It was easy to hate LeBron James after “The Decision” — almost as easy as it was to root for him as he ripped apart our expectations of time and space with the Cavs. The exodus to South Beach may have come as a shock, but the end result was wonderfully uncomplicated: LeBron, having spent all summer entertaining offers, decided to form a super-team with his best friends. “The Decision” was the utmost in poorly choreographed arrogance; the decision itself, either cowardice or a new kind of self-determination. Polarizing, to be sure, but easy to grasp.
Contrast this with the Carmelo Anthony saga, and the Deron Willliams trade that was its prickly coda. The Knicks and Melo had been sniffing around each other since the summer; Joey Litman has dubbed this “Team Toast,” and if you believe the footage from Melo and LaLa’s VH1 reality show, Chris Paul is fated to join them (or so the prophecy foretold). In any other season, Anthony would have bided his time until free agency, when he would join the team of his choice. The Nuggets would have been left trying to wring what little value they could out of a foregone conclusion.
The expiring CBA turned everything upside down, giving Denver — the only team that could sign Melo to a lucrative extension — all the leverage. These were initial grounds for a messy, serpentine tale of business intrigue that has sucked up much of the public’s attention this NBA season. Business has never taken over the sports conversation quite this much before, which we’re wary of as fans — but as off-the-court sports narratives go, this was a pretty compelling one.
Like no other sport, pro basketball has been overrun by business. Cap figures, contract lengths, and the structure of deals are the lingua franca of the game, as much a part of the mainstream conversation as points and rebounds. Teams worry endlessly about losing their best players, or count the days until they can assemble their very own Heat-like super-team. This means, though, that fans simply cannot make sense of their teams; for anyone out to follow the entire league, these financial byways are nearly as important as which team is headed for the playoffs.
This Carmelo Anthony business marks a turning point. Business has never quite been worth all the attention like this; nor has it threatened to so thoroughly usurp the game itself. If sports are storytelling, we can’t help but gravitate toward the most sophisticated, and rewarding, narratives. This season, it hasn’t been the aftermath of LeBron’s decision, or Blake Griffin jumping over cars. LeBron James gave us a kids’ story. The sprawling “soap opera” (as the media, fawningly and sarcastically, describes it) has more in common with magical realism, or at least the most hallucinogenic periods of Dallas. At least think Balzac or Flaubert when you hear the pat “Melo-drama,” which hopefully will be said never again. The ceaseless rumors, calculations, and impositions on good, old-fashioned sports fans simply could not compete with the twists, characters, and psychological power present in the front office.
Certainly, it’s a slippery slope. You don’t have to wade in too deep to appreciate James Dolan, epic buffoon yet again; Mikhail Prokhorov, cold-blooded strategist who is nevertheless desperate for validation; Donnie Walsh, the lifelong basketball man pushed out to the margins; Isiah Thomas, trickster and bad seed whose spirit haunts even as all swear he’s in exile; Williams, put in an impossible position and forced to pay the price for it; Chauncey Billups, the aging champion who, yet again, has to prove to the world that he’s not dead yet, worth more than his expiring cap figure.
The bind, then, is how deep you want to go. For instance, Williams may have been sent to hang out in the NBA’s gulag for now. But my Twitter feed told me, almost reflexively, that he might not re-sign, meaning Prokhorov may, long-term, come out empty-handed. Unless, of course, the Nets are in Brooklyn by then, and can attract another prime-time player. The Knicks, too, may have all along preferred to lock up Melo, rather than take a chance with Williams’s uncertain future. In theory, they may yet be able to pick up Billups’s massive option for 2011-12, thus giving them ample room to maneuver in a bid to land Chris Paul, who currently plays for a team that belongs to the NBA itself … it’s the gift that keeps on giving, but at what price?
It’s worth pausing here for a moment of silence, or thick description, in honor of what got us all into basketball to begin with. When James lets himself go, he’s Blake Griffin with a change of pajamas. Before Carmelo Anthony was the newest Knick Legend, and the latest building block in Dolan’s Playhouse, he was simply the most revered pure scorer in the NBA. His true value is always a contentious topic (apparently, not enough folks listen to Nate Silver and Kevin Pelton), but no wing does as much with as few well-timed fakes and jabs as Melo.
Deron Williams — a blind spot for the Knicks, either a pawn or a viable target; the superstar under contract for one and a half seasons, in his prime, traded well ahead of schedule; the masterstroke that instantly restored Prokhorov’s manhood to its rightful honor; and somehow both victim and perpetrator of Jerry Sloan’s resignation — is almost unmatched as a playmaker and scorer. Oh, and that Chris Paul? His eternal tormentor, and quite possibly the best point guard in NBA history.
On their first night together, with no offense in place, the Knicks, with Billups at his best, ate up the Bucks’ stingy defense. Kids’ stuff, to be sure, but no one said sports had to be so damn novelistic all the time.