LeBron Agonistes

In sports, it’s almost de rigeur to box the participants into simplistic, Manichean paradigms. It’s one of the main hooks, really. We (or at least I) retreat into passionate fandom/ascribe so much of our (my) emotional well-being to the scores of games because, in real life very, very, VERY few things are black and white. The majority of one’s daily events are semi-pointless minutiae that land somewhere within a miasma of vast shades of gray. No winners and losers. Just a series of tentative half-steps along a never-ending path fraught with anxiety and indifference and boredom and fear and indeterminate answers to unsolvable questions. (Yes, your humble correspondent is in a chipper mood today.)

But that’s the fun, dontcha know. Eff all those moral ambiguities! When you’re rooting for a team (any team), it’s wholly clear that on one side stands the nefarious villain, bestowed with Skeletor-like powers beyond our understanding, bent on the destruction of all that is good and noble and holy and All-American and brimming with earnest, selfless, hope and desire. Naturally, we are The Good and they are The Bad! And unlike the workaday world, in the end, it’s crystal clear whom has triumphed and shall be decorated with wreaths of finely spun gold and heralded throughout the ages with wine and women and song and who lays vanquished, covered in bruises that may not ever heal.

So after watching the Heatles (MoHeatOs, Golden Girls, Miami Thrice, etc.) succumb to Dallas, I expected to be filled with venomous, bile-ridden glee. Like (seemingly) the rest of the hoops-nation, I had draped LeBron in a dark cowl and cast him as Darth James. I mean, after the lugubrious preening of “the Decision,” followed by the now-even-more-mockable post-decision “Dance Party South Beach Pre-Championship Shingdig” (Or whatever it was called) and prediction of multiple titles, pretty much every other team/fans of all the other teams (especially the fine burghers of Cleveland) in the league wanted to see Miami, like the bully in the old Charles Atlas Comix, get socked in the schnozz.  And as a Knicker-backer, after two years of shedding contracts and openly pining for LeBron only to see him, like the archetypal actaeonizingly attractive woman at the bar, shoo us away, I expected his loss/failings would feel like a kind of vindication and I’d bellow, “See. He ain’t no Jordan! We didn’t really need the bastid anyways! He ain’t tough enough fer dis town. Fuggeddaboutit!” (Yes, my stock NY accent is quite similar to Jon Stewart’s)

But here’s the thing.

As much as I got a bang out of Nowitzki’s collection of feints, jab-steps and silky-smooth jumpers, I didn’t enjoy watching the Teutonic Titan kick sand in LeBron’s face. It just kind of felt…well…sad.

It was like he (LeBron) knew that he was doomed to failure. That for all his vaunted physical prowess, there’s an element missing there that can’t be easily labeled or identified. Those lacking a poetic bent might  say that he lacks a goddamn post-up game, but that’s for wiser, less-sentimental basketball minds than me to determine (and given the dearth of actual games that the lockout is going to leave us with, the wags/pundits certainly will spend much of the next few months musing on the holes in LBJ’s game). But as the minutes dwindled down in the 4th and LeBron hoisted a series of futile threes, I almost saw a flash of recognition, of dare I say it, self-awareness,. It was both utterly surprising and damningly ironic, since an utter lack of self-awareness (or at least any awareness of how his actions might be perceived by others) could be said to what led to “The Decision” in the first place. Maybe it was just the pain of losing, but I could swear I saw a moment of regret flash across his face. A regret for all that had passed over the last twelve months: joining forces with Wade’s team instead of staying in his hometown, making such a production out of free agency, and raising the stakes so high that anything less than total domination would be viewed as a personal failure on his part.

In my heart, I know that look. I know regret. And for the first time, I didn’t wish LeBron was a Knick or hate him for not being a Knick or see him as the big bad, I just felt pity for a man – a still-young man at that, lest we forget, coming face to face with his limitations (the Freudian in me would say he came face to face with his own mortality, but that’s another column altogether). And as much as I’d like to, I can’t kick that guy when he’s down.

Robert Goes to the Game

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
-Revelations 6:8

It’s always a solid idea to invoke the eternal in situations like these. Granted, the Columbia School of Journalism would frown on such a thing. Not your classic pyramidal lede, after all. But I used the King James version in honor of last night’s opponent. Yours truly, by dint of luck, got to attend this titanic affair in person (some of you may have already read my in-game tweets). Just as the good Dr. Thompson would have were he still with us, I brought a pad and paper (no smart-phone for Altacockers like me — heck, I came this close to wearing a fedora and bringing a Smith-Corona with me) and took copious notes. Here, Gonzo-style, is my mostly unedited, minute-by-minute experience of/commentary on said contest…

5:20 – Walking up 7th Avenue. Looking for that “Knicks buzz” that we haven’t seen round these parts since Bubba Clinton was lord and master of all he surveyed. It’s sorta there. Scalpers milling about at five-ish is a good sign. So is cops half-heartedly trying to bust said scalpers. For a second I ponder hocking my ticket and “covering” this event from Rudy’s Bar and Grill down the block (free hot dogs!). But considering I’m a respected member of the mainstream media, I quickly ditch this idea.

