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Throne Game Theory and The Kingdom of LeBron James

In a league focused entirely on superstars, LeBron James is king – but everyone’s gunning for him.

LeBron James

The National Basketball Association is a peculiar professional sports entity, full of inconsistencies and paradoxes. As a collective, we long for the days of old, where team-oriented basketball dominated the basketball landscape. We clamor for more teams to share the ball and make the extra pass on offensive possessions. We pretend to celebrate players that bypass the monster dunks and pass it back out to a teammate, open for the corner three-ball. The type of basketball that our parents and grandparents used to watch in their childhood (sans the three-point line).

But in a sick twist of comedic irony, when teams actually do all these things, we moan at how “boring” these teams are, how “dull” and “unexciting” these players can be. Instead, we celebrate the flashy but high-volume shooter, the ball-hog, the guy that dribbles too much and kills the tempo of a game as these players try to win games on their own. Instead of calling out these players, we celebrate them and mock the players and teams that go out of their way to play the type of basketball we think we long for, but we really don’t.

A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Throughout the 2000s, the debate was between two differing factions: The San Antonio Spurs and the Tim Duncan tribe versus the Los Angeles Lakers and the always-apologetic, over-populated, Kobe Bryant cult. The former would be celebrated for showing good, fundamental skills on the court and finding long-term success by utilizing his advanced, polished game. However, Duncan was simultaneously accused of being pedestrian and taking the game back too far into the past. Again, we think we long for the old-style of play, but we really don’t.

Meanwhile, it was Bryant, and players like Bryant, that constantly got the glory, the attention, the mindless adoration from zombie-like aficionados. Not many people will remember Kobe Bryant, the player that has led the league in field goal attempts numerous times throughout his career. They will remember Kobe Bryant, the player who scored numerous buckets. And if the numbers show inefficiencies in Bryant’s game and gets criticized for taking too many shots, the Kobe defenders will always cite that at least Bryant was not afraid to take those shots.

In the end, however, both players, with divergent styles, have found success in the NBA from individual and team standpoints. In the end, it is a beautiful team sport. When played at a high-level, all five players on a team touch the ball at least once in a particular offensive possession. Nobody displayed this type of basketball better than the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. The crisp passing, the wide-open three-point attempts, the spacing, the slashing, the ball movement, the off-the-ball movement. We weren’t watching basketball anymore; we were watching a performance of a lifetime.

SHOOTING STARS

Yet, here we are, as we enter a brand new season, we are reminded that the NBA is a players’ league. After watching the ultimate team win a title, we revert back our attention to the individual superstars. The NBA is the only team sport federation where individual, superstar players receive close to 100 percent of the credit for the team’s success and 100 percent of the blame for its failure. There are no hyper-specialized positions like in other professional sports. An NBA star can’t blame poor special teams’ play for a loss. They can’t cite bad penalties from an undisciplined checking line or blame an inconsistent goaltender. They can’t point the finger at a bad bullpen for a team’s shortcomings.

In a galaxy of stars, it’s the superstar players that shine brightest for obvious reasons. Just like our solar system, the biggest stars are the center of attention. Each superstar player is its own sovereign state. Each superstar player has their own kingdom to defend; each superstar player has and needs trustworthy knights to defend their land and crown. Despite the emphasis of team-play, the public, from fans and writers alike, gravitate toward the individual superstar because it’s an easy storyline to follow. It’s a familiar tale that never gets old and will continue to endure for generations to come.

THRONE GAME THEORY

It is because of this mentality, this thought-process on how we view NBA teams and the star and superstar players that play for each franchise, that we have collectively crowned LeBron James the “King of Basketball” and Cleveland as the center of the basketball universe. From the moment the final horn blew, signaling the end of the the 2014 NBA Finals, the basketball realm looked towards LeBron James and continued to find links with Cleveland. The storyline of the King returning to his rightful kingdom was too good to pass up. All other players would be looking up and kneeling before his highness before they scheme ways to remove him from power; remove him from his throne. Vegas also thinks that King James is the best in the land. They have LeBron as the favorite to win the MVP after the season ends.

Adding more to the hysteria was the Cavaliers having the number one pick overall in one of the most anticipated NBA drafts in recent memory. The opportunity to have the King come home with an apprentice in waiting (Andrew Wiggins) made NBA fans giddy with joy. When James looked northbound for much needed assistance (Kevin Love) fans went even crazier as the idea of Kevin Love and LeBron James, alongside promising point guard Kyrie Irving forming a new formidable trio had fans and pundits alike proclaiming the Cleveland Cavaliers as not only Eastern Conference champions, but serious NBA Title contenders as well.

THREAT TO THE CROWN

As we get ready to enter another, highly anticipated NBA season, we will need to look at who is a serious threat to James’ basketball hegemony over everybody else in the league. Kevin Durant, which James’ proponents would suggest is only in possession of the MVP award for a short amount of time (much like Michael Jordan let Karl Malone “borrow” his MVP award in the ’96-97 season), will be out with a foot injury for quite some time. Then there are the the Kobe people who will constantly remind that as long as the 36-year-old is lacing up the sneakers, he will continue to be the main draw playing for the league’s west coast, marquee team (“Count on Kobe!”). And let’s not forget the new crop of young novices, looking to work their way up the NBA ladder, such as Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

Plus there are the army of teams that are ready to meet the challenge head-on as they look to siege LeBron and his not-so-new castle. The Chicago Bulls have been a long adversary of James’ teams before and are looking to dethrone the current darlings of basketball with a mix of gray beards and young blood. The Miami Heat will certainly not defer their dominance in the East without a fight. Additionally, the Spurs are all too eager to repeat as champions and putting up another basketball clinic as the basketball world (the ones who appreciate this brand of ball at least), clamor for an encore. And we can go on listlessly admiring the depth in the mighty Western Conference.

A new season is upon us. It will tip-off on October 28. The world will see the San Antonio Spurs celebrate their championship glory from a season ago on national television, with the Dallas Mavericks pegged as the sacrifice for the event. After the Spurs are done celebrating, immediate attention will be focused back on LeBron James and his new-look Cavaliers. James will be back in action on October 30 against the New York Knicks. Heavy is the head…

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