The Man Whose Head Expanded
On Wednesday night, LeBron James took 27 shots on his way to 39 points and a Cavs loss. While it’s difficult to chastise the man for not getting the Lebronettes involved given that he had 14 assists, that sort of behavior, when it comes from a lesser player, is usually termed selfishness. Another of the league’s beacons of hope, Kevin Durant, regularly shoots a sub-40 percentage in losing causes. Once again, that performance will not go criticized. The selfish ballplayer remains one of the strongest mainstream clichés of the Association, but we refuse to accept it in regards to our superstars and brightest prospects. How can something so often reviled become a necessary characteristic of the most appreciated people in the NBA?
LeBron’s situation can be handled fairly easily. As Preordained Messiah #1, he operates within an almost-limitless field — the high volume of shots he takes, particularly on this talent-deprived edition of the Cleve, is simply a manifestation of his divinely foreseen narrative. It is quite telling that LBJ has been criticized most often for not taking shots in crunch time. For him, selfishness is a birthright, the refutation of which represents a loogie in the face of the order that has developed him since his youth. A powerful drive into traffic symbolizes the fulfillment of the prophecy, not egotistical exhibitions.
Durant presents a trickier case, but his acceptance also partially hinges on the establishment. In a way, KD’s smoothness renders all arguments against him moot; it doesn’t matter what he forces as long as the jumpers and drives remain effortless. On a deeper level, though, Durant’s shot-taking is built into the Sonics’ system. Presti’s Purge effectively handed the team over to the young star, expressing a need to see him grow into the role of savior laterally instead of vertically. On a team of Delontes and Wallies, Durant must learn how to be The Man on his own instead of by learning from a veteran. Without his selfishness, Seattle would have no culturally acceptable identity or purpose.
For a successful star-driven team, then, selfishness is in some way a prerequisite. (Nash and Duncan are the obvious counterarguments, but I’d submit that their selflessness has become so necessary to the propagation of their myths that the need to maintain those perceptions has somehow become selfish. Alas, those are stories for other times.) The alpha dog who thrives within that structure acts selfishly in that he takes the majority of the shots and gets most of the credit, but he cannot be termed as such unless he goes well beyond the parameters (in either direction) of his role. For instance, Kobe Bryant often gets called ballswine for taking many shots with few assists, even if the latter stat depends on the performances of his frequently inept (in the past, at least) teammates. Additionally, Kobe’s panoramic assertiveness is more identifiable as selfishness in the strictest definition of the term. His obsessive need to transcend history through his game – as argued on this site before, to rewrite tradition – can be seen as pompous even though he clearly respects those who came before him. The deeply personal nature of Kobe’s struggle causes it to read as much more selfish than the systematically accepted roles of LBJ and KD. However, as is the case with LeBron and Durant, the style and narrative in which Kobe – or any superstar – carries out the selfish impulse affect our willingness to accept that necessary character trait.
Lesser players function along similar lines, although they must be more strenuously pilloried for their transgressions against the system. JR Smith’s questionable shots in last year’s playoffs would not have been rejected quite so fervently if they’d come from Melo. Yet JR’s actions were damning because he failed, not because he went beyond his presumed role.
Victories, then, must play some part in the reception of the selfish player, and it is here that we turn to unsuccessful teams. The hierarchies of lottery teams are necessarily vaguer than those of contenders, but they do still exist. Teams like the Sonics – and, not so long ago, the Cavs – tailor these systems to their presumed next-wave heroes, the players who will bring clarity to these murky franchises once they ascend to higher levels of stardom.
More unlucky teams create their own very different ways of legitimizing behavior that respect the difficulties they face as perennial losers. A few years ago, Junior Dunleavy took on the role of late-game assassin for the Warriors. Scores of airballs later, I found myself upset at him for missing those potential game-winners, yet not for his chucking those shots in the first place. The team’s lackluster personnel demanded that he play a role in crunch time – the onus for that problem rested on the front office’s collective shoulders. Simultaneously selfish and limited players on terrible teams act out of necessity far more often than similar players, which necessarily mitigates the perceived obscenity of the act.
Unfortunately, that model assumes that every bad franchise functions like that directionless version of the Warriors. Most lottery teams, however dire their straits, attack with some sort of plan, even if they are often half-baked. The selfish player can easily run afoul of youth movements or shifts in strategy, as in the case of Ricky Davis in Minnesota. (The funniest thing about the Davis trade, of course, is that Minnesota got Walker back in return, but trading a roadblock for a traffic cone is still progress in the mind of an evolving team.)
If Ricky had stayed with the Wolves, though, could we really have gotten angry at him for taking lots of shots when the losses were all but guaranteed? After all, players can only work with what they’re given, and Davis would have been given a situation in which he was one of a few established players on a team grasping for positives. Furthermore, selfishness is not entirely determined by the genetic lottery – these players think highly of themselves due to years of success in church leagues, pickup games, grade school, middle school, high school, select camps, AAU tournaments, college ball, and, in the rarest of cases, the NBA. At some point, the majority of players are bound to realize that they’re no longer without peer, but that does not preclude a situation like that in Minnesota from unleashing old habits.
Any moderately successful professional athlete, no matter his stature, believes in his ability to be a worthwhile figure on any team; if he didn’t, he simply wouldn’t ever have become a member of the player’s association. On a basic level, someone has to score points on a bad team, but Ricky Davis’s compulsion to shoot goes well beyond necessity. His journey to his current status required selfishness, so it follows that, as one of the few established players on an awful team, he would enact the same personality traits that allowed him to succeed when similar lower levels of the game. Like a small-scale Kobe, Davis appears exceedingly more selfish than others on his level because he embraces the role of top dog with a bear hug instead of a weak handshake, but the baseline attribute still resides in all players.
With legitimate options in low supply, the selfish player must strive to prove his legitimacy when offered the chance to do so. Scold him for failing, if you must, but not for seizing the opportunity. The existence of that unfortunate situation is not the problem of the player; it is a sign of a lack of institutional control that forces these players into taking seemingly desperate measures. Selfishness is not an outlying characteristic, but it only becomes identifiable when the hierarchies of franchises fail the individuals they’re supposed to protect.