Choosing Sides: NBA Finals Edition

For the first time in eight years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have made the NBA Finals. As a Heat fan who got to watch the greatest player, perhaps ever, in his prime bring my team to the NBA Finals four years in a row, it’s weird to see Lebron leading the Cavs.  And now I’m faced with the question of whether to root for him or not.

Despite my obsessive reading of FiveThirtyEight and stat blogs, I (and most everyone) experience sports through emotional narratives that have nothing to do with precise advanced sports metrics.  And thus, sports organizations are constantly in tension between producing great athletic prowess and producing great entertainment. On one extreme you might have specific individual Olympic events that are a bit dull, but have essentially no distractions. The events are almost only pure athleticism. But no one really watches that. On the other hand, you have reality TV shows like American Ninja Warrior, where the athletes train like it’s a sport, but ultimately TV producers decide what the rules are, and those rules are arbitrary, designed to increase viewership, not necessarily find the best competition.

Both of these pieces, athletic prowess (i.e. winning competitions) and narratives (i.e. branding), come together to form the basis for monetary success, and ultimately financial earnings guide more of the decision making for sports that anything else.

Obviously, you can’t really use athletic success to determine who you will root for, since each athletic event itself will determine which team/individual is superior.  So the question is, what narrative do I want to buy into? Most people just buy into the narrative of their local sports team, but I have no preexisting feelings about the Warriors or the Cavs. Lebron’s narrative of returning home to Cleveland is pretty compelling, but so is the narrative that he left my team, so I have plenty of reason to root against him.  But while interesting, none of these really affect me personally or my enjoyment of the game.  And as we’ve said earlier, narratives are an important part of being financially successful.  Sure it’s great Lebron has returned home (sort of, if Akron==Cleveland), but it’s clear that he also went home because it would help him sell oodles of shoes.  So ultimately, I’m left with a series I couldn’t care much about with no real storyline. Enter Dan Gilbert.

The narrative against Dan Gilbert has by far the most impact, not just on me, but on the entire NBA.  This column by J. A. Adande has summed up my feelings about Gilbert for most of this year:

[Gilbert] called LeBron’s departure to the Miami Heat a “cowardly betrayal” and said LeBron was a bad example for the children of Cleveland. This wasn’t just a critique of the televised announcement; it was a tantrum about the very premise of free agency, as if anything other than a career-long commitment to the team that drafted a player constituted treason.

And let’s not forget Dan Gilbert’s masterpiece was written in Comic Sans.  But hey! That was almost five years ago now, you might say.  Everyone is entitled to lose their mind every once and a while.  In fact, Adande even had a follow-up column a week after the one quoted here where he completely reversed his position; Adande applauded Lebron for forgiving Gilbert when he couldn’t.  So, you might say this is just another petty narrative that has as much basis as all the other concocted ones I’ve mentioned before! I mean, it’s not like Dan Gilbert did any permanent damage.

A year later, Gilbert was among the group of owners holding to the hard line when the NBA locked out its players, willing to sacrifice games to institute a new collective bargaining agreement that limited player earnings and hampered the formation of superteams.

This is back to Adande’s first column. Dan Gilbert didn’t just throw a fit that could be forgiven; he held a grudge for a year and actively sabotaged the NBA’s payment structure, helping to ensure that players would be paid less, and that athletic power could not be concentrated in the league.  We’re not just talking about narratives anymore, we’re talking about sabotaging the actual athletics part of the sports equation.  Successful teams in the NBA from now on will have to be younger, less top-heavy, and ultimately less good in order to make it to the Finals.  Teams who want to sign superstars will be relegated to having crappy supporting casts. Dan Gilbert is in fact the single person most responsible for team this:

knicks 2015 season

With this salary cap structure, a team who wants a superstar will be guaranteed to be mediocre. If that star goes down, there’s really nothing you can do.  At a time when the NBA should be positioning itself to grow and attract top talent, Dan Gilbert decided that he should attack player pay because he was upset one of his players left. He’s shortsighted and harmful. And it won’t work out well for Cleveland either:

cleveland cavs payroll 2015

The Cavs’ 2016 roster is already significantly more expensive with half the players.

So I understand forgiveness, and I understand why Lebron went back; he could have tried to shame Dan Gilbert for his bad behavior, but the cost to him would have been too high. Lebron will be a legend if he wins this championship, and his brand is already huge. NBA contract negotiations just aren’t that important to him in the big picture. But to me, and to us fans, it does matter. And we’re not going to make multimillions of dollars for going back to Cleveland, we’re just going to get crappier basketball. And yes, Dan Gilbert has done a lot for the city of Cleveland, rebuilding downtown, etc. But I’m not advocating his exile, I’m opposing his sports team.

So let’s go Warriors!