It all started with the highly publicized ESPN special, The Decision. Instead of remaining in Cleveland where he had taken his team to the precipice of World Championship status but failed to get over the hump as a young NBA phenom, LeBron James decided to empower himself as a superstar player, cut a few corners and call his own shots.
He didnt want to risk going another half-decade with a team that didnt have the goods to deliver the city of Cleveland its long-desired championship. As his greatness developed, the NBA world started expecting more and more, often criticizing the NBAs new King for his teams playoff failures.
Those LBJ fans who were infatuated with his unrivaled athleticism, brute strength and gazelle-like speed blamed the players around him. Despite being on a first-place Eastern Conference squad that won 66 and 61 games in back-to-back seasons, LeBron supporters insisted that Clevelands supporting cast was weak and didnt provide King James with the talent he needed to win.
Less enthralled fans blamed LeBron. They said he didnt have the killer gene that a Kobe or Jordan had to will his team to victory, so in an unprecedented move, James joined forces with two All-stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, forming The Big Three, a super team if you will, with the sole purpose of winning a championship.
It wasnt easy, but James managed to squeeze two titles in four years out of his move. It set off a chain of events that have only enhanced his legend and put to rest much of the criticism about him being no more than the GGG (Greatest Glue Guy).
That title will almost undoubtedly immediately go to Kevin Durant, whose decision to sign a two-year $54 million deal with the two-time Western Conference defending champ Golden State Warriors, not only shocked the NBA world, but brought back what for many was the horror of watching LeBron James sitting in a Boys & Girls Club, announcing that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
It was like that defining moment in a mystery flick when you found out who killed the Senators wife.
The game has surely “changed” as several NBA players tweeted after hearing news of Durants signing. Back in the days, four of the the Top 10 players in the game would never have teamed up just to win championships.
The glory in being that dude was about having your OWN team, building a chemistry with the guys you had around you, adding some pieces here and there and eventually accomplishing the ultimate accolade. When you sat around with your boys, you guys were all bosses of different franchises. Isiah Thomas and Magic were like brothers, but each dude had his own territory to protect and when they met each other on the hardwood it was a nasty situation.
Winning that championship is the best case scenario, but some greats never reach the promised land, a la Karl Malone and John Stockton. The harsh realities of business and competition are an important part of the overall NBA script. Sometimes champions never win rings. Sometimes a player has to stay with a franchise because of what he means to the city and the overall, balanced health of the NBA. Its what made LeBron reconcile with owner Dan Gilbert and return to Cleveland to win the 2016 NBA Championship.
However, thats not something James or Durant are trying to promote anymore.
LeBron was the first guy that said, I just want to win and play with my friends. Its that AAU mentality that has crept its way into the current NBA. The expression, If you cant beat em, join em, has become the way to go. Especially in Durants case. He signed with the squad that came back from a 3-1 deficit to embarrass him in his final season in OKC. Can you even imagine Michael Jordan signing with the Celtics after losing in the Conference Finals to Larry Bird? That was when the NBA had true rivalries. As much as fans and geography and history drive rivalries, its the actual players that shape them into memorable and real moments.
There are no more martyrs in the NBA. That era is over. From the new direction of the players union to the ousting of Donald Sterling, to the bloated salaries, this is a time for the players to take everything they can get and dictate the terms of their success as much as possible.
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With all of the scoring titles and praise heaped upon Durant since bumrushing the league in 2007 out of Texas, the Slim Reaper hasnt tasted the ultimate fruits of victory. When he looks over at his boy Steph Currys hand he sees bling. He sees the definition of greatness. NBA players used to be too poor and unempowered to buy their freedom, so to speak.
Then, Jordan set the stage and LeBron proceeded to write the book on having it your way. I think its called The BurgerKingization of the NBA, or something like that.
But seriously, Durant sees an opportunity to avoid retiring with the tag of “greatest of his generation not to win a chip.” Its a title that in this day and age is even more of a Scarlet Letter than anything for a superstar talent. It says you just werent great enough. You cant blame Durant for following in the footsteps of a walking marketing master like LBJ and falling in line with the new philosophy in NBA free agent negotiations.
If you’re that guy and actually have the opportunity to call your own shots and make your situation as profitable and success as possible, well thats just executing good ole American capitalistic strategy.
Beyond the money and the power, Durant simply refused to be another Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing or Carmelo Anthony. They are all-time great players who never had the supporting cast to get that coveted title. Back in the days, titles didnt define careers as they do now. Jerry West was 1-8 in the finals throughout his illustrious career and hes still the NBA logo and was known as Mr. Clutch, despite his championship failures with the Lakers.
Today, West would be crucified as an all-time loser. Durant doesn’t want the next guy with three titles crying for him because his greatness has been so devalued by lack of rings.
The magnificence of an individual player wasnt directly measured by his teams overall success as it is now. In our current sports landscape, we raise players up to phenomenal levels and then crush them when they falter or dont live up to often impossible expectations. Theres a new formula to avoid having to face reality and its called team stacking. It actually benefits guys who dont really want all of the pressure, but want the reward.
Durant is just the latest superstar to take advantage of this new money-driven, championship-obsessed, easy-way-out, NBA. If people kept telling me, You aint jack without a ring. Id pick up my ball, go get paid and maybe even win a chip in the process playing with my boys too.