While watching one of the Cleveland-Boston games in the NBA Eastern Conference finals, a game in which LeBron James of the Cavaliers scored 42 points, I was struck not by his scoring prowess or passing ability or defensive presence, but by how inorganic he looked there on the court.
It had never really occurred to me before – maybe I hadn’t been studying him closely enough – but as he went in for another massive dunk after breaking down his defender on the wing and followed that with a feathery three-pointer that dropped softly through the net, I had to sit up in the chair and say, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less organic basketball player.”
Now, this came as something of a shock, as you can imagine. I mean, we’re talking about a 14-time all-star, 11-time NBA first-team selection, five-time all-defensive team member, four-time most valuable player, three-time NBA champion, and two-time Olympic gold medalist. Man, just goes to show how deceiving that kind of stuff can be. Turns out this is a guy you don’t want anywhere near your roster.
Fortunately for the 76ers, there is a stalwart legion of soldiers atop the ramparts of the Castle Process, each waving pointy spears and banners adorned with the likeness of Sam Hinkie, hailed as the most organic farmer in the history of NBA agriculture. They have raised the drawbridge to the castle and will lower it again only for those player additions deemed worthy of joining the long list that led the team through the murky wilderness of tanking and into the clearing where it is now tentatively encamped.1
LeBron James is apparently not welcome to join the organic list that included Malcolm Lee and Drew Gordon, or Henry Sims and Sonny Weems, players whose purpose was to improve the odds of losing basketball games.
As nearly as I can grasp the rationale, acquiring James through free agency would make it too “easy” to win an NBA championship – as if such a thing were possible – and it would disrespect the suffering that has been required just to reach the point where the Sixers can be depantsed in the conference semifinals by a team missing its two best players.
If you want a handy analogy imparted by the Team Organic loyalists, it is the difference between going to the grocery store and getting all the ingredients to go home and bake a wonderful cake, and merely buying a cake in the store. This leaves aside the possibility that you could accidentally grab the salt instead of the baking powder (Jahlil Okafor rather than Kristaps Porzingis), or measure the flour incorrectly (Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel), or get a phone call and forget to take the thing out of the oven. (oops, Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo taken four picks after Michael Carter-Williams.) Then you go back to the store and buy the cake.2
The point of the whole enterprise is getting the damn cake, which is something coach Brett Brown gently pointed out to the Hinkie truthers.
“Let’s start with the fans. There has been an acceptance of trying to grow this organically. We’ve all lived through the pain of what we all went through … and an acceptance that we declared our hand and this is what we’re going to do, and for the most part we’ve kind of done it,” Brown said. “If that portion of the fan base is still prepared to take this notion and that’s going to equal a championship, you know, it’s noble, but I don’t agree with it.”
It isn’t actually noble, however, because the narrative of staying true to The Process is a false one constructed by people who just don’t like LeBron James for one reason or another. Whether it goes back to his stupid “Decision” television celebration of self before he decamped Cleveland for Miami, or something about his general demeanor, or the money he has made or the titles he has won, or the business empire that has grown up around him, there are things people just don’t like about James. That’s fine as long as you just say so and don’t cloak your dislike in some mythical quest for purity.3
There doesn’t seem to be the same disdain for signing Paul George or trading for Kawhi Leonard, even though Leonard essentially quit on his team this season. Either could be accepted, but not LeBron James. It is ridiculous.
Nothing was particularly “organic” when Pat Williams went to owner Fitz Dixon in 1976 and said the team could acquire Julius Erving by buying out his contract from the cash-strapped Nets.
Dixon, student of the game that he was, said, “Who’s Julius Erving?”
“He’s the Babe Ruth of basketball,” replied Williams, who has never been given to understatement.
That wasn’t an organic way to improve the team, and neither was the 1982 trade for Moses Malone, or the Phillies’ signing of free agent Pete Rose, or the Eagles’ trade for running back Jay Ajayi to solidify their postseason push. Championships aren’t won by hoping for the best and coloring inside the lines of some imaginary instruction book. They are won by aggressively seeking out the best players and putting them on the team.
True success can’t be achieved with false narratives, no matter how noble they are made to seem. Or, in other words, to those on the ramparts with their spears and banners, you can prefer your homemade cake, but that makes it less likely you will ever taste it.
1. This determination also conveniently ignores the fact that Hinkie always said the time would come when the Sixers would be in the market for expensive free agents to put them over the top. If Hinkie had the chance to sign LeBron James, you can be very sure he would do so.
2. And, yes, the Holiday trade and the eventual Carter-Williams trade brought in draft picks, some of which became players in the regular rotation, or projected rotation, but would a starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Porzingis, Antetokounmpo and Holiday win any games? If you care to argue that getting Antetokounmpo or Porzingis would have prevented the team from being bad enough to draft Simmons, I have every confidence there would have been a lateral hangnail strain or displaced ear lobe discovered to keep them out a year or so.
3. No one seemed to mind the addition of able mercenary JJ Redick for this season, which was about as pure a signing as $23 million can buy.