5:25 – I finish my last cigarette and enter MSG. Turns out, Gerry Cosby Sporting Goods is no longer in existence. I die a little inside. Back in the day, going to the game with my father, a key part of our pre-game ritual involved a pit stop at Gerry Cosby to stare in wonderment at the game-used jerseys and (utterly out of our price range) threads for sale. I blame Ebay/Craigslist for its demise. [Ed’s note: Cosby’s is still alive, 31st street East of 7th.]

5:26 – I wander over to the concierge desk and get my ticket. Clyde Frazier saunters (and I mean saunters) by. He’s rocking a turquoise suit, shirt and shoes. Sweet.

5:35 – So this shindig’s been set up by American Express. Upon entering, I’m approached by a middle management-type who gives me a free hat (not to mention, you know, the tickets) so I smile politely and make a beeline for the hors-d’oeuvres.

5:36 – I was hoping for some good cheese at the buffet table, but alas, there’s just reheated pigs-in-a-blanket and some chicken teriyaki thingies.  I eat them anyway. I mean, they’re there so I’ll eat but I was kinda hoping for fancy cheese m’self.

5:38 – There’s Clyde Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl. Seriously, just in awe. I walk over, attempting to be casual, as if chilling with all-time NBA greats is a daily occurrence for your humble correspondent. (I assume I fail. Casual anything isn’t my strong suit).  They’re talking about Rondo and how they’d defend his lack of a shot. Clyde, in his ineffable greatness says, “I’d insult him. I’d stand five feet away with my hands at my side and dare him to shoot. One miss, and he’d be mine for the rest of the game.” (I so want to be as cool as Walt Frazier in my next life). You may have seen some of the choice quotes from Clyde n’ Pearl at the mini-“press conference” that I tweeted (http://twitter.com/KnickerBlogger). But prior to this, we just hung out and talked hoops. I’m just about ready to die happily now. A few snippets of our chit-chat below…

PEARL: Dick Barnett used to bring his man close to me so he’d lay off Dick and double me. That was his way of letting me know it was time to give him the ball.

CLYDE: The Knicks haven’t executed a last-second play well since Red was the coach.

(I then asked Clyde, “Is that the players’ fault? Or the coach’s/poor play design?)

CLYDE: It’s both. They don’t practice it enough. In that situation, you’re so exhausted it has to be instinctive. You have to rely on muscle memory.

(Side note — I often carp on Clyde’s malapropisms/misused vocab when he’s calling a game. Hearing him “just talk” he’s clearly a very bright, articulate guy. It make me kinda wish he’d ditch the rhyming shtick — he clearly doesn’t need  it.)

PEARL: I almost came out of retirement to play for the expansion Dallas Mavericks in ’81. They really tried to sell me. Offered me a house in Dallas and a front office job when I retired. Almost said yes, but I really couldn’t play any more and I didn’t want the fans to remember me struggling.

CLYDE: (Comparing LBJ/Wade to himself and Monroe) Someone has to adapt and change their game. A team always knows who the alpha dog is. You fight it, and everyone gets messed up. Pearl changed to fit with me and we were able to flourish.

6:10 – I’m positively floating after getting to talk roundball with two of my heroes. In my stupor, I eat my eighth pig-in-a-blanket. The waiters are eyeballing me warily.

6:15 – The aforementioned mini-press conference. I listen for a bit. When the questions devolve into, “What was your favorite moment as a Knick,” I figure this is my chance to grab a last smoke before the game begins. Alas, I’m not allowed to leave. For serious. There’s an electronic chip on the ticket that once scanned, can’t be re-scanned or something and so if I go, I’m out for good. I begin to mumble something about hyper-technology dehumanizing us all and go back to the event, smoke-free.

6:30 – John Starks enters.

6:31 – John Starks exits.

6:32 – Wait, was that John Starks? Is he coming back? I wanna meet John Starks and do the three-fingers-to-the-heart gesture!! I go to ask the AMEX guy, but he’s hitting on the bartender. Poop.

6:35 – The pre-game event is over and we’re supposed to head up to the luxury suite, but I break away from the pack to take in the ambiance and go over my notes (this will be important later). Charles Smith walks by. He seems to not have aged at all since 1993. Ironic, since his series of bricks at the end of Game Five v. the Bulls clearly took ten years off my life and added three or four permanent furrows to my brow. [Ed’s note: That moment is what turned me from a boy into a man. It stole any childhood happiness from my soul.]

6:55 – I make my way up to the suite. I’ve never seen this part of MSG before. Honestly, it looks like the hallway of a Days Inn somewhere. Middle-aged, red-faced, clearly wealthy guys in suits, reeking of axe body wash are dragging their half-bored fraying trophy wives behind them. Again, just totally out of my element. The Garden for me will always be dingy fluorescent hallways that reek of deep-fried food and/or urine. It’s like the Great Recession never happened for these people. I can guarantee you that none of them ever considered lining their pockets with Ziploc bags to scarf buffet-table leftovers (I’ll let y’all decide if that’s a good or a bad thing).

