to war with you, instead of against you. Kobe Bryant is already established...he's the champion. LeBron James set the groundwork for his "cosa nostra" this summer, and the enemies will come by the dozen if they start winning. If they're smart, they'll start recruiting them soon.
Don't take into account what you as a basketball fan might want for a player. I love the tactics Kobe and the Lakers used this summer. I hate what LeBron did in joining up with a player who is his own superstar. But that's because fans have a specific idea about what they want from great players. We want them to be unrelenting, to be loners who see themselves as equal to none. We want them to be loyal to a team and we want the team to be loyal to them. But forget all of that for one second, and just know, that when it comes to winning games, each guy may have taken a different route, but they both did the absolute best thing they could do to contend for a championship.