Sunday, June 29, 2014

The King is Confused

How LeBron James failed to learn the one lesson he should have from the Heat's trip to the San Antonio woodshed. 

The news is old by now, but just as much as it was an ending to a great NBA season, it was also the thing the NBA loves the most: the beginning of a story that will keep the league in the news cycles, perhaps through the entirety of the off-season. The vaunted Mami Heat star LeBron James, fresh from having his ass handed to him by the more-disciplined and more experienced San Antionio Spurs, chose to opt out of his contract, become a free agent, and, should the long rows of zeroes fall into the right places, perhaps seek another city to host his dreams of many championships to come. The evidence of how completely insane this is comes from two directions: The first is the amazing success LeBron has enjoyed in his years with the Heat, and the second is the real lesson he should have learned from the San Antonio Spurs.

In just four years with Miami, LeBron has won, along with his usual complement of All-Star Game and All-Defensive Team appearances, two NBA titles, an NBA Most Valuable Player Award, two NBA Finals MVP Awards, and the AP Athlete of the Year, USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, Sporting News Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards. Has the man already wiped from his memory the seven years of exile he endured in Cleveland? 

Or perhaps LeBron learned a lesson from the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps he learned that his Heat team is, in fact, just a tired old dog destined never to run again, or worse, just a loser outfit that has all this time been posing as an NBA Champion. If that's the case, certainly, it's time to move on. But the thing is, that most certainly is not the case, and if there's anyone who exemplifies that--and exemplifies what the Heat can become--it's the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs have won five titles over a 15-year period that started in 1999. During that time, under the tutelage of their Coach Gregg Popovich and the leadership of their star Tim Duncan, they have always been competitive, one of the class acts of the NBA, and often the envy of the rest of the league. They transitioned from the Twin Towers to the Big Three, continually reinvented themselves, and kept coming back for more titles. For that perseverance, if you're Duncan or Popovich, you got five championships out of the deal, if you're David Robinson, you got two, if you're Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli, you got four, and if you're Kawhi Leonard, you've got one and counting. Add to that the titles collected by the likes of Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, and others who brought their NBA Champion pedigrees with them to the Spurs, and what you have is the NBA dream: individual performances, yes, but more importantly, a franchise, nay, an institution whose name, like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Chicago Bulls before them, will forever embody the words NBA Champion. The lesson of the San Antonio Spurs is that, despite the prevailing view that the NBA has devolved into a place for superstars, highlight-reel slam dunks, and obscene-money contracts, there is still a place for the simple things like perseverance, give-and-go layups, and yes, team loyalty. And if you can put those things into a package, you might just walk away with not two, but four, five, ten NBA titles.

Amazingly, the Spurs have done this in an era when no one thought it could be done anymore. The double three-peats of the 1990s Chicago Bulls were supposed to be the last dynasty, but here we have an NBA institution that has just put an exclamation point on a 15-year run, not just by beating the Heat, but by embarrassing them. Still, there is no reason the Miami Heat of today cannot be a team like the San Antonio Spurs in five or ten years. In fact, I would challenge anyone to look around the league now and name another team that is more likely to achieve that kind of success over the next five or ten years. But opting for free agency and calling the whole team into question now is no way to start.