7:00 – I enter the suite. We’re above the blue seats. To my surprise, being this high up allows for a much better view of the game than what one would find in the 200’s. There’s clearly a mathematical reason for this, but look! More buffet food. Sliders and dumplings and wings! Awesome. Excuse me please…

7:03 – Again, I try to suss out the vibe of MSG. Being this far away from the huddled, unwashed masses makes it a wee bit difficult, but there’s a genuine nervous energy about the place. Folks are ready to bust out with joy and/or hate.

7:08 – Pre-game hoopla. It’s a remnant of the Isiah regime. So much hurly-burly. T-shirt cannons. Random hype guys trying to get the crowd juiced. Hate it. I understand when the Knicks were a pitiable lot, some corporate bigwigs might have thought all this sound and fury was necessary to, you know, distract the populace from the abhorrent product on the court. But now that there’s a good (or at least usually entertaining) team, it’s just not necessary. I’m reminded, oddly enough, of a scene from that awful remake of Rollerball.

7:12 – Oh, right. The game. LeBron, etc. That’s why we’re here.

7:20 – Between sending Mike K. my tweets, taking notes and snacking like a fiend, I realize that I’m only semi-paying attention to what’s occurring on the court. I’m more impressed than ever by Bill Simmons’ running game diaries/”Cover it live” scribblings (to which this little ditty owes more than a passing resemblance). It’s really hard to write about and watch the game and be vaguely witty and/or insightful all at the same time.

7:25 – I ravage the buffet/beverage table like Amar’e going to the rim on the pick and roll. I’m on my twelfth piggie-blankety treat and loading up with Buffalo wings. So now I’ve got a hot sauce slathered face (bleu cheese dressing is for wimps) and I’m intermittently bellowing things like, “That was a foul!” and, “Stop throwing up early three’s Raymond/Will/Landry! Move the @#$%^& ball!!” My fellow box residents are starting to give me the stink-eye. None of them seem nearly as emotionally invested in the outcome of the match as I am.

7:35 – 1st Quarter ends. Nix down nine. I’m trying to figure out what cost our lads the lead. Felton/Amar’e seem too eager to play well. Doubling LeBron is allowing Bosh and Carlos effing Arroyo to nail easy open shots. While marveling at my brilliant analysis, I suddenly realize that I’ve been in the wrong luxury suite the whole time. I’m surprised no one asked who I was what I was doing there or something, but as I said, these folks didn’t seem to care too much that they were there, so my presence wasn’t likely to make that much of an impression.

7:38 – I make my way to the AMEX box. This is more like it. I’m suddenly surrounded by some seriously jacked fans, wearing Amar’e jerseys and drinking heavily. (The fact that this suite [unlike my first one] contained a fully stocked bar probably helped. I take a moment to curse the fact that I’m an alcoholic and move on). Much theorizing about why they’re down. Someone says, “D’Antoni sucks!” Cogent analysis or not, these are my people. The AMEX guy asks, “Where have you been?” I mutter something about being in the wrong suite and he laughs stiffly and whacks me on the back saying, “You rock, dude!” He’s like the fraternity brother I never had.

7:52 – Oo! A Padma Lakshmi sighting in celebrity row! She’s like, really pretty and like, this season of Top Chef looks like totally promising if…Wait. Wrong pointless obsession. Sorry ’bout that. [Ed’s note: I thought I was the only one? Which chef do you think has the best game? The easy answer is Anthony Bourdain, but I’d put my money on the darkhorse chef/cager, Eric Ripert. There are plenty of ballers in France… I see what you mean by pointless obsession.]

7:59 – The Knickerbockers start to claw their way back in the game, capped by Willll-son CHAND-La!’s thunderous dunk on the break. The suite’s rocking and the one attractive woman in the room starts to dance seductively to whatever classic rock tune they’re playing during the time out. Suddenly every male with an operant limbic system shifts their curdling blood-rage into an indefinable lust for this supple yet lithe, gyrating female. Her ostensible boyfriend, heretofore the most vociferous chap in the joint, gets quiet and protective.

8:10 – Halftime. Tied. I’m seriously jonesing for a smoke, but the food-coma I’m entering is counteracting the effects nicely. Everyone in the suite is super-sure that the Nix will win this one. I’m not convinced. It’s not the ten years of losing, mind you. My Nix, even when they were a “contender” always seemed to botch games like this’n. I wonder how these doe-eyed optimists are going to react when the soul-crushing defeats inevitably arrive. Will they be thrilled just to have “meaningful games?” Will they revel in “moral victories?” Or will they be even more distraught?

8:30 – My notes say in all-caps & repeatedly underlined, “3 MISSED FREE THROWS BY STAT. THAT’S THE GAME. IT’S OVER.” Again, I’ve seen too many of these affairs. It’s not because I have any great b-ball insight, mind you, it’s all a matter of  repetition. I’ve seen this show before. Just like I know how Hamlet’s going to end when I watch that bit o’ drama play out.

8:54 – And just like that, down 16 at the end of the third. John Kenney’s got a much more thorough recap but in short, LeBron went into full-on killer mode.

9:02 – The fans in the pricey seats start leaving in droves and the energy in the arena deflates quicker than the Metrodome.

