LeBron James(notes) has embraced the villain role in a most unprecedented way, pushing away from his peers and aligning himself with David Stern, Dan Gilbert and the owners desperate to destroy the Players Association. He left the sport stunned on Christmas Eve, searching for an understanding of why he would go so far to undermine the union on the cusp of an apocalyptic collective bargaining brawl.
James advocated contraction of teams, the loss of jobs and furthered the make-believe revision that the 1980s had a deeper pool of talent with fewer teams. "Watered down," he called the NBA, and ownership has been gifted such a public-relations coup in its historic campaign to crush the players' union.
As one prominent agent said, "How do you say that right before collective bargaining? Does he get that he's advocating to reduce the number of jobs in the league? LeBron has no idea what happens when he says [stuff] like this."
What people don't like now is how a two-time MVP would quit playing in the biggest playoff series of his life, or how a superstar would hijack the NBA Finals stage as a prelude to his free agency or how a star like James can manage the marketing of a rival like Chris Paul(notes). Whatever James' personal preferences for a league littered with mini All-Star teams, his logic is forever flawed and based on nothing beyond his own myopic prism of the world.
The NBA is a far better, far more popular product today than it ever was in the 1980s, and that'll be clearer again on Christmas when LeBron James and the Miami Heat play the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Already, this had promised to be a monumental meeting, but now it becomes so much bigger.
James has raised the stakes and raised ire. Across the floor, Kobe Bryant(notes) and union president Derek Fisher(notes) promise to be livid with such an important player selling out the players' cause on the eve of the regular-season's biggest game. Sometimes, James just talks and talks. Sometimes, he knows exactly what he's doing. In this case, it almost doesn't matter. The damage is done, and LeBron has breathed credibility into more of ownership's absurd propaganda.
Here's an irony, too: Recently, Bryant told Yahoo! Sports, "Hey, I'm a product of the 1980s. That's the era that I watched and I admired. I do wish we could go back to the '80s' style of playing."
He wasn't talking about the concentration of star players, but the way the great ones didn't have to be buddies, didn't have to run around and gang up in free agency. Bryant loved the physicality, the unapologetic nature of the times. He was raised in Europe, and understands there were far fewer non-American stars in those days, justifiably fewer teams for a smaller pool of players. Now, there's never been so much global basketball talent, and with proper ownership, management and revenue sharing among owners, the NBA doesn't need to lose one team.
The 1980s were a romantic time in the sport, a golden era, but there weren't more deeper, more talented teams in existence than today. It isn't even close. The Lakers and Celtics were fantastic then, but they would have a hard time beating these Lakers and Celtics teams. Never mind the level of teams trying to beat San Antonio, Dallas, Chicago, Utah and on and on.
And how about the Spurs dynasty, whose eclectic, international roster couldn't have existed in the 1980s? San Antonio illustrates why the NBA has a much deeper talent pool now, and that's because of the influx of international players in the game. There are reasons to love the '80s over today's game, but that has more to do with the competitive disdain the teams had, the way the Celtics and Lakers, the Pistons and 76ers, hated each other. For James to insist the NBA should do away with the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Jersey Nets so contenders could have Kevin Love(notes) or Devin Harris(notes) is preposterous.
The Timberwolves and Grizzlies are in such terrible shape because of ownership and management decisions. They're messes because Stern has fostered so many incompetent ownership groups under his watch, and then pushed bad executives into small markets in political paybacks. James should understand these things, but doesn't take the time – nor do the people surrounding him. When the Players Association wanted LeBron involved a couple of years ago, James' camp insisted it must let his business manager, Maverick Carter, sit in on one of the big agent meetings. Carter isn't an agent, but just plays one on his personal cable sports television network.
Here's the case James could make, and he'd be right: The biggest stars in the sport – LeBron, Kobe, Dwyane Wade(notes) – are far underpaid with maximum contracts. And the rest of the league's players? They're mostly overpaid. Privately, Lakers owner Jerry Buss tells people that Bryant has been worth as much as $80 million a year to his franchise. Most of the players in the sport are interchangeable and never affect television ratings, ticket sales or merchandising. Yet, Kobe and LeBron – and before them Michael, Magic and Larry – are responsible for the sport's immense popularity and profitability.
The Players Association is a one-man, one-vote entity, so you'll never see it willing to sell out its self-interests for the elite to make $50 million a season. Owners created the max contract to cap the pay of the biggest stars, but ended up giving those deals out like cotton candy to the Rudy Gays and Joe Johnsons of the world. That's on ownership, not the players.
Nevertheless, you have to give King James this credit: He's embraced the villain role like no one before him and alienated people at a historically rapid rate. Now he's isolating himself among his peers, and that's a bold, unprecedented move on his part. The NBA has never had a superstar align himself with the interests of the commissioner and owners on the cusp of such a monumental fight, but understand this: It's an edgy move that will win him favor in the league office.
This promises to be a lonely road for James, especially in the context of the game's most important figures. When it comes to this CBA Armageddon, Kobe Bryant made himself clear to Yahoo! Sports weeks ago. "I'm 100 percent in this fight. I'm not going to just sit here and give back what guys have fought for in this league long before I got here – not for us now, or the players who come after us. I'm not backing down."
Christmas Day at Staples Center, and the battle between basketball's two biggest stars has never been framed with such a resounding, rigid narrative. Two worlds clashing now, two ways for everything to go in this sport. Suddenly, this is LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant for the future of the National Basketball Association.
- LeBron James