But first, deconstructing The Decision again, this time with race as the hammer.
Ring the alarm! LeBron James, who like his off-court model Michael Jordan has always been slow to express any kind of political, or even socially conscious, opinion, said the r-word. During a CNN segment that gave James and sidekick Maverick Carter a chance to do a little late damage control for their disastrous ESPN "Decision", both the King and Mav said, unequivocally, that race played a role in the way the media covered James this summer. From CNN.com:
Soledad O'Brien (on camera): Do you think there's a role that race plays in this?
LeBron James: I think so at times. It's always, you know, a race factor.
Maverick Carter: It definitely played a role in some of the stuff coming out of the media, things that were written for sure.
Not that this is possible, but the object here is not to get into whether or not race mattters. Since that fateful day in July, I've come to the conclusion that it both does and doesn't. The Dan Gilbert episode, and the invocations of slavery that followed, were as much about power and economics as LeBron's ethnic background. If any player had held the league in thrall like James, then made his announcement in such a garish fashion, he would have to some degree, been ridiculed for it. He would also have been called a lazy coward for going to someone else's team. At the same time, the breakdown of James' Q Scores -- widely reported as having plummeted like a felon's -- suggest that African Americans judge black athletes less harshly. You can guess at the other side of that equation.
What's so notable here is not that James stated the obvious (if you disagree, you were likely just waiting for him to "play the card"), but that he waited until now. As Joey Litman put it, James is a smart guy with opinions who also happens to be completely tone-deaf.
My reformulation: LeBron isn't brainwashed, he just can't figure out that whole timing thing. Bringing out this side of the discussion at this point makes it into an afterthought, and yes, cheapens the entire discourse of racial discrimination. If James really felt strongly about the role race played in the public outcry against him, he could have said so at any number of other crucial junctures. Instead, it's like a last resort. Once again, LeBron daring for once to try the unfamiliar is canceled out by poor execution.
This raises a point not discussed often enough: the difference between "The Decision" and LeBron's decision. As in, the "how" and the "what," or the medium and the message, of the Summer of Bron. Like it or not, it is possible to separate the two, and on some level, you have to be able to formulate a separate opinion about each.
Being a coveted NBA player who gets to name his own terms is not in and of itself bad. It's the preening and triumphalism that James brought to it that rubbed everyone the wrong way. By the same token, James announcing his move to Miami in a pompous, empty television special opened it up to criticism about what kind of man he really was. If he had done so quietly, after staying off the radar for June, the "good pals humbly constructing a juggernaut" might not seem so disingenuous, or inherently weak and fatuous.
Race aside, anyone who has found himself in James' corner has noted that, even if there are plenty of precedents for the Heat, LBJ did himself no favors by going about it the way he did. You see this even now: Even as the Heat look to bring about a surge in league popularity, there's no shortage of fans and writers who swear that this team will self-destruct, be a drag to watch, or otherwise foul up the game. Strip aside "The Decision" and these emotions cool down considerably. Bringing up race can't be so easily neutralized, but at least speaking out earlier -- as with everything else James has done this summer -- would lend itself to grudging respect on all sides. (BS)
Like a Trojan Horse
Lost in all the hubbub over Ted Leonsis' $100K fine -- how amazing is it that Leonsis was fined before fellow newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov? -- was the Wizards' owner's justification for the league's push for a hard salary cap. Leonsis cited competitive balance, as known by the buzzword parity. Leonsis believes (I'm extrapolating here) that firming up the cap will mean teams like the Lakers, who have a $96 million payroll, and the Kings, a $45 million payroll, will be on more even footing, and will therefore be more competitive.
The problem is that no evidence has proven the hard cap to be an effective tool for parity. Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals, cited the NHL's hard cap as a successful implementation that led to better competitive balance.
But competitive balance hasn't really improved at a rate greater than it had prior to the institution of the hard cap, as studied by Stacey Brook. Parity has been improving steadily over decades in most leagues, and the hard cap did nothing to boost the NHL push toward perfect competitive balance. Given that the NHL went from a completely unregulated salary structure (uncapped, if you will) to the hard cap should have meant a pretty noticeable difference, should the cap provide one at all. But alas, nothing.