9:12 – The AMEX guy asks if I’m sticking around for the post-game interviews. Of course, I say. He seems edgy and queries what I plan on asking Gallo/Stat/Turiaf (Who evidently are going to hang around to chill with us uber-fans after getting grilled by the beat reporters. I’m impressed. After this game, I’d be high-tailing it out of there.) I reassure him I won’t say anything to kick the team after a bad loss. Clearly, I’ll never be employed by the New York Post.

9:25 – Game’s over and we’ve made our serpentine way through the bowels of MSG to the court. We wait.

9:30 – We wait some more. Again, if Gallo/Stat/Ronny chose to bail, I wouldn’t blame them.

9:31 – By the way, the fans in the pricey seats left a TON of food on the floor. Aside from the mess, those things are expensive and some people took less than one bite before throwing it away! Why not take it with you? It’s still good! Och!

9:33 – Stephen A. Smith walks by. Someone in our group yells out, “Quite frankly, I love them Cheesy Doodles!” I laugh like a hyena. If you’d like to get the reference, check out this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAB5lOIl-2U. Heh. Cheesy Doodles.

9:35 – Gallo/Stat/Ronny come out. AMEX has swung us a free photo with them on the Knicks’ logo at center court. I wait my turn and step on to the sacred floor of Madison Square Garden.  I’m 12 years old and Bernard King is still the best baller ever. I mime launch a three and stand next to the aforementioned trio. Kill me now.

(Side note — NBA players are really tall. The thing about watching games on TV is that, since everyone on the court is usually a ginormous human being (save Nate), one doesn’t realize how massive these guys really are. We’re not even the same species. There’s a photo coming of this moment via mail which I’ll share with y’all as soon as it arrives. I’ll be the midget sporting an ear-to-ear grin.)

9:36 – As the photographer gets ready, I say to Turiaf, “C’est dommage, mon gros!” (Translation: Too bad, my friend!) Completely unsurprised by my comment in French, he replies, “Oui, Oui, Le demain sera meilleur.” (Translation: Tomorrow will be better). Ronny Turiaf is super-cool. Then I say to Gallo, “In bocca al lupo! (Translation: Into the mouth of the wolf – it’s Italian slang that means, “good luck”). He was seriously taken aback, but still managed to pull off a fist bump while saying, “Crepi!” (Again, it literally means “Eat it!” but it’s slang for, “I will!”).  Dap from Gallo plus a bit of linguistic gymnastics has me on cloud nine. I’m King Superfly Baddass Mofo.

9:40 – We find out the Q&A has been canceled. They’ve got to get on a plane to Cleveland. No quibbles here.

9:50 – I’m on 7th Ave again, killing my nic-fit and still in a daze (maybe it’s the literal truckload of buffet I gobbled). Thinking back on the evening’s events, I’m given pause by how much it didn’t feel like going to the game (at least not in any sense that I’d experienced before). I know we lost and I have a few ideas as to why, but the usual emotional highs and lows were for the most part completely absent. And then it hit me. I couldn‘t watch the game as a fan because I was there to report on the game. Now, I’m not saying I had a typical sportswriter’s experience. For one, I assume that real reporters aren’t nearly as star-struck as I was. But the thing I think I shared with those ink-stained wretches is the sense of detachment that’s required for the task at hand. There’s really no way to root for the Knicks and write about it as it happens (recaps for Knickerblogger are clearly another matter entirely) in any competent manner. So I sacrificed my emotional investment in order to type this. And were someone to pay me to report on this team on a daily basis (Ha!), I’d have to stop pulling for this team in order to do my job. I guess I just inadvertently discovered objective journalism.

Didn’t see that coming.

Heat 113, Knicks 91

December 17th, 2010, is a date that has been circled on my calendar since the league announced this season’s schedule. Tonight was the city’s chance to shout out our new opinion of LeBron to his face for the first time. Long wooed by the city, with Knicks fans applauding his accomplishments on our home court, his “Decision” changed everything. The fans who once longed for James in orange and blue now despise him.

And boy, did MSG do its part tonight. From before tipoff throughout the first half the crowd was electric, with thunderous chants of “DE-FENSE” every time the Heat touched the ball, and loud Boos ringing out each time it was passed to LeBron. The crowd even reserved a special chant for when Chris Bosh would shoot free throws: “OVER-RATED“, no doubt a result of the Heat’s implied belief this summer that Bosh was the best free-agent power forward, a belief any Knicks fan would now contest. Moreover, the team was giving us a reason to cheer, overcoming a 13 point second quarter deficit to lead the game with 3:24 left in the first half on a Landry Fields tip-in. Though the Knicks and Heat entered the half tied at 59, the game was soon to turn, with the Heat outscoring the Knicks by 16 in the 3rd quarter, with LeBron shooting 6-9 in the quarter for 14 points. The fourth quarter left nothing to doubt, as the Knicks were unable to find any offensive rhythm. Despite the horrific 2nd half, I don’t believe that tonight’s loss should be a cause for major alarm. My thoughts on the matter and analysis of the box score below.

