Charles Barkley joined a legion of sportswriters and former players decrying the so-called Superfriends in Miami, in particular Lebron James’s decision to go to Miami through a hilarious Cleveland-crushing hour-long ESPN special.
Much of the criticism focuses on Lebron’s unwillingness to stay with his hometown team, instead strutting around onstage and wiping Cleveland’s nose in its loss. This is fair; although I confess that I was not around for the theatrics, I imagine the spectacle was rather uncouth, considering the understood etiquette when it comes to leaving behind your longtime team.
I find, however, that much of the criticism of Lebron (and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh) centers on his break with tradition. Magic Johnson sums up the argument:
“We didn’t think about it cause that’s not what we were about,” said Johnson, whose Michigan State squad beat Bird’s Indiana State team in the 1979 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. “From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird.”
Yet, each of these greats — Jordan, Bird, Johnson — needed superstar role players to help them win! And these role players were easily as good as the comparative Superfriends now assembled in Miami.
In the 1990-1991 Chicago Bulls season, Michael Jordan had a league-leading 20.3 Win Shares. That’s a lot, about as many as Lebron James in his best season. Yet, he also had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant on his team, each of whom accounted for over 10 Win Shares individually! (For comparison, the WS numbers on Lebron, Wade and Bosh are 18.5, 13.0 and 9.8, respectively.) This means that of the Bulls’ 61 wins, 2/3 of them could be accounted for in just three players. Jordan often insisted that he needed more help, and his fights with Jerry Krause led to better teams with better players. If Jordan had not gotten the necessary help and instead continued to languish in Chicago without Pippen or Grant (or Phil Jackson!), would he have been wrong to abandon Chicago for a contender elsewhere?
Furthermore, although the Heat have three excellent players, there are other teams in the NBA with similar set-ups, and these teams are unsurprisingly successful. LA has Gasol/Odom/Bryant (NOTE THE ORDER HERE); Boston has Rondo/Pierce/Garnett/Allen.
All that James (or more accurately, Wade) did in the offseason was play the role of a General Manager, personally assembling the talent to play on a team, rather than waiting for the real GM to cobble together a deal or series of deals.
To return to Johnson’s argument, then, the reason that Magic didn’t have to join Larry Bird is because he already had players of excellent talent level around him. In fact, almost all of Magic’s championship teams regularly had contributors of ~10 Win Shares apiece, be it Jabbar, Worthy, Scott, or others filling the role. Bird’s Celtics similarly had Parrish, McHale, and Co. Compare this to Lebron in Cleveland, and you see a team of mediocrity surrounding its star. To boot, Lebron would have made a pretty bad GM, insisting on acquiring an aging Shaq for a slightly less aging Ben Wallace, as well as insisting on picking up an always-overrated Antawn Jamison. No one begrudged the Bulls for picking up amazing player Dennis Rodman and adding him to their pantheon of greats for Jordan’s second run; why should we act differently for the Heat?
By assembling the Superfriends, Miami has simply tried a shortcut to the championship, using only free agency to start from a clean slate. Unlike those who think the Superfriends will be bad for basketball, I look forward to some outstanding games next season.
Sports fans are enamored of tradition; sports players generally couldn’t care less. Thus, the real “crime” of Lebron and Co. is shrugging off tradition: the tradition of a storied franchise, of building franchises, of loyalty to a city, of sentimentality, of deference to the status quo.