The NBA is defined by its best players, a galaxy where the stars are more important than the planets. Which is why this year’s NBA Finals is so damn juicy, despite last night’s easy Warriors victory. Is Steph Curry the world’s best player? Or is it LeBron? Well, we get to see the two titans battle for the next two weeks to help decide the argument.
But aren’t we taught from an early age that it’s not about you, it’s about the collective success? How many times are we told by Little League coaches there’s no “I” in “team?” And it’s flawed logic to simply rank the best player by their team’s successes, their total hand jewelry. Robert Horry has seven rings in his man cave, while Karl Malone and Elgin Baylor were shut out. No one would argue Big Shot Bob is a better player, but we will absolutely use total rings to define whether LeBron’s or Peyton Manning’s careers were “good enough.” Our sports society has two easily identifiable traits: We want stars, and we count rings. That’s just the way it goes.
It’s helpful the NBA and David Stern were gift-wrapped arguably the greatest individual rivalry in any sport ever at the exact moment of nadir for the NBA. In 1979, the league was in the tank. Attendance was sparse, there was a cloud of cocaine use hanging over it like the cigar smoke at the Boston Garden, and championships by the Blazers, Bucks, Sonics and Bullets didn’t pull in the average fan. Finals games were shown on tape delay. Eighteen of the 22 teams lost money. The Dallas Mavericks expansion fee was a paltry $12.5 Million (or approximately what Rudy Gay made this year from the Kings).
But Magic and Larry were stamped with massive national marketing power as soon as they stepped off the floor of their epic National Championship game that spring. Their location helped. They were drafted not by the Pacers and Clippers, but instead the two most legendary franchises in the NBA. And Magic and Larry weren’t saddled with the band of misfits that LeBron’s early Cavs teams were or Allen Iverson’s meek Sixers teams. Magic joined a franchise with one of the greatest players of all-time already on it in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Celtics would draft two Hall of Famers, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale, the next year.
This bounty of luck was almost too good to be true, seemingly scripted by the NBA and television execs, thus Magic and Larry (black vs. white, west coast vs. east coast, city vs. country, glitz vs. old school) created a new American sports paradigm. It became a disappointment when the two most identifiable players didn’t match up in the Finals. The league altered its home court format with the anticipation of annual L.A. to Boston flights. Move aside Ralph Sampson. Get out of the way Moses Malone. We want Bird and Magic.
And this is still the lens we view it through. Undoubtedly there is a chicken and egg dynamic as well. The best players are often on the best teams because they elevate their squads. Horry couldn’t carry a team on his back to a championship. Tim Duncan could. The stars often make their teams great. But we tend to oversimplify this.
Did Dirk Nowitzki not do enough for the 15 years of his career, then suddenly prove how great he was upon winning his first title in ’11? Or was he actually not doing nearly much, but had a far superior supporting cast, and caught the right Finals matchup in a Heat team that had not yet coalesced? Clyde Drexler finally nabbed his elusive championship ring on the ’95 Rockets, but he played a far greater role on his two Blazers teams that fell short in the Finals. Did the Glide’s title elevate his resume, or would he have been seen the same way had he stayed in Portland his whole career?
The NBA plays this more perfectly than most leagues, because it understood before anyone else the effect of the singular star. It has hurt itself in over-marketing players that could not live up to the expectations (Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Penny Hardaway). But it influenced other leagues (specifically the NFL) to start branding and depending on its own stars.
Michael Jordan is widely considered the best player of all-time because he was an incredible scorer, although not the best ever. He was an elite defensive player, but not the best ever. He was a cutthroat competitor, although many have been. He didn’t win the most championships. He actually fell five short of Bill Russell. But he had all of these things, and the rings were all won in the modern NBA, after Russell’s Celtics were not seen on national television or in person. In 1960 the NBA’s average game attendance was a paltry 5,000 fans. Most fans had no way of watching nor hearing how those Finals games went. Close your eyes and wait until the paper is thrown at your front door in the morning.
We say we enjoy great teams, not just the individuals, because that’s what our age-old American culture teaches us. Team over individual. Humility, work ethic, sacrifice for the greater good. But we are torn, because that’s just not that interesting. Our brain tells us we should honor those qualities, but our adrenaline gets racing when it’s a mano a mano duel. The ’04 Pistons spilling the Shaq/Kobe Lakers is a nice story for old timers to keep pointing to. Chemistry defeated star power. But when those Pistons took on the equally team-oriented Spurs the following year, it was nearly the lowest-rated Finals in 25 years. The lowest? Those same Spurs against the “whole is better than the sum or their parts” New Jersey Nets two years earlier.
The fact is we want to believe in team, but we keep being mesmerized by the individual. No one grows up dreaming of playing left guard in the Super Bowl. Kids don’t have Fat Heads of long relievers on their wall. We watch the stars, and we want the old western movie battles. Two guys, one saloon, only one leaves. So while we will tout the team-wide Zen of the Warriors, or the necessary contributions that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love must make, it still boils down to the obvious for us Americans. LeBron vs. Steph. Steph vs. LeBron. It’s why we watch, and why we care.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.