What’s on the line? Another look at legacy.

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Every year, in every walk of life, people start careers and retire, work hard or quit and succeed or fail. From the beginning of an endeavor until the very end, everything we do contributes toward our reputation.

If you’re an actor, every role you take gets added to your IMDB page. For better or worse, if your name’s on it, it’s there forever. Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time, with roles in Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, Goodfellas and the Untouchables (among many others), but even De Niro has a few things on his resume he’d probably sooner forget. He’s great, but I don’t know if Dirty Grandpa and Meet the Fockers are going to be ones he remembers fondly on his death-bed. The good news for De Niro is that we tend to forgive actors for the terrible projects they’re a part of. When we look back at careers, we don’t care about the awful movies or shows, we just look at the things we love.

Fockers? What Fockers?

Like actors, athletes are judged based on what they produce throughout their careers. Unlike actors, we don’t forgive and forget  athletic failures quite as quickly and easily. We look at individual legacies in every sport, but with the exception of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, nobody is judged nearly as harshly as an NBA player. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley combined for 60,685 points and played significant roles on playoff teams throughout their careers, but they’re the first two players mentioned when lists of players without championships are put together.  Despite all the highlights and dominance, all we remember is Karl Malone clanking free throws against the Bulls and Charles Barkley’s forlorn expression as Jordan celebrated another title. With the end of Kobe Bryant’s career and the dwindling lights of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, legacy has been at the forefront of this whole season, and the playoffs are no exception. Every players’ reputation is going to be altered forever, but there are a few guys or teams who have more at stake than the rest.

Golden State Warriors:

This entire Warriors’ season was a gigantic case study on how much legacy matters to players and coaches. As the year went on, and Golden State piled up wins, the narrative never changed: should they pursue the Bulls’ record of 72 wins or rest up and focus on the title. As the season wound down and things tightened up, Steve Kerr put the decision entirely on his players. If Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson wanted to go for it, then they’d push forward full steam ahead. Without batting an eye, the Dubs put the hammer down and destroyed the Spurs and Grizzlies to break the Bulls record and vault into the record books. All the regular season numbers are great, but as Ron Harper famously said during the ’96 Bulls season “72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring”. When you break all time records, it becomes essential to not just win the title, but to do so with style. That Chicago Bulls team won more games than anyone in history, but they dropped back-to-back games in the Finals against the Sonics, putting just enough of a dent in their armor to make the argument for other teams as the greatest of all time.

This years’ Warriors team looked like they were in danger of a similar fate when Steph Curry slipped on a puddle of sweat and sprained his MCL against the Rockets in Round 1. When it was announced that he would miss “about two weeks”, there was consternation about a potential match-up with the Clippers in Round 2. Fortunately for Golden State and sadly for Los Angeles, both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down with injuries, and rather than a heavyweight battle with the Clippers, Golden State has another walk-through of a series against the overachieving Portland Trailblazers. With the worry of losing the series gone, Golden State can focus on getting everyone healthy and then gearing up for a Western Finals bloodbath against San Antonio or OKC.

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Golden State’s swagger game is strong.

The things Steph Curry does on offense are beyond anything we’ve ever seen; there’s no rational thought I’ve ever had that told me a player could shoot as often and as efficiently from three-point territory as Curry has. His presence changes the entire geometry of an opposing defense and puts opponents into immediate and constant “fight or flight” mode. Science has shown that existing in a constant state of adrenal overload like that will eventually break you down. To put it bluntly, Curry can miss every shot he takes, but his presence breaks the other teams’ brains.  Two games into the Blazers series, the Dubs have shown a renewed sense of defensive intensity and dedication to their game plan. They weren’t exactly lazy with Curry on the floor, but when you lose your leader, everyone has to step up to fill the void. Now, instead of derailing their run to the title, Curry’s injury shows the depth of the team and their ability to hit another gear and it adds to their legacy. It writes a new chapter in the story of this team that they’re succeeding to this level without the MVP of the league. Curry’s injury took away any chance of sweeping the playoffs, but history is still within their grasp; if they complete the sweep of Portland, run through a historically great Spurs team and then knock off LeBron in the Finals, they’ll have officially locked up the title of “Greatest Team of All Time”.

Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook:

The entertainment industry has a long history of situations in which a team, band or group has multiple leading men or alpha dogs, and rarely has the situation turned out well. Even when initial success is achieved, it’s impossible to witness a scenario with multiple leading men and not see the eventual collapse. The Beatles made it for a decade with two true leading men in Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but the constant bickering over band leadership and acknowledgement eventually short circuited the greatest band of all time. The greatest thing that ever happened to the legacy of Nirvana was the passing of Kurt Cobain. Knowing what we do now about Dave Grohl, there’s no way that the egos of Cobain and Grohl would’ve been pushed aside for long. We would’ve been subjected to a messy breakup and some awful solo albums from all the members. The sport where this is most prevalent is of course the NBA. With rosters composed of only 12-15 players, the personalities and egos become magnified as guys fly or ride together for thousands of miles over an 82 game season. Every team has room for one alpha dog, and like a band, a team with multiple leading men may succeed for a short time, but they’ll never completely reach their potential.

