J. Edgar Who For What For?

So far we have seen the heralded Free Agent class of 2010 fail to create any real excitement outside of the talk about whether they will stay put or go elsewhere. There has been a whole lot of underachieving, disappointment, and failure. At this point the only guys with any measure of success would be Amare Stoudemire and Ray Allen, and Amare has looked awful in his current matchup, while Ray Ray’s mother has probably garnered more looks than he has.

And I don’t blame the players. Not as individuals anyways. It’s the league. And I suppose since it’s a player’s league, then you can blame the players as a group. What happened to the ability to assemble a core of truly great players who go on to allow a certain mastery of the game to be distilled right down to the role players at the end of the bench? Forget about matching up two or three All-Stars (something which in itself happens infrequently). How about allowing us to see two or three future Hall of Famers on the court together? In their prime? And then stick some more All-Stars alongside them for good measure.

OK – so maybe I was spoiled by the Celtics and Lakers and Sixers of old. But I can look at teams that followed in the wake of those golden years, and still see a good deal of depth, in terms of aspiring to that greatness that came before them, that simply isn’t matched today. Expansion and the CBA have made building a great team less likely than seeing a team hindered by bad contracts. Too much money comes to too many players before they have truly earned it. That alone changes the dynamics of how a player develops, and how a GM makes decisions. Of course the NBA is about the business as well as the game. But the way things stand, the business of basketball undermines the game itself, to the point where I think it might actually become unprofitable.

And I’m not sure that is where the attention will be focused if a lockout happens. This is a league that has become too obsessed with talented individuals, and not enough with greatness. There is a big difference. There is no lack of talent in this league. There is not enough of the intangibles, of the will to fight through difficulties, of accepting blame and growing from it. That stuff can be supplied by players that do not fit the Michael Jordan mold of “superstar” player. Just look at Rajon Rondo. The more that this guy plays in big games and faces bigger tests, the more greatness we see from a kid that never had any kind of star tag applied to him for the longest time. Now he’s a guy that mirrored a lot of what Lebron was able to do in the last series. He’s a guy that illustrates such a smart awareness of how to impact the game every second he is on the floor, whether it’s knowing where the heads of the refs are at, which teammates need to get some confidence built up, or exactly what needs to be done defensively. He personifies getting the most out of himself and his team. That’s greatness. And I suspect a lot of it came from some of the greatness that surrounds him. The Big Three’s greatest achievement might be the creation of a truly great player in Rondo.

Greatness begets greatness in ways that talent can never beget talent. The prior incarnation of the Detroit Pistons is always referred to as a team lacking a single superstar. Why are they not seen as a collection of players that overcame a certain lack of supreme talent through the greatness that they instilled in each other? If that is not the model that this league looks to, then it does so at its own peril. Finding singularly great talent has been a means of selling out arenas over the last decade or so. But greatness has not been extracted from that business formula. The game needs colliding waves of greatness, and instead relies on showcasing islands of talent while seas of mediocrity roll along those shores.

The inability of all the current free agent stars to grow greatness in this game, is more an indictment of the state of the league, than of those individual players. They’ve all been asked to be Jack Bauer, but the casts around them has more closely resembled Agent Cooper’s. And now they are supposedly looking to hook up like various Scully and Mulders. Have they had talent around them? Yes – without a doubt. But the talent has not been well-tested, entirely proven in its mettle, nor shown to be capable of rising to the greatness that could further the greatness that lies within the Lebrons and Dirks and Wades and Boshes. It’s something that needs to spread across whole teams to some extent. Maybe the pairing up that could go on with this class of free agents will allow that to happen more than it has recently. I just wonder if there will be the correct point of emphasis – to make sure some of the greatness works its way down to the eighth or ninth man of the rotation.

I suspect much will get made of who is Scully and who is Mulder in the matching that might occur – that the emphasis will be entirely misplaced on stuff that does not matter to the game as a competitive engagement. I fear that the trend of mental weakness, non-accountability, and whole teams shrinking in the face of adversity will grow more than any trend toward expanding greatness. In other words, fewer competitive games when we need to see them the most. How long are fans going to settle for the empty myth of a Jack Bauer getting the job done in an instant, before realizing that there must be a demand for a league-wide culture, requiring a real longview that aspires to games that are larger than life, far above and beyond the call of superstars to fill highlight reels? This fan is pleading for the game to be put ahead of the business side of the league. The business end of the NBA will take care of itself as long as the game is tended to: the reverse is not true, unless talent that need not prove its greatness, or even have that opportunity, is enough for us all to identify ourselves as fans of the game, instead of just fans of a bunch of various personalities that are not asked to aspire to much more than just being personalities. If a bespectacled Dwight Howard playing his own goofy version of Clark Kent while interviewing himself about his “Superman” persona is enough to make up for the heartless asses that showed up on the court wearing Magic jerseys, then I will be proven wrong.

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