  • First and foremost, this was not Amar’e’s night. During the recent win streak, Amar’e had appeared perfectly in control, a combination of power and grace that could not be stopped. Tonight was the polar opposite- everything Amar’e did seemed rushed and slightly out-of-control. 24 points on 28 shots is not the efficiency we’ve come to expect, and four turnovers certainly didn’t help. However, I doubt this problem will continue. For one thing, it appeared that Amar’e was hit on the arms every time he drove towards the hoop, with nary a call. It’s questionable tonight whether it would have helped- Amar’e shot an incredibly poor 2-7 from the free throw line- but other refs may well have been blown the whistle. Every superstar has a bad night now and then, and tonight easily could have been the result of the incredible minutes per game D’Antoni has been playing Amar’e. Perhaps the best thing tonight’s result could do is force the Knicks to lean a bit more on someone like Anthony Randolph (who looked hungry for playing time during the few minutes of garbage time he received) to spell Amar’e. Amar’e finished with a +/- of -22, which was poor but hardly the worst on the team.
  • That honor would belong to Raymond Felton, who posted an incredible +/- of -33. I wonder if the heavy minutes are again a suspect for the poor play, specifically because some of the things Raymond is best at (driving the hoop for a lay-up, for example), were absolutely beyond him tonight. Raymond hit the underside of the rim at least two times on drives- ugly.  He shot 3-12, was 0-3 from 3, and while the box score shows he dished 10 assists, he had no impact on the game. Not a result you would like against a team which is widely considered not to have a point guard. I’m not sure who we can look to to give him rest though, so this one is questionable.
  • Interestingly enough, the only positive +/- on the night belonged to Shawne Williams. This is attributable largely to his presence on an interesting second quarter line-up featuring four players shooting over 36% from three- Gallo, Chandler, Williams, and Fields- and a 5th, Toney Douglas, who is not shy to shoot. This was quite the interesting lineup. Wilson Chandler was the player presumably playing at center, if one had to be designated as such.  This group erased much of the deficit, and gave the Heat plenty of trouble defensively, mainly because the Knicks knocked down a few shots, but, alas, this particular lineup was not to return in the second half.
  • Thank goodness Gallo was dialed in to start the game, or it might not have remained close for even a half. Gallo’s 21 points before halftime were inspired. One could sense that he was playing with a great deal of confidence. Unfortunately his shot, along with the rest of the team’s, went away in the second half. Regardless, his 25 points were a game-high.

So why am I not particularly worried? First, I think Felton and Stoudemire are better than they showed tonight. Given proper rest, I would doubt they perform as poorly the next time they play the Heat. Second, their free throw shooting was just atrocious tonight (56.5%.) Making the ten free throws we missed wouldn’t have won the game for us, but considering the quality our players normally demonstrate at the charity stripe, shooting such a low percentage is an anomaly. Third, LeBron and the Heat were just incredible tonight, but in a way that could be hard to repeat. If you disregard a late miss by James Jones in garbage time, the Heat shot just under 59% from 3 tonight. Furthermore, LeBron knocked down a number of long two-pointers. While one is hard-pressed to call it great defense when his shot is dropping, the defenses of teams who have played the Cavs in the playoffs have designed their scheme to force him to take that exact type of a shot. On another night, his shooting percentage could quite easily be below the 60% he had tonight, including 50% from deep. This shooting contributed to the largest +/- on the night, at +31. However, this is why we wanted him on the Knicks. LeBron James is really good at the game of basketball. While the Knicks couldn’t ‘Beat the Heat’ tonight, despite the rowdy support of the MSG faithful, there are some losses to which one doesn’t need to overreact, and I count this among them.

Thoughts About “The Decision”

As one of the millions spurned by the false advances of LeBron James, I know that it’s easy to get involved in the emotional aspect of “The Decision.” But now that some time has passed perhaps some of the passion has subsided, it’s time to look at the move from a more even headed perspective. (And if your anger hasn’t subsided, then here’s a great way to let everyone know how you feel.)

Naturally people are resistant to change, and LeBron’s choice shocked the public. At the surface was his egocentric media circus. There’s no doubt that James turned some people off based on how he handled this decision. Stringing along a few million fans, having a prime time show in his honor, hand picking the host, then proclaiming “South Beach” in front of children from the North East showed a disconnect from the common person. Had he made his decision humbly, profusely thanked the people of Ohio, and didn’t celebrate with a Heat jersey in July like he won an NBA championship then LeBron’s image might have survived the move largely in tact.

“The Decision” seemed unfathomable; it was a radical departure from history. Last year, the New York Times’ Howard Beck wrote:

[A team signing a free agent superstar] is probably doomed to fail because of one immutable, rarely acknowledged truth: superstar free agency barely exists in the N.B.A.

It has been almost 13 years since Shaquille O’Neal jilted the Orlando Magic and altered the N.B.A. landscape by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a modern anomaly, not a precedent. Few superstars have made free-agent moves since then.

It is not an accident.

“It’s built right into the system,” said Lon Babby, an agent whose client list includes Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Ray Allen. “They don’t want guys to leave.”

By “they,” Babby means N.B.A. officials, whose quest for parity and cost control has created a market that rewards superstars for staying put and punishes them for leaving.

Combine financial self-interest with the N.B.A.’s complex salary-cap rules, and a result is a market in which superstars have little incentive to move.

“This succession of agreements has resulted in a hard salary cap,” said Arn Tellem, one of the N.B.A.’s most influential agents, “and has really, I think, eliminated for the most part free agency for the high-end players.”

