What if players really did "just want to win"?

NBA players often say all they care about is winning, and specifically winning a championship. They better say it, actually; NBA fans seem to find it the only acceptable perspective. But it's a huge overstatement. Let's hope it is; there'd be no league if it were true.

When people talk about caring "only" about winning, that means they don't care about who takes the shot, just that the team gets the best shot. It means not saving your energy on defense so you can expend it on offense, and sacrificing your body going for loose balls or taking (legitimate) charges. It even means things like being willing to come off the bench if that's the best way for your team to win.

In some cases -- say, if you had the misfortune of being on the Clippers between 1993 and 2010 -- it can also mean getting the hell out of there. Or, if you and your old team have parted ways, and you have several new suitors, it may mean looking at the organizations and the teammates to see where you really have the best chance to win, even if it's not the most money.

But this seems to have morphed, in some people's minds, into "do whatever it takes to collect a ring". That was never how it was supposed to work.

In the summer of 2009, a number of very good players became unrestricted free agents. These included Hakim Warrick, Drew Gooden, Jermaine O'Neal, Ty Thomas, Brendon Haywood, Mike Miller, Channing Frye, Tony Allen, Raymond Felton, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, David Lee, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. OK, maybe only the last six really mattered.

Even among that rarefied group, one really mattered: LeBron. There was a lot of talk he would leave the Cavs for the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, even though the Knicks hadn't so much as made the playoffs in six years. The maximum salary allowed to LeBron under the Collective Bargaining Agreement was already dwarfed by his endorsement income, which stood to skyrocket if he played in New York. LeBron never said any of this, but speculation ran rampant.

He hadn't announced any decision, but his potential decision was being criticized. People said he was going for the money, when all he should care about was winning a championship. That's what the great ones do, they said. Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. In the 2008-2009 season, the Cavaliers had the best record in the NBA, while the Knicks finished in last place in their division. Since the only important thing was winning a championship, the choice should be easy... right?

Instead, he confounded his critics. He got a salary most people can only dream of, but he definitely didn't go for the money; he took less than he would have received in Cleveland. Moreover, he went to a team which offered him a much, much better chance to win a championship than either the Cavs or the Knicks. He had done what his critics dared him to do: place winning a championship above all else. So why weren't they proud of him?

Maybe it's because his devotion was still less than total. I mean, he went to a team which had won 43 games the year before. In June of 2009, after Kendrick Perkins went down with a gruesome injury, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship. What if, instead of the Heat, LeBron went to the Lakers, instead? Wouldn't that have shown even more devotion to winning an NBA championship?

And, don't Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh care about winning? Maybe they all should have gone to the Lakers. They could have signed veterans' minimum contracts. That would have been a pretty good team, right? If they cared about winning a championship, shouldn't they at least have considered it?

No. No, they should not have. And when LeBron decided to sign with a team which already had two all-stars, I think people kind of started to realize that it shouldn't be "do whatever it takes to win a championship". If that were truly how LeBron, Wade, and Bosh felt, they would have gone to the Lakers, which would have completely ruined the league.

The idea that "win at all costs" has always been the best, noblest thing to do is nonsense. Plenty of players have been praised and loved, not just by their fans but by NBA fans in general, for doing the exact opposite. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have had chances to join younger superstars, but have shown zero desire to leave the Spurs. Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash were stuck on losing teams, where it reached the point that nobody could possibly have blamed them for trying to get out, but they stayed put until their teams pretty much got rid of them. And we loved them for it.

One interesting little tidbit about that: in each of these "selfless" cases of players sticking it out with their teams instead of leaving for greener pastures... they just so happened to be earning the maximum money they could realistically have earned. None of them were on hometown discounts. And nobody seemed to think there was anything ignoble about it.

So what do we really want from players? And what should we want?

I kind of think it starts with the dreaded "L" word. Yeah, I know. You're way too hard-boiled and cynical to believe in loyalty. Anyone who does must be some innocent, naive child, someone miraculously wide-eyed and blind at the same time. Except, loyalty clearly does exist in the NBA; if it's rare, that's only a reason to value it more. I often hear the near-tautology that the NBA is a business. Yes. Every business is a business. I work for a business, and so do you, probably. You don't expect any loyalty out of your employer? You wouldn't show any?