As I wrote back in January, the previous institution of the NBA's own salary controls did little to nothing in terms of pushing parity. The luxury tax was supposed to make a more even playing field by penalizing teams with massive payrolls; instead, it furthered the divide between the haves and have-nots, as only select owners (Jerry Buss, James Dolan, Mark Cuban and Wyc Grousbeck, most notably) are willing to regularly pay the tax.
You want to know what a hard cap would do? It would do what every single other owner proposal would do: tamp down player salaries. That's fine, of course; if the league's franchisees are losing as much money as they say they are, then payrolls ought to be cut down. But the least the owners could do is be open about their motives. The hard cap has never been shown to improve parity, or make bad teams good, or anything. It's a tool to depress salaries, plain and simple. (TZ)
The Works Season Previews: Philadelphia 76ers + Detroit Pistons
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. First, the Sixers.
TZ: Is the new Andre Iguodala, he who helped Team USA to gold and who Doug Collins constantly describes, real?
BS: One of the main knocks on Iguodala throughout his career is that he's reluctant to be a number one option. On Team USA, Kevin Durant was options one, two, three, four, and four and a half. Thus, Iggy was freed up to play the most selfless, organic basketball of his career. It was, in a weird way, his equivalent of Durant's heroics. And just as much of an isolated fantasy world.
Last I checked, the Sixers haven't suddenly come into possession of a high-scoring wing, or two, to relegate Iguodala to the kind of ball he truly loves best. He suffers from a strange kind of bias: with his slasher's skill set and ferocious energy around the basket, Iguodala should want to pile up points for days. Ditto for his adequate, if unspectacular, three-point shooting. In the same way that the world will never quite give up on J.R. Smith, the prototypical attacking off-guard, Iguodala will always appeal to the scout in all of us, who screams "that man is a real weapon!"
Except -- as with that punk LeBron, who doesn't want to accept his heavenly mandate to be the man -- that game doesn't come naturally. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just proof that you can't judge a book by its cover. Or that, god forbid, typecasting a player can be counter-productive. For every treatise written on the importance of accommodating unconventional stars, there's a talent like Iguodala, or Lamar Odom, who needs to be closely assessed to determine his role in the supporting cast. Sometimes, this kind of player makes or breaks a team, as with Jeff Green and the Thunder.
But Iguodala will continue, through context alone, to be thrust into the role of principle scorer, especially with Jrue Holiday displacing Louis Williams from the starting line-up. Iguodala will continue to be a battleground, where expectations and scouting cliches clash with the essential being discovered during this year's Worlds. Maybe the former is myopic, but the latter is too pure, too impractical, for most NBA teams to use a player of Iguodala's capabilities for. While there's such a thing as compromise, you have to wonder if this roster doesn't tug too hard in the wrong direction.
TZ: Collins famously burns out his players. Who are most at risk on the Sixers?
BS: To paraphrase Scarface, you can't kill them if they're already dead. The lone exception to this is livewire combo guard Louis Williams, whose primary concern is adjusting to life off the bench after briefly capturing the starter's spot last season.
TZ: Jrue Holiday is still magnificently untested and raw, but this team has real intentions of making the playoffs. Can they do it with Holiday, or will Lou Williams or someone else entirely have to be at the head of the monster?
BS: I noticed that you mercifully left out Collins' statement the Holiday will be a top-five point guard in this league, which is patently ridiculous. Not because Holiday isn't oozing potential, after looking like a ho-hum pick on draft night. On numbers alone, he's up against stalwarts Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, and Rajon Rondo, plus newer contenders like Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and John Wall -- and that's not even counting borderline PGs like Tyreke Evans, or those I have a personal vendetta against, like Derrick Rose. He is, however, plenty legit, as he showed toward the end of the season -- enough so that making him the starter, while it started as planning for the future, ended up looking like it should have happened a long time ago.