If we run down the greatest teams of all time, we find (generally) one superstar and then an additional star or two that were willing to “lower” themselves to second tier status. The old Celtics succeeded because Bill Russell had zero ego beyond his pride in winning. The 80’s Lakers and Celtics had dominant stars in Magic and Bird, but their success was dependent on the willingness of guys like Worthy and Jabaar in L.A. and McHale and Parrish in Boston to take a backseat. Michael Jordan was THE MAN, but it took Scottie Pippen’s eagerness to succeed as a second banana to win 6 titles. On the flip side, the 2000’s Lakers should have dominated for a full decade, but thanks to the overwhelming egos of Shaq and Kobe, they “only” won 3 titles before going their separate ways.

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Brothers ’til the end?

The most fascinating duo in the league is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. While the two players seem to be on great terms on a personal level, there’s always been some underlying tension when it comes to who “The Guy” is. Both players have suffered major injuries at points in their careers, and we’ve watched as the other player was unleashed for that period of time. When Durant was out, Westbrook went on a historic ‘triple-double’ run last season, but the Thunder missed the playoffs. With Westbrook on the shelf, Durant upped his scoring to ridiculous levels, but he clearly still needed his running mate to get stuff done. With both players rapidly approaching free agent decisions, it’s becoming more apparent that they both need each other to succeed, but are also individually hampered by the others’ presence. Durant can’t reach his individual potential without the ball in his hands at all times, but the Thunder have no chance of winning a title if Westbrook gets reduced to a jump shooting role. The Thunder have yet to completely find that delicate balance, and are up against a juggernaut in San Antonio right now. They showed some serious fight in Game Two, but they have to somehow figure the balance out if they want to get any further as a team or franchise. OKC is at a fork in the road with their superstars: either they figure it out and can go down as a historically great duo, or they continue to take turns carrying the team and become this generations’ Elgin Baylor and Jerry West- two great players who just didn’t click enough to get the ultimate job done.

LeBron James:

I touched on this in my playoff preview, but there is nobody in the league with more on the line than LeBron James. Thanks to his own decisions (no pun intended), James has forever linked his reputation to his ability to bring a title to the city of Cleveland. If you look at the timeline since he came back to his “hometown” you can see the pressure adding up with each move. First, we had the Sports Illustrated letter announcing his intent to come back to Cleveland. He talked about why he left and why he was coming back, but most telling, he used the phrase “What’s most important to me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio”. By putting that phrase in there, James said it all. “Nothing else I do matters, if I don’t win a title with the Cavs, my career is a failure.” 

Immediately after he came back, the Cavs shipped Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love and as the season went along, they added veterans J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. This offseason, they resigned Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love to  massive deals and locked themselves into salary cap hell for the time being. After a sluggish, albeit winning, start to this season, the decision was made to replace David Blatt with LeBron favorite Tyronne Lue.  Ownership has denied it at every turn, but there’s little doubt that Lebron’s fingerprints were all over those moves. It’s not a new thing for superstars to have a big say in personnel moves; Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan both pushed players and coaches out of town throughout their careers, but this was the first example in the modern world. Everyone has some level of access to what’s going on, and more importantly, everyone has a platform to express how they feel about these moves, so it all gets magnified on a global scale. It’s impossible to judge all the transactions until the season plays out, but  by effectively choosing his teammates and coach, LeBron put another layer of expectations on himself. 

All season, the story was “LeBron doesn’t trust his teammates. Cleveland will win the East, but they’ve got no chance against the Spurs or Warriors”, and I bought in completely to that idea up until Game Two against the Hawks. After a sluggish finish to their Game One victory, Cleveland came out in full “F You” mode on their way to a 36 point halftime lead, a 30 point win and an NBA record 25 made three pointers for the game. So far in this years’ playoffs, both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are scoring more, committing more on defense and showing more positive body language than at any other point in their Cleveland tenure. As the leader of the team, all the responsibility for this change falls on LeBron. He’s always been more of a Magic than Michael type, but it felt forced with his current running mates. Watching the ball flow from spot to spot and seeing Cleveland decimate the leagues’ second best defense like this makes that feeling seem silly. It’s easy to feel positive after a blowout victory, but it wasn’t the final score that changed my mind. It was the comfort level this team finally displayed after 2 years of being together. Lebron showed in Miami that he can come through in big spots to win titles and showed in the Finals last year that he’s okay with shouldering the load, but he wants more than that. James wants to be the greatest of all time, and in order to do that, he has to show that he can lead this group to the mountain top. It would be completely unfair if we remembered LeBron solely for his inability to win in Cleveland, but when you claim a place as your own, and shoulder the tortured past of an entire city, that’s what you’re signing up for. You got what you wanted, LeBron, now show us what you’ve got.

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It’s on you, LeBron.

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