Perhaps a source of confusion is that some seem to think "loyalty" means "suicide pact". Loyalty should never be the only criterion in a decision. It's one of several factors. But it should have a weight. It should cause you to stay if all other factors are roughly equal; and if not, it should cause you to at least treat your old team with some respect. Be forthcoming with them, tell them you feel it's time to move on, and thank them. And the same for teams who decide not to re-sign a player. Of course loyalty goes both ways.

If you've decided to leave, where should you go? Basketball is a team sport; selfishness is disastrous. But you know what? That's on the court. The NBA, as wise people have told me, is a business. When a player is a free agent, he's actually supposed to be selfish. The only caveat there is that we assume that things like a good relationship with the organization, and surely winning, are things which bring personal satisfaction. So, part of being selfish is going to a team where you believe you will win. But, it's only part.

You're also supposed to want to maximize your individual abilities. And you're supposed to want to make a difference.

The former is why we weren't good with LeBron's decision (putting aside LeBron's Decision). Teaming up with Dwyane Wade would not maximize his individual abilities. That was what people saw coming, and it has occurred. I know, of course, that LeBron just won league MVP, and won an NBA championship. Talent matters, and the Miami Heat are monstrously talented. But I don't think they're anywhere near maximizing their talent. When it comes to halfcourt offense, he and Wade are in each other's way more often than not. And this year's team won at a .697 clip; LeBron's 2010 Cavs were at .805, with a 34-year-old sixth man Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the team's second best player.

LeBron won a championship with the Miami Heat in 2010; he could very well have won a championship in 2010 with any of a number of other teams, as well, if he had signed there in the summer of 2009. Imagine if he had signed with OKC, or the Spurs, or the Mavs. Or the Celtics.

As a Celtics fan, I've rooted against LeBron his whole career. I'd also have to welcome him, wildly enthusiastically, if there were a way to bring him here. He is, after all, the best player in the league. But, would I want him to sign a minimum-salary contract to be Paul Pierce's backup? I don't think so. That's just taking the fun out of things. It'd be ridiculous.

Players should be loyal, they should want good teammates, and they should want to win. And yet, they should be selfish. LeBron really wasn't selfish enough in 2009, and it's still hard for some of us to get over it.

This summer, Rashard Lewis signed on with the NBA champion Heat, for a minimum contract. It's possible he could have gotten more money elsewhere. It's definitely possible he could have gotten more minutes elsewhere. But, his career is rapidly winding down. He's probably no longer capable of playing at a high level for 25 minutes a night. Three teams have essentially dumped him in the last two years. And he's never won an NBA title. I have absolutely no problem with his decision. His old team cut him, so loyalty was not a factor. He made his choice in a correctly selfish way.

I can't say the same for Ray Allen. He didn't show loyalty to his old team. Again, loyalty doesn't mean you have to stay no matter what. If Allen wanted to leave, he could have done so in a much better way. Forget all the flirtation, the haggling over years and no-trade clauses and money, and just say you're out. You don't like playing with Rondo, or working for Danny Ainge, or whatever. You don't need an excuse. Just go.

But then, go somewhere where you can make a difference. You're a Hall of Famer who was still a starter on a team which came within a game of the NBA Finals, even though you were playing through bone spurs. You also have championship experience and a great work ethic. Don't you think there's a team out there which could potentially win a championship with you, where analysts and your teammates and you all really feel they wouldn't have gotten there without you?

It didn't even have to be a team with cap room. Danny Ainge has tried to trade you, like, 12 times. I'm sure he would have done a sign-and-trade, if you dealt with the team frankly and decently.

But, maybe Ray Allen's not that good any more. I guess other contenders weren't knocking down his door. Still, the attitude I've heard espoused, that he "just went where he had the best chance to win", and that this is somehow a positive thing, is very problematic. Yes, Miami gives him the best chance to win. It gives anybody the best chance to win. What if Deron Williams decided he really wanted to win, and he signed with Miami for the mini-midlevel? Would people defend that decision? What if Roy Hibbert decided he really wanted to win, and signed with Miami for the minimum?

It doesn't work that way, and it can't work that way. Players have to be "selfish", or the whole model falls apart. If the best twelve players in the league truly "just wanted to win", they would win, all the time, and there'd be no sport in it. During the offseason, players need to be selfish.

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