No More Scheme Teams

Whenever someone says, "I'm old school," especially in sports, you can be reasonably confident that person is crabby and complaining about a real or imagined problem whose ship has sailed. In fact, when someone says, "I'm old school," the first two words provide the key information.

So this is a good time for me to begin an article by telling you that I'm old school. I hate that Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors. I like the Warriors, and I have no problem with K.D., and I'd be surprised if the Dubs don't win multiple championships with Durant.

But what happened to self-improvement? What happened to working harder in the offseason, improving team chemistry, dealing with setbacks by getting better? What happened to understanding that championships are special? They're not supposed to be routine.

Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls in the 1984-85 season. Over his first five years in Chicago, the Bulls were a .500 team. Literally: they went 205-205. Rather than bolting Chicago for a better team, Jordan made himself better and improved as a team player, and his drive for greatness propelled the Bulls to six NBA titles. Jordan was 28 when he won his first championship, older than Durant is now. Good things seldom come easy, and you have to be incredibly spoiled to expect immediate success or easy championships. Players who expect to win every year don't understand sports.

But that's the model in today's NBA. The trend-setter was LeBron James, who left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, where he could play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, as much as I loved home, I knew I couldn't do it by myself against [the Celtics]." What determination! What a warrior's spirit! What unparalleled drive to succeed ... by going somewhere it's easier to succeed. Until The Decision, the goal was to lift your teammates to victory, not to go find a team that can win. That's the cheap, easy way to a title. Winning championships is seen as the ultimate achievement because it means a player helped his team, played at a high level and made the guys around him better. We don't celebrate a guy just for being in the right place at the right time. Or at least, we didn't used to.

Jordan himself criticized LeBron for finding his way to a championship team instead of working towards it: "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team' ... I was trying to beat those guys." Jordan rose in the face of adversity, while LeBron went with, "If you can't beat them, join them." This week, Bird echoed his former rival, implicitly criticizing Durant: "I couldn't imagine going to the Lakers and playing with Magic Johnson. I'd rather try to beat him. I could never imagine myself going and joining another team with great players."

That is now the NBA's status quo. When the Heat started to fade, LeBron returned to Cleveland, just in time to join Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Now Durant is leaving Oklahoma City for the greener pastures of Oakland. The Thunder reached the Western Conference Finals, but obviously conference finals aren't good enough. Second place is just the first loser, right? Durant is 27. Stephen Curry is 28. They've got plenty of time to collect rings. But LeBron has fostered the idea that if you don't win every year, something's wrong.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with wanting to win. There's something wrong with not caring whether you win. But this is the wrong way. It's a gross misinterpretation of a once positive idea. I'm all for celebrating team accomplishments, but today's stars put themselves before the team: "I'm outta here, losers."

What bothers me most is how unsportsmanlike these deals are. We admire winners because they elevate their teams to greatness, not because they migrate towards the greatness of others. James had to deal with Michael Jordan comparisons from the time he was in high school, and that was never fair. But never did LeBron fall as far short of Jordan as when he signed with the Heat. LeBron didn't overcome adversity; he avoided it. Now Durant is doing the same thing. To a lesser extent, so are the Warriors.

Joining a team that's already good is the coward's path to a championship. I think Allen Iverson is one of the most overrated players in the history of sports, but he's still celebrated for dragging a pretty terrible 76ers team, kicking and screaming, to the NBA Finals. That titanic effort, with virtually no support from his teammates, made Iverson a hero. Kevin Durant did have support from his teammates. Russell Westbrook has won back-to-back All-Star Game MVPs, he was first-team All-NBA in 2016, and he's younger than Durant. But he's not Steph Curry, so adios.

This is bad for the game. This pursuit of the right team threatens to a create a league of haves and have-nots, with no one in between. All the biggest stars will play on four or five teams, and no one else will have any real talent for longer than it takes a rookie contract to expire. Oh, the great teams will shift around. Someone will make a few good draft choices around the right time, hang onto some second-level stars, and they'll become part of the great game, attracting superstars looking for a new team. Other teams, like the Heat, will fall apart as their stars age or jump ship.

That model is bad for the league; 90% of the games will be meaningless. It will turn off old-school fans who value loyalty, who find constant team-switching off-putting and hard to keep track of. It hinders fans' connection to the biggest stars, who don't stay in town for more than a few years, and it hinders fans' connection to their teams; most young fans now follow their favorite player rather than a specific team. It also destroys dynasties, since players like LeBron move to a new contender as soon as the old one fades at all. Two years ago, I referred to the Decision-era Heat as "a crude, dishonestly engineered might-have-been dynasty that burned bright for a few seasons, but never built anything." Other than the Spurs, today's teams don't build anything. The league's legs are being sawed out from under it.

This problem is not unique to Kevin Durant. I don't blame him for wanting to join the Warriors, and I don't blame Golden State for wanting him. But neither player nor team should have panicked after falling short of a title this year, and the NBA's trend toward scheme teams, squads orchestrated to win a championship, arranged to chase rings, is really bad for basketball. It reflects poorly on the players. It prevents fans from building relationships, with players who leave town and with teams that are constantly changing. And it makes championships from a recipe instead of letting them occur naturally. To me, it's not even sports any more. But then, I'm old school.

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