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Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Was Chicago the right option for LeBron?

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

In Game 1, LeBron James was unable to break through Chicago’s depth. He drove toward the rim, only to find thickets of limbs converging. On the other end of the court, 22-year-old Derrick Rose attacked the hoop from angles that defy geometry. It was an impressive display from an ascendant Bulls team. And if they prove strong enough to advance past the Heat, it will be natural to assume that Chicago was the correct destination way back when “South Beach” was The Decision.

But even though Chicago may have offered a better chance at a championship, Miami was the right path for LeBron’s legacy. While winning a title is crucial to that legacy, it’s also important to be recognized as the reason for winning.

Steve Mitchell/US PresswireWould teaming up with Derrick Rose been better off for LeBron James' legacy?



Had James joined Rose, it would have been a pact with a transcendent star four years his junior. That means Derrick would be well positioned to get credit when LeBron’s skills diminish.

Recency bias rewards whom we last remember as a team’s primary weapon. That’s one reason why the “Showtime” Lakers are Magic’s squad that Kareem happened to play for. Back in the early '80s, Abdul-Jabbar topped Johnson in player efficiency rating through their first four years together -- and did so while swatting shots at Dwight Howard levels. But to my memory, Abdul-Jabbar is the planted scarecrow who feebly flaps behind the wind gust of a Johnson fast break.

Now, the age gulf between Magic and Kareem is a vast 12 years. The future talent gap between say, a 27-year-old Rose and a 31-year-old James might be nonexistent, or even swing in James’ favor. But it is safe to posit that joining a younger superstar is a dangerous proposition for one’s pre-eminence on a team. And pro basketball is the sport where people form a cult of personality around the perceived “alpha dog” of a successful squad.

To bring up another L.A. example, fans wear Nike’s “Black Mamba 5 Rings” T-shirt as though Lakers titles matter only because they burnished Kobe’s credentials. We enjoy living through a singular basketball hero -- so it’s a massive boon to be “the man” among winners.

In coming to Miami, LeBron was ridiculed for joining a team already owned by another superstar. Dwyane Wade’s the incumbent, a former champion, and the oft-cited reason for why his new teammate will never be “the man.”

While this train of thought has resonance today, the tune will change. Time should dull Wade’s genius, seasons before it grazes LeBron’s talents -- Wade is a shade less than three years older. If the two are comparably efficient in the present, the taller, younger player should contrast more favorably as we drift into the horizon.

Durability is also a concern for Miami’s incumbent superstar. Wade has missed 80 more games than his small forward counterpart since they came into the league. Kevin Pelton once ran numbers on players similar to Wade, and found a lot of truncated careers. In Pelton’s Basketball Prospectus projections, Wade is forecast to get progressively worse than LeBron, starting in 2012. The Flash-ominous narrative is also augmented by this Henry Abbott piece on Wade’s possibly career-shortening running form.

You might argue that the Heat will always be “Wade’s team,” even if his greatness wanes due to age or injury. After all, he was there first. And I could countenance that belief had a preseason injury not caused so many people to rescind Wade’s top-dog status. This occurred at the first sign of weakness, so imagine what will happen when he actually weakens.

Right now it would seem, consciously or not, James made a grand bargain: He’s gone to a championship contender for which he’ll likely be remembered as the best player. But the question that may haunt his career is, “Was Chicago the right option?"

Perhaps the Bulls were his best choice for winning titles and the wrong choice for impacting our memories. For LeBron, joining with Rose would have been dangerous to his legacy in a way that joining with Wade would not have been.