The most critical element at work is the cap on individual salaries. Those limits did not exist in 1996, when the Lakers outbid the Magic and signed O’Neal to a $121 million contract.

Today, no team can be outbid for its own free agent unless it wants to be.

The best example is Nash, who in 2004 left Dallas to sign a five-year, $60 million deal with Phoenix. The Mavericks could have matched or exceeded the offer, but they were worried about Nash’s age (he was 30), health and breakneck style.

If the system is a burden to elite players, it is a boon for the league, which prizes franchise stability, and for fans, who almost never have to say goodbye to their heroes.

The choice of James has taken common wisdom and stood it on its ear. It was such a departure from the established definition of “a great player” that even former NBA stars came out against LeBron. Michael Jordan said he would never have called up Bird and Magic in a quest to win a championship. Charles Barkley noted that James tarnished his legacy by going to “Wade’s team.” While Knick great Walt Frazier succinctly stated that LeBron “took the easy way out.”

James’ choice was an affront to the sense of competitive balance. The average fan saw the trio of James, Wade, and Bosh as the playground equivalent of putting the three biggest kids on the same team so they can run the court all day long. For children, there’s no fun in stacking the odds to beat up on the weak. But playground ethics goes against the professional athletes’ rule of winning at all costs. Players are lauded for whatever will bring their team victory, including bending the rules. Fans often enjoy the hometown player who gets away with a fistful of jersey. Players are valued for wins the team earns and on a more granular level the number of rings they own. Jordan validated this theory when he pronounced Kobe to be superior to James, even though Bryant’s only real edge is better teammates.

The problem is that championships are a function of team, but they are often applied as measuring sticks for an individual. In some ways the public has themselves to blame for irrationally setting such odd standards. Jordan didn’t win a championship until he was teamed with Pippen (and Phil Jackson). Frazier played alongside a gaggle of Hall of Famers en route to his two championships (Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Monroe, and Lucas). Barkley chased a championship in Phoenix, and later as a third fiddle in Houston. The rules are clear: players are expected to do everything they can to win, and championships define players. Since good teammates win championships, then the most logical conclusion for an athlete is to find the best teammates possible in order to maintain their individual legacy. LeBron’s choice is simply the next logical step based on the criteria by which he will be judged.

But can the hatred last? True Hoop’s Henry Abbott likens LeBron’s case to Kevin Garnett who languished in Minnesota before teaming up in Boston with Allen and Pierce.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself what your end goal is: To win the individual sport of being the man, or the team sport of basketball? They usually go together. There’s a reason Bryant and Jordan have all those championship rings.

But sometimes the best thing for basketball is to not put everything on your shoulders, and instead get some help.

Think about Kevin Garnett. There are several different really smart analyses to show that when he was in Minnesota losing all those games he was literally the best player in the NBA (the same analysis, over the last two years, would say James is that player now). If you use some kind of smart objective metrics, Garnett’s is the name that comes up most from those years. But Garnett had no help! After he grew distraught with the team’s endless rebuilding, the Timberwolves found him a home in Boston with some serious help in the form of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Even though Garnett did not play his best basketball in Boston, he did his best winning there, and the result has been a profound transformation of both how the world sees Garnett and how the city of Boston feels about basketball in the 2000s. It’s a model anyone would want to copy — a new home with talented teammates became a story of pure, unrestrained basketball joy for all involved who aren’t Timberwolves fans.

Although at the time, much of the vitriol was aimed above Garnett’s at Minnesota GM and former Celtic player Kevin McHale for handing his former team another trophy. Nevertheless today the Boston trio is no more or less hated than expected. In fact as Henry asserts, Garnett is viewed more positively for his role on a championship team.

Baseball’s Curt Flood, a pioneer of free agency for athletes, was vilified by his actions not just by the public, but with fellow players as well. Flood once returned to his locker to find a funeral wreath on it. In fact there are parallels between Flood and James. Both players simply sought the ability to go where they wished, and the public recoiled because they felt that decision would ruin the game. And although there will be many people who resent LeBron no matter what he does (mostly in Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and whatever cities he defeats on the way to a championship), there will be others who after he wins a title will view him in a positive light. Because as the old saying goes, everybody loves a winner.

More important than how this decision affects LeBron, is how it affects the choices athletes will make. Free agency in a capped league, like the amateur draft, is meant to help the weaker teams become more competitive. Teams with superstars should already be near the cap, and those without should be far enough below to sign them. However reality paints a different picture. Star players bypass the cities they wish to avoid and instead force their way onto a preferred franchise. Kareem did it to the Bucks in the 70s, Shaq did it twice, and Kobe did it before he was even drafted. As a result, the rest of the league usually ends up overpaying for the non-super stars.

Already with the ability to chose their destination (within reason) players have an upper hand in a game considered to be run by front offices. It would be like Karpov and Kasparov sitting down to play, but Karpov’s queen decides it would be easier to win if she decided to play alongside Kasparov’s queen. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s choice could start a trend in the league. The Heat were in no shortage of finding talented players with which to surround Miami Thrice. Other superstars like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have been rumored to wish to team up in order to create their own super team. In a few years, building teams with multiple superstars could be the norm around the NBA. In other terms what is going to stop Karpov’s rooks, knights, and bishops from all seeing better odds by going elsewhere, leaving a bunch of pawns and a defenseless king?

