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Weekly Countdown: LeBron's decision could redefine greatness

The biggest impact of LeBron James' move to Miami had nothing to do with his poorly planned TV show.

Is LeBron still The Man? This was the question being asked by people around the league who accused James of running away from his responsibilities as a franchise leader. Charles Barkley said he was "disappointed" that James chose to "piggyback" onto Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Magic general manager Otis Smith mocked James for preferring a lesser role with the Heat: "I thought he was more of a competitor. The great ones usually stay in one location."

"The most explosive part of this is that a great player left to go not do it on his own -- and in his prime years. When has that ever happened?" a Western Conference GM told me. "The reason we're hearing so many people react the way they have is because they feel like the sanctity of greatness in the NBA is tarnished.

"It's like one of those movies when the baseball player lets everybody down because he isn't the hero everybody thought he was and they show a kid crying because his hero isn't what he was supposed to be. We all thought LeBron was a leader, and now it's a letdown to think we were all wrong about him."

There are two parts to this story involving James. The first involves the way he announced his decision, for which I criticized him in Sports Illustrated this week. He hurt himself badly by putting the needs of the TV show ahead of his relationships with his hometown fans. The second -- and separate -- issue involves this question of being The Man and whether he couldn't stand the pressure of being that in Cleveland. I'm not sold on the idea that he wanted to be or needs to be The Man -- at least not in the way that others wanted him to be.

Michael Jordan ruined it for everybody. The biggest impact of Jordan's success in Chicago was his creation of The Man. Before he came along, that title --The Man -- didn't exist in an admirable way. As a matter of fact, if you had someone who saw himself as The Man on your team, you probably weren't going to win the championship.

In the 43 years before Jordan's title breakthrough in 1990, only once had a player ever led the league in scoring while leading his team to the championship. The only time it happened was in 1970-71 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who at that time went by his given name of Lew Alcindor) led the NBA with 31.7 points while carrying the Milwaukee Bucks to their only title. For more than four decades it was a golden rule in the NBA that the highest-scoring players weren't winners. The Celtics lead the NBA with 17 championships, and they've proudly never had a player who led the league in scoring.

In the pre-Jordan years, an NBA player could follow one of two roads: You could be like Wilt Chamberlain, whose scoring average ranged from 33.5 points to 50.4 points over his first seven seasons, but didn't win a championship until his scoring plummeted to 24.1 points as a 30-year-old with the 76ers in 1966-67; or you could be like Bill Russell, who averaged an unimpressive 15.1 points yet led the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons.

The best players couldn't have it both ways in those days. You were either selfish or selfless, either a prolific scorer or a team player. Even Abdul-Jabbar spent much of his career hearing complaints that he was -- apart from his lone breakthrough with the Bucks -- too self-indulgent to be a dominant winner.

Then along came Jordan to ruin everything. The Bulls won six titles and he was the NBA's No. 1 scorer for every one of those championship seasons. I always thought his legacy did a lot of harm to the NBA by setting an example that his descendants would try and fail to emulate. The NBA has spent the last decade-and-a-half searching for the next Michael Jordan, and it has been a colossally unsuccessful wild goose chase. He was one of a kind, the exception to the rule, and the NBA has made a huge mistake in attempting to hold other players accountable to Jordan's standard.

The confusing example of Jordan enabled Allen Iverson to think he could be a self-absorbed scorer and a champion simultaneously. It also enabled the whole Shaq-and-Kobe fiasco over who should be The Man. It made the NBA unpopular among traditional fans, who saw a generation of young players scoring selfishly in pursuit of salary and celebrity and all the while rationalizing it because, well, wasn't that how Jordan did it?

Through no fault of his own, Jordan was viewed by an entire misguided generation of players who drew the wrong conclusion from his success. They looked up to him and decided, "Greed is good."

Then along came LeBron ...

LeBron doesn't want to be Jordan. Hasn't this been obvious from the start? When I began hearing about James as a high school underclassman in Ohio, NBA scouts were saying he could have been the No. 1 pick as a 16-year-old sophomore because he was more of a playmaker than a scorer. Of course, he had all of the gifts for scoring, but so do a lot of prodigies in high school; what set apart James was his transcendent vision as a passer whose unselfishness elevated the performances of his less-talented teammates.

Following Cleveland's 79-76 loss to the Pistons in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern finals, James was second-guessed for passing to Donyell Marshall for a three-pointer (which he missed) instead of taking the ball to the basket himself. One of the arguments held against James was that Jordan would have taken it upon himself to score at the end of the game.

But what if James has never viewed himself as the second coming? What if he never wanted to be the next Jordan?

