Ego and the NBA: The Cost of Being “The Man”

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The Minnesota Timberwolves got two and a half seasons of Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett. They were a young team with two emerging studs that were poised to do battle with the Lakers and Spurs for the better half of the next decade. Naturally, they did not get immediate success due to their youth but Marbury and Garnett became fast friends on and off the court.

Garnett was enthusiastic and brought energy as his legendary work ethic showed with each passing day. Marbury was New York City personified, bringing an edgy, fiery presence to  Minnesota as the pair quickly came together and showed chemistry beyond their years.

Sadly, even after reaching the playoffs for the first time in team history in 1997 and returning the year after, Kevin Garnett’s historic $126 million deal and his star power in the city was too much for Marbury to bear.

“What do you say to a guy who’s 22 and doesn’t accept the fact that he’s playing with a guy who’s 10 times better than he’ll ever be?” Former Wolves All-Star Forward Tom Gugliotta said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “What’s the old expression? ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ How true. That’s what we had with Stephon. Flip (Saunders) couldn’t do anything about that.”

NBA fans know very well what happened next: Marbury forced a trade to the Nets and went on to play for three other teams over the next decade. Garnett was able to win an MVP award but the Timberwolves franchise sunk back into irrelevance. KG was able to finally win a championship in 2008 as a member of the Boston Celtics.

The same thing that cost Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett more success together cost Kobe and Shaq a few rings as well. Ego. This same premise earned the Spurs a few of their Championships and continues to reflect today in the movements and actions of stars in our league today. Let’s take a look at Ego and a few of the storylines that it has created in The Association today.

Carmelo Anthony

Out of respect to a Hall of Fame career and one of the most effortless scorers I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, I will not use the word delusional here. However, whatever image Melo has of himself is different from what the rest of us have seen on the hardwood.

Anthony participated in  78 games (78 starts) and managed 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while shooting 40.4 percent from the field.

Against the Jazz in the playoffs, he averaged 11.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 0.3 assists, while shooting below 38 percent overall and just over 21 percent from deep.

The numbers are not as big of an issue as his flat-out refusal to come off the bench or entertain thoughts of a reduced role. We all remember last year where he scoffed at the idea in the OKC Thunder press conference of coming off the bench. As of his last interview with Jemele Hill of the Undefeated, not much has changed.

I predicted the end of Carmelo Anthony’s career months ago largely due to his inability to adjust his game and his role for overall team success. Basketball IQ and knowing what you can best provide to a team factors more into player success later in their careers. Anthony, much like Allen Iverson in his later years, may miss the boat on extending his career due simply to his mentality.

The Impending Decline of the Houston Rockets

The elephant in the room in the Western Conference is the fact that virtually the entire conference has gotten better except for Houston who has taken a step back. They finally signed Clint Capela who was a huge part of their success both in the pick and roll and defensively anchoring the paint last season. The loss of Trevor Ariza in free agency doesn’t feel as bad now with the impending signing of Carmelo Anthony knowing that even behind Anthony’s much-maligned defense their 24-year-old big man will be in Houston for his prime years.

Houston wanted to maximize their championship window by offering Chris Paul a 2-year deal that the 33-year-old point guard declined. The Rockets had to then sacrifice and give Paul a contract that will pay him over the next 4 years where he will make a monster $44 million dollars in the final year of his contract at age 36. Being that the most productive 36-year-olds this season were Pau Gasol and Jamal Crawford (both averaged 10 ppg in bench roles) It is safe to say that Paul will not likely be playing up to the level of his contract by then. I will never bash a guy for going to get his money, but much like the Lakers in Kobe’s final years, Houston will struggle to build a roster if Paul’s health issues continue or his play declines as he enters his mid-30s.

The LeBron James/Kyrie Irving Breakup

When I watched the above interview it stuck out to me how many times Kyrie Irving described himself as a “man” and developing into his own as a “man” and being a professional. It was equally striking in any interview that LeBron gave where he referred to Kyrie Irving often as “kid.” A lot of people jumped on Kyrie for being similar to Marbury in that he wanted his own team and to be the biggest star in the franchise. While maybe partially true, the LeBron James umbrella can be suffocating.

While playing with one of the greatest talents the world has ever seen had to be an incredible learning experience, Kyrie Irving is a superstar in his own regard and didn’t get that respect from media and even LeBron himself in interviews. To be a star generally there has to be some sort of alpha ego and that type of energy cannot exist while being repeatedly “sonned” in the media both by the other star on your team and by media members themselves.

For what it’s worth, Kyrie looks more brilliant today because LeBron is out in Los Angeles and the Cavaliers are headed back into irrelevance as far as championship contention goes. His new team the Boston Celtics have a crop of young studs that made it to within a game of knocking off LeBron and the Cavs for their own shot at the Warriors. With Kyrie and Gordon Hayward returning, ego management in Boston can be the difference between the next Eastern Conference dynasty or another ugly breakup.

The Golden State Warriors Dynasty 

The Golden State Warriors have been able to become the greatest team ever assembled due to sacrifices made by each member of their star-studded lineup. They have a perfect (and rare) combination of superstars in their primes that move the ball efficiently and without bias combined with a mixture of young talent and battle-tested veterans off of the bench. The Warriors are the model poster for what works in today’s game. Versatility, ball movement, and defensive effort all lead to success on the court at every level of the game. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and now Cousins can all command max contracts on the open market from the majority of teams in the league. It is their decision to make the financials work that enables them to stay together and remain far and away the best team in the league.

Kevin Durant received a ton on slack for leaving OKC to head to Golden State on the heels of a blown 3-1 lead to the dubs in the Western Conference playoffs. While the merit of the move can and will be debated for years to come, the fact here is that if all he wanted to do was win games, he had to suck up his ego and go to the best place to do it. His addition to the already supremely talented Warriors put them over the top and indefinitely stretched their window as tops in the league. Surely they would have been yearly playoff contenders without him, but the addition of Durant tilts the scales in such a way that as of now the only plan for many teams is to build for the future and hope someone wants to get paid enough to leave town. Klay Thompson is a low maintenance personality and Draymond Green may just enjoy winning enough to stick around at a discount. Having a team full of guys that only care about winning and not dollar amounts makes for a tough out.


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