HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin Love. Mike Miller. Shawn Marion. And perhaps Ray Allen (at some point).
Is there anyone else?
Is there anyone else willing to follow LeBron James wherever the road leads?
Gather any number of NBA players and ask for a show of hands and I guarantee you arms will be raised in rapid fashion.
This much is clear: where LeBron goes, others will follow. Even former rivals (Marion played on the Dallas team that defeated James and the Heat in The 2011 Finals.)
Marion’s weekend decision to join the homecoming party in Cleveland is just the latest evidence that LeBron remains the pied piper of his generation. It’s in stark contrast to what has gone on and what is going on with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The Lakers’ superstar has always struggled to attract high-profile teammates willing to make sacrifices in order to play alongside a proven champion.
For two players who always find themselves grouped together in the same conversation of the all-time greats, the one glaring difference between them is the stampede of players that have run to play with one of them (LeBron) and the reluctance of so many to even consider playing with the other (Kobe).
Dwight Howard couldn’t get away from the Lakers fast enough when he was a free agent after the 2012-13 season. Fast forward to this summer and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, as well as others, were willing to wait until LeBron made up his mind between Cleveland and Miami before they decided their own free-agent futures.
It speaks to the power James wields as the world’s best player. And it’s less of an indictment of Bryant, who will no doubt go down (along with Tim Duncan) as the face of his generation, than it is affirmation of the force of nature that LeBron is on the free-agent market.
A generation gap?
It should be noted that LeBron is in the prime of his career while Kobe is clearly in the twilight of his. Still, when Kobe was in the same position atop the league food chain, his contemporaries did not flock to Los Angeles.
They are, after all, from a different generation. They are from the era where this notion of partnering up with supposed rivals wasn’t nearly as commonplace or acceptable as it has become in recent years. Close relationships between players during the offseason didn’t lead to the Big 3s and super teams that have been formed in the wake of the USA Basketball-inspired conglomerates that came to fruition in Miami (as well as in Houston, Brooklyn and now, Cleveland).
The Lakers attempted to construct a similar situation by attempting to trade for Chris Paul, a move nixed by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, in an effort to assemble a Big 3 of Kobe, Paul and Howard. Howard, of course, stuck around in a Lakers uniform for one year, leaving Kobe without the sort of superstar supporting cast that James has enjoyed the past four years.
James, Wade and Bosh, all Draft classmates, bonded upon entering the league. Their time spent working and playing together in the USA Basketball system only strengthened that bond. They got a chance to witness the power of the group dynamic again by watching Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen join forces and win a title, and compete for others, in Boston.
By the time they all became free agents in the summer of 2010, the precedent was set. Four trips to The Finals (and two titles) later, it’s clear that the group dynamic can work when administered properly.
Different players, different styles
Kobe never was much for the group approach.
Go back to his earliest moments in the league. He was hell-bent on doing it his way, even with Shaquille O’Neal already established as the alpha dog on the Lakers’ roster. Veteran teammates tolerated a young Kobe because they recognized how unbelievably talented he was. Yet Bryant butted heads with Shaq and coach Phil Jackson in an often friction-based relationship that produced championship results.
It’s easy to overlook certain things when you are winning the way the Lakers did during that era, with Kobe coming into his own and then reaching the zenith with back-to-back titles with Phil and Pau Gasol as his No. 2.
LeBron’s first steps in the league included him deferring to veteran teammates like Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas Ilgauskus when it was clear he was the most talented player on the roster.
While Kobe has always been perceived as the ultimate assassin, the closest thing we’ve seen in that mode since Michael Jordan, LeBron’s always been more of a superstar facilitator a la Magic Johnson. In those late-game situations — where Kobe always calls his own number — LeBron is much more likely to make the call for the best open shot instead.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of philosophy that has always separated these two icons of the game.
LeBron’s complete understanding of the importance of the collective was in place long before he walked across the stage on Draft night and shook Stern’s hand. He’s always been ahead of his time, on and off the floor. His latest game-changing move, returning to Cleveland four years after a bitter and public break up, was facilitated by the collaborative LeBron established with his team (LRMR Management Co.) years ago.
That decision is a testament to LeBron’s confidence and belief in himself from an early age that he would be just as comfortable doing things his way. And it’s very much the same as Kobe’s confidence and belief in himself before James ever was an NBA player.
Both of their approaches have produced championship results.
So there is no right or wrong way to navigate this process.
Maybe it’s just the evolution of things, from one era to the next, from one face of a generation to the next.