In this week's SI, I bring up the idea that maybe James wasn't running away from his responsibilities in Cleveland. Maybe instead he went to Miami because he wants to redefine himself on terms of his own choosing. Maybe his only crime against basketball is that he wants to be Magic instead of Michael -- which is no crime at all.

Wasn't Magic The Man? Of course he was. Magic Johnson played with Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, who were both prolific Hall of Fame scorers. I never heard anyone complain that Magic was reneging on his responsibilities as a superstar because he wasn't leading the Lakers in scoring, or because he was distributing the ball to his teammates when a big shot was needed.

I remember just the opposite: Magic and Larry Bird are lauded for saving the NBA because they were passers. The NBA had been known as a me-first league of selfish scorers who pursued their own numbers ahead of team goals. Magic and Larry were saviors because they had the ability to score, but they set aside the pursuit of stats because they wanted to win more than anything. They produced entertaining and beautiful basketball while contributing to something larger than themselves, and people loved them for that.

Jordan's inimitable style was the embodiment of the greedy 1990s -- if Ayn Rand had written about basketball, she would have invented the character of Michael Jordan. But Jordan's success had the unexpected consequence of warping the view of how basketball should be played. He created the standard that all great players should be The Man, and his influence ran deep -- so deep that among those criticizing James for passing up the last shot three years ago was none other than Magic himself.

A restoration of fundamental values? If LeBron reinvents himself as a more athletic version of Magic, and if the Heat win multiple championships while he's creating plays for Wade and Bosh to finish, is James going to be criticized for his move from Cleveland to Miami? Of course not. I believe he'll be celebrated for sacrificing his scoring numbers in order to take on a role that will ultimately be seen as reviving fluid team play and improving the standards of the NBA.

For those who believe James will never overcome the indignity of his televised announcement last week, just think about how unpopular Kobe Bryant was four years ago and how popular he is today. Everything turned around for him because he won championships. The same will happen for James.

This is a country of front-runners and we value winning above all else. This Miami team is set up to win in the open floor with aggressive defense that liberates James and Wade to push the ball in transition and finish above the rim. Fans are going to love that style of play, and they're going to love seeing James play in the open floor far more often than he did for Cleveland. If the Heat respond by winning in June, James' departure to Miami will be viewed as a visionary move. He'll be lauded for reducing his own stats in order to win championships in the pursuit of beautiful team basketball -- the same standards that made heroes of Magic and Larry and Russell.

The reason James isn't getting the benefit of the doubt for his choice is because he walked out on his home region in a shameful way. He treated his own fans badly, and only time and success can separate him from that disgrace.

I was among those who didn't think James and Wade could play together, but that's because I too was locked into the idea of both players wanting to be leading stars. But if James is the passer and Wade is the finisher -- and both are sharing the ball in transition, as they surely will do -- there's no reason they shouldn't flourish together.

Talent dictates its own terms, especially put to good use. If James is winning in a big way, people will forget the means of his exit and focus on the ends -- the championships and the explosive, fast-breaking style in which they're being won. In the end, he'll be credited with steering the NBA back to its roots while holding future generations to his team-first standard.

Of course, he gets the last laugh only if he wins. He has to win. No kidding.

Do you think Tyson Chandler will fit in well with Mark Cuban's Mavericks?-- Grant, Dallas

The Mavericks are solid at center between Brendan Haywood and Chandler. But Chandler's ultimate value may be defined by his contract. He'll be ambitious to prove himself healthy and reliable by having a big year, and because his contract is expiring, he could be used in a trade at the February deadline.

The Mavs were hoping to convert Erick Dampier's non-guaranteed salary into a major acquisition this summer, and when that didn't happen they rolled over the asset by moving Dampier to Charlotte for the expiring contract of Chandler. It's not the kind of blockbuster move the Mavs were hoping to make, but it extends their options.

On what grounds did David Stern fine Dan Gilbert? Poorly representing the league? A classless letter? In all seriousness, Gilbert was dead wrong for his reaction, but couldn't LeBron James be fined on the same grounds for poorly representing the league and his classless self promotion?--James, Chicago

Boil it all down and this is what you have: James exercised his right to leave and Gilbert responded by accusing him of a "cowardly betrayal" and of quitting on the team in the playoffs. As objectionable as James' TV presentation was to a lot of people, it ultimately did more harm to himself than to anyone else. The NBA fined Gilbert because Stern doesn't want owners or executives lambasting players for exercising their rights.

Do you think we'll ever witness a free-agency show like that of LeBron in the future?--Kate, Cary, N.C.

I remember when Evel Knievel tried to jump over the Snake River Canyon in a rocket ship. It was a big deal at the time, but it ended disastrously and I figured no one would ever try to replicate it. Now I hear Robbie Knievel is seeking to do what his father failed to finish. So I'm not going to rule out anything -- including the possibility that people will look back on James' announcement in 10 or 20 years with a different perspective than many of us hold today.