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic on the course laid out in the future. Change usually brings the negative out in people, and I’m sure there were fans that thought the worst of every change, whether it be racial integration, the three point line, or instant replay. The end of the reserve clause in baseball was supposed to be the death of sports, but just about every league has survived post free agency.

Maybe the NBA can thrive under these new conditions. It didn’t seem that the league was hurt by the dynasties of the Celtics, Lakers, or Bulls in the 80s & 90s. Nor did the rivalry between the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, and Suns bore fans in the 00s. Perhaps franchises will aim for loads of cap space instead of overpaying for marginal talent. A handful of super teams would make the latter rounds of the playoffs much more interesting. Furthermore any Cinderella team, one without a group of superstars, would instantly become a sweetheart to all cities without playoff representation.

By creating a super team, LeBron has changed the rules of the game. Potentially he ushered a new era in sports where the best athletes choose their team and teammates. Although by doing so, LeBron has unintentionally recast himself as the league’s villain. However if this trend of creating teams of multiple All Stars pioneered by James becomes established as the norm, then history might view him in a more kind light.

Top 10 Ways the LeBron Special Goes Down

10. LeBron announces his decision 30 seconds into the special, then turns to stunned ESPN studio guy and says back to you.

9. James encourages viewing audience to play a drinking game with him. Every time an ESPN montage shows a dunk – drink!

8. LeBron reveals that we’re all in a sideways universe, and that we should be remembering soon that we are all friends. Except for Ben Linus.

7. James decides he’s going to remain in Cleveland, but instead of the Cavs selects to play for minor league baseball team the Akron Aeros. Says he needs to get out of Jordan’s shaddow & surpass his .202 batting average.

6. James announces he’s going to sign with Chicago. Newly signed free agent Carlos Boozer comes on stage with the contract. LeBron rips it up & throws it Boozer’s face yelling “SEE HOW IT FEELS?”

5. Citing too much pressure, LeBron decides to play in Miami as long as he’s considered the third wheel. Says he prefers to come of the bench and just be a regular NBA rotation player. Asks if anyone knows what kind of donuts Wade & Bosh like?

4. Steven A. Smith and LeBron James re-enact the infamous Piper’s Pit with Jimmy Snuka.

3. After 55 minutes of build-up including videos of James’ history, speculation of the future landscape of the NBA, and that cool touch screen ESPN uses for free agency LeBron says he’s staying in Cleveland. The result is 25,000 people tweet the same exact thing at the same exact time “WTF?”.

2. James announces that Akron is now an independent nation. A coronation ceremony follows, with James being crowned King to Devo performing “Whip-It.”

1. LeBron James says he’ll allow each team to give him one task. The first team that selects a task that he’s physically unable to do will be the team he chooses to sign with. The Cavs owner asks for a 720 slam dunk. LeBron takes the ball jumps in the air & spins twice before jamming it. The Bulls owner requests a blindfolded three point shot. LeBron covers his eyes & sinks it with ease. Miami owner challenges LeBron to score against their two best players, Bosh and Wade. LeBron beats Wade with a crossover and dunks on Bosh. The Knicks owner steps up and says “sign with the Clippers.” LeBron James says “New York it is!”

James’ Decision Will Reveal His Character

With just one day left before LeBron James chooses his free agent destination, I thought I’d look at the options from James’ perspective.

Cleveland – James must feel the love from his hometown if he’s still considering Cleveland. The Cavs haven’t done an awful job putting a team around him, like Minnesota did with Kevin Garnett. However the team hasn’t been able to lure any major players to Ohio. Amar’e didn’t seem interested (either this year or last) and Bosh didn’t want to go either. For them to give up teaming with LeBron for an eventual ring doesn’t speak well on the perception of life in the Buckeye State during the winter/spring.

Nonetheless it doesn’t mean that James is ready to bolt. The Cavs are likely going to be contenders as long as James is there, so he may not feel pressured to go somewhere else. A Bosh/Wade combo isn’t something insurmountable for the King, but it does make it more difficult for him to get that ring. Finally don’t discount the emotional ties he has to the area. If James were to leave he’ll have lots of people turn their backs on him. This might not have been the case if he brought a title home, but alas that wasn’t in the cards.

Miami – If you can’t beat’em join them. Going to Miami with Wade and Bosh would give James an unstoppable crew which would win multiple championships. On the other hand heading to South Beach taints James’ legacy. LeBron going to Miami would have been like Michael Jordan going to the Celtics or Lakers. That’s something great players do at the tail end of their career, when they are desperate to win a title.

New York – If James is concerned about his legacy and doesn’t like the prospects of going through Orlando and Miami alone, then New York is likely his best option. Coming to New York would give James the second superstar he’s always wanted with Amar’e. New Yorkers love winners who migrate to their city and end up treating them as one of their own (Reggie Jackson, Keith Hernandez/Gary Carter, Curtis Martin, Latrell Sprewell, etc.) A single championship would make him the greatest Knick of all time. On the other hand you have to wonder if James’ comments concerning wanting a team that plays strong defense wasn’t a direct shot at D’Antoni. The franchise has been a laughing stock since Dolan took over the reigns and Donnie Walsh has to be eyeing retirement, so there’s always those to consider as well.