Williams, though, has turned a corner himself, and when healthy, is capable of filling in at either guard spot (or at least enough of each). Unless he somehow melts down as a result of Holiday starting, having him to spell/complement Holiday, Iguodala, or Evan Turner. It should work out great for everyone. If they could just administer electro-shock to Spencer Hawes before each game, get Marreese Speights to rebound, trade Thaddeus Young to someone who cares, and lose everyone else at the airport, this team has a chance to make some real noise! Oh yeah, take the Kapono.
And now, the Pistons.
BS: Huh? T-Mac is on the Pistons? How is that going to work out, and this is a more noble demise than begging a contender to take him? The Heat wouldn't take him ... yet ... but he could have waited.
TZ: The only thing sadder, in my mind, than ring-chasing is ring-chasing from a couch. If ring-chasing speaks to an unflattering human need for victory in order to reinforce self-worth, then ring-chasing from a couch mixes in straight-up laziness. As such, McGrady is noble for not only ignoring the potential of competing for a title (sorry, Detroit), but is jumping right in from the start. All evidence presented shows that T-Mac really wants to prove he's still got it, not that he's looking for a ring to justify his career.
That might be a different flavor of melancholy, of course; few stars go from legit MVP candidate to this in three years' time, all without a shred of self-awareness. Unless you're under the impression McGrady desperately wanted to attach himself to a title contender but couldn't, and couldn't take the embarrassment of executing the ring-chasing from the couch method. Maybe we're on the wrong path entirely, and T-Mac just likes what he saw from Jonas Jerebko, and wants to impart as much knowledge as possible on the Swede.
BS: That Swedish dude might be the best thing going for Detroit. What's his ceiling, and does he prove that Dumars isn't washed-up yet?
TZ: It's going to take a lot more than Jerebko to prove Dumars hasn't lost it. Not that Jerebko wasn't a real find, and a solid prospect. But no one has ever doubted Dumars' ability to uncover blue-chip workman players, not even as the franchise fell apart the last few seasons.
The issue with Jerebko is whether he'll be able to defend small forwards regularly or not. I know we're post-tweener here at The Works, but the new positionality has created new tweener standards, and Jerebko fits those. He just simply doesn't seem to have the size (or rebounding prowess) to be the power forward rock Greg Monroe will eventually need, and the Swede doesn't have enough of a perimeter game to make the Pistons offense run efficiently. Maybe the perimeter game will develop; if so, this energetic and strong-willed player will, at the very least, become a huge fan favorite in Detroit, if he isn't already one.
BS: Speaking of Dumars, where does Stuckey rank in the class of 2007 now? He went from steal to disappointment; has that ever happened before?
TZ: After his rookie season, you could get away with putting Stuckey in the top-five among '07 draftees. Now? He's not in the top 10. I'd put Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Carl Landry, Marc Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Thaddeus Young, Jared Dudley and Glen Davis over Stuckey for sure, and I think Greg Oden, despite the injuries, gets up that list, and Spencer Hawes, Ramon Sessions, Wilson Chandler, Yi Jianlian and Mike Conley likely belong in the discussion. Like you said: he was once a steal, and now he's an afterthought.
The most mystifying thing about Stuckey hasn't been his trouble as a lead guard playmaker. It was clear coming into the league that that part of his game would either be learned, or non-existent. It's become learned -- he's not a bad playmaker, and to be honest he hasn't had the best finishers to work with. He's fine as a point guard.
But he's had amazing trouble as a scorer. This kid averaged 24 points in 33 minutes a game in college. Of course, that college was Eastern Washington, in the Big Sky Conference. And it just didn't translate well at all. His jumper is completely suspect. So is that of Tyreke Evans, another quasi-PG, right? The difference: Evans, as a 20-year-old rookie, hit 60 percent of his attempts at the rim. Stuckey, as a 23-year-old in his third season, hit 50 percent. If Stuckey can't get better at finishing in the paint, he needs to develop his jumper. If he can't do either, the Pistons might need to move in another direction.
I hear Mike Conley will available next summer.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.