Aside the LeBron-Wade-Bosh trio in Miami, what would you say has been the most biggest move this offseason?--Gary, Chicago

So far, in terms of the championship picture, it has been Miami's ability to re-sign Udonis Haslem, who turns them into more of a rugged frontcourt team capable of fighting through the postseason. Without Haslem (or another big man like him), the Heat would have a hard time competing physically in the playoffs; he gives them hope of reaching the Finals next season. James, Wade and Bosh should be complimenting him whenever possible, the same as the smart quarterbacks give credit to the offensive line.

Golden State Warriors are sold for $450 million.Peter Guber and Joe Lacob paid an NBA record for the franchise Thursday, which speaks to the potential of the Bay Area's resilient basketball market as well as confidence that the next collective bargaining agreement in 2011 (which is likely to be preceded by a lockout next summer) will install a hard-cap system or something similar that enables owners to keep a larger share of the revenues and turn a profit. I hear predictions that as many as a dozen teams could be available for sale after the next CBA makes the NBA a more attractive business -- which is another way of saying that now is a good time to buy, before it becomes a seller's market after 2011.

If I am qualified to offer one piece of advice to the new owners, it is to be sure to hold on to the Warriors' public relations staff headed by Raymond Ridder, who is as resilient and enthusiastic as the team's stubborn fan base. The PR department is the strength of that franchise.

Al Jefferson traded to Utah. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has an appreciation for low-post play as well as a need in the paint after the departure of Carlos Boozer. A knee injury and the Timberwolves' woeful record have shunted Jefferson out of view, but few big men are more proficient with their backs to the basket than Jefferson, who is only 25 and should excel in Sloan's system while moving back to power forward, his natural position. Jefferson is a strong rebounder but he is neither a prolific shot-blocker nor an excellent defender. He'll surely be an asset to a franchise that covets his traditional skills, but he probably won't enable Utah to challenge the Lakers' 7-foot front line of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Like most challengers, the Jazz will still be looking up to the champs.

Nets hire Billy King as president and GM. King inherits $14.9 million in cap space from outgoing president Rod Thorn -- one of the classiest executives the league will ever know -- and the new boss promises to be careful to hold on to it. King previously worked for the 76ers with Larry Brown, who was mercurial (to put it in the nicest way) in his evaluations of players. The star player was Iverson, around whom it was impossible to build a championship rotation, as the Nuggets, Pistons and Grizzlies would realize later. In those days, the Sixers were frenetic about trying to win immediately, even after it became obvious that winning in a big way was no longer within reach. Now King has been left a promising budget by Thorn and an owner who will ultimately spend large amounts when the time is right. In Philadelphia, his management team was constantly shuffling through players and coaches like a poor man's version of the Knicks, but this job will require more patience and better aim. He needs to work quietly toward the right opportunity and then use his cap space to strike.

Miami Heat. I assumed the Heat would have little ability to surround Wade, James and Bosh with talent, but the sign-and-trades for the latter two helped Miami wind up with Haslem, Mike Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to go with Mario Chalmers. As a result, their roster already is as impressive as that of the conference champion Celtics, who have been under reconstruction themselves. Miami needs to add at least two more role players to form a nine-man rotation -- another point guard as well as a backup swingman/small forward -- and then a few more players to fill out the roster for practice and in case of injury. But it is amazing how quickly this roster has taken shape, and how intimidating it must be to rivals.

Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant, Gasol and Ron Artest can match up with Miami's three stars, and Bynum -- should he ever achieve consistent health -- could make the difference along with Lamar Odom off the bench. Steve Blake was a wise signing and the return of Derek Fisher was a must, but the Lakers could use one more reliable contributor off the bench. They went from hoping they'd buried the Celtics to scheming anew against this unanticipated challenge from Miami.

Who is his equivalent in the NBA? It isn't the Lakers' Jerry Buss, who is the dominant owner of the last three decades but not anything like the tyrant Steinbrenner was. The Mavericks' Mark Cuban is a force of personality who is similar to Steinbrenner in terms of investing in talent and demanding accountability from his players, though Cuban has yet to turn those strengths into championships. But then Steinbrenner himself had 15 lean years in the middle of his reign when he was viewed as the reason his team couldn't win, and he made mistakes that haunted him. The death of Steinbrenner serves to point out how rare it is for an owner to make a positive influence over an extended period of time. Steinbrenner owned the Yankees for 37 years, which means a relatively young owner like Cuban -- now finishing his 10th year with Dallas -- may yet have a long way to go before we realize who he can be and the impact he can make on his league.

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