Someday, perhaps someday soon, LeBron James agent is going to send him a text with a variation on Laura Ingraham’s infamous advice to politically outspoken performing artists. The agent’s text will be “shut up and play basketball.” James already did substantial damage to a rather solid public image with his ridiculous infomercial this summer where he announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat. Then, earlier this week, a couple of days before a rightfully ballyhooed Christmas Day matchup between the Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, he announced that the NBA has too many teams and should consider contraction.
According to LeBron it was better in the ‘80s when there was a greater concentration of star talent on fewer teams. Here’s the story, in case you think I’m making this up. He goes a step further and names the teams he’d like to eliminate, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Jersey Nets.
Okay, the first problem is his authoritative account of the 80s. Unless you lived in Boston or Los Angeles during that time, you probably didn’t see much of these multi superstar teams. Those two teams ruled the decade. Boston won three titles, lost in the Finals twice, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals three times, and lost in the earlier rounds twice. Their dominance was only exceeded by the Lakers who five titles, lost in Finals three times, and twice bowed out in the earlier rounds. Those teams were chock full of future Hall of Famers: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Robert Parrish, James Worthy, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. The role players on those teams were often all stars. The only other teams to enter the discussion were the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, and Chicago Bulls. The Sixers and Pistons won the only titles that decade not won by the Lakers or Celtics. The Rockets had great pivotmen and little else. The Bulls had Michael Jordan, but it wasn’t clear until the end of the decade, that they were more than a nice one man show, or put another way the new ‘Nique era Atlanta Hawks. LeBron doesn’t turn 26 until December 30. In other words, he’s fondly reminiscing about an era that ended when he was in the first grade.
After that he’s right. There isn’t enough talent in the NBA to properly stock 30 rosters, but the real absence of talent isn’t on the court it’s among the guys in the suits—the personnel decision making in the NBA continues to border on a bad joke, and that’s after substantial improvement in the last few years. No other American sport of this stature spends less on talent development than the NBA (for a long time that’s what the NCAA was there for, but that era ended when LeBron was in middle school, yet many NBA teams are still catching up to this fact). The NBA’s salary structure is the most capricious in North American team sports from a Human Resource perspective; the contracts are mostly guaranteed and count against a soft cap governing payroll expenditures. Thus, one bad contract can hobble a team for years; two or three can leave them sinking in a quicksand pit of their own making nearly a decade (yes, those are New York Knicks fans nodding knowingly). People laugh about the extremes that the NFL puts their prospective draftees through, but realistically, it amounts to due diligence. The players who interview well and perform well in the workouts are handed guaranteed contracts worth millions of dollars. If you were running a business, you’d probably exercise caution before committing tens if not more than hundred million dollars to an employee. However the fact that the marginal NBA players like Rashard Lewis, Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas, Zach Randolph, Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand, and Peja Stojakovic, are each being paid more than 15 million dollars a year suggests that NBA front offices all over the country are guessing when it comes to talent evaluation. There are players in the NBA who are worth that much and they include James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, and a select handful of others. There was little in Lewis, Redd, Arenas, et al’s resumes that suggested that they belonged on that tier. Teams that overpay marginal players are stuck in the belief that if they anoint a good player to be a great player than their wishes will come true. The tooth fairy is a better investment.
So yeah, LeBron has a point, there isn’t enough talent in the NBA for 30 teams but the talent shortage isn’t guys in uniform; it’s the guys in suits in the front office. When owners start running their clubs like the multimillion dollar businesses that they are, then fans around the country will start enjoying teams with substantial superstar talent on their roster. Contraction isn’t the answer; intelligence is. Meanwhile, I’m going to sit tight and await James’s pronouncements on the Reagan Administration; it should be good.