Chicago – The Bulls have their own young star in Derek Rose and a good defensive center in Noah. However the Windy City has two issues New York doesn’t. First is that Amar’e is a better compliment to LeBron than Rose. Second is that Jordan’s shadow will loom darker in Chicago than anywhere else. Seven championship is a tall, tall order.

New Jersey – If James wants to move to New York, but can’t stomach the Knicks there’s always New Jersey. The Nyets new owner Prokhorov seems to be pulling out all the stops, and of course there’s LeBron’s buddy Jay-Z as part owner. But the team isn’t ready to go full steam yet. They won a pitiful 12 games last year and won’t be in Brooklyn until at least 2013.

Wherever James goes will reveal a lot about his character. This is the biggest decision of his life, and we often show our inner selves at our most important junctures. If he goes to New Jersey, then he has the patience to build a franchise from the ground up. If LeBron goes to Chicago then he’s not intimidated by Jordan’s legacy. If he comes to New York, then he’s interested in leaving his small town roots to strengthen his brand. If he bolts for Miami, then you know his main goal is to win a championship and he doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight.

And if LeBron James stays in Cleveland then it shows his loyalty to the people who were with him on the way up. Additionally it might reveal an incredible belief in himself that he can overcome all odds without any outside help.

If I Were The Knicks GM, I’d…

With one day of the NBA’s 2010 free agency in the books, some developments have occured that might alter New York’s plans. What would I do with how the chips current lie?

Plan A – This is still LeBron James. A lot of speculation was that New York needed to sign James along with a second superstar to make a championship caliber team. Of course signing another top tier free agent would be ideal, it’s not necessary. First, New York has Eddy Curry’s contract that they can use in a sign and trade anywhere between now & the trading deadline. At worst they can let it expire & use that money to sign another player.

Second, I’d say that James, along with re-signing David Lee would make New York one of the best teams in the league next year. Why? New York theoretically could surround James (60.4% TS%) and Lee (58.4%) with Gallinari (57.5%), Walker (65.1%), and Toney Douglas (57.1%). That would be an incredibly efficient lineup. Although they might be lacking on the interior especially with rebounding at the 4, that would be one heck of a difficult team to shut down defensively. They could easily lead the league in offense with enough room to cover an average defense, much like D’Antoni’s 60 win Phoenix teams. Additionally Lee would give them some extra cap room to sign a few players for depth.

Plan B – See above, but substitute Dwayne Wade for LeBron James.

Plan C – Here’s where things from day 1 make it interesting. In the likely event that James and Wade go elsewhere, supposedly the Knicks were high on pairing Joe Johnson with another big man (Bosh? Amare?). But it appears that Atlanta has put the kibosh on that plan by throwing a max-ish offer at Johnson. (At this time the rumor is unclear if the offer is for the full 6 years, or just 5). New York’s backup option was likely Rudy Gay, but that option has been taken off the table by Memphis’ deal worth $86M over 5 years.

So let’s assume that LeBron, Wade, Johnson, and Gay are all off the table. What are the Knicks to do? The obvious option would be to bring back David Lee along with one of the top big men Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh. Bringing Lee back would be key, considering that he would likely cost less than Bosh or Amare, giving the Knicks the ability to sign another mid-tier free agent. Perhaps a player like Mike Miller or Josh Childress would come to New York for a discount. If not they should be able to land someone decent, if not one or more of the bargain bin players that Ted Nelson brought up earlier in the week.

A lineup of Stoudemire/Bosh, Lee, Gallinari, Miller/Childress, and Douglas with the bench of Chandler, Walker, Fields, Rautins, and James should easily make the playoffs. Depth would be a concern (especially at center & point guard), but the team would still have Curry’s contract to use for an upgrade at those spots.

Plan D – If Bosh and Stoudemire go elsewhere, the Knicks aren’t likely to have a good 2010. Their best option would be to make a trade for a superstar. Of course this is where Walsh’s mid-season trades hurt them, because they lost some assets they could have used in a deal. Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony could be possibilities, but the team inevitably would have to send their prized youngster (Gallo) along with a few other players. Depending on how this plays out, they could still have Lee (or not) and cap space (or not). The idea would be to grab a superstar now and hope to eventually surround him with talent. Paul or Anthony surrounded by marginal talent would be an upgrade for New York, but depending on the cast might struggle to win half their games.

Plan E – Hope New Jersey gets some free agents and wait for them to move to Brooklyn. Sell all my Knicks related stuff on eBay.

OK so it’s probably an overstatement, as the team would be best served by going lean for another year & hold onto their cap space. The worst part about this scenario is that Walsh’s past year would have been one big mistake. Not resigning Lee to a moderate contract, and trading some future draft picks (plus Hill) to get rid of Jeffries’ contract will have hurt the team tremendously. For another year they would be a losing team without the benefit of having their own first round draft pick. On the other hand, the team wouldn’t be hamstrung by a handful of overpaid players for the first time in what seems like a generation.