By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
This past weekend, once again, the NBA learned just what a game-changing presence looks like in their league.
Another game-changer — in music, as well as sports and in entertainment at large — Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, on his last album rapped, “Generational wealth, that’s the key, my parents ain’t have s**t, so that ship started with me.” Those bars, featured in the song “Legacy” from the “4:44” album, essentially had Carter talking about changing a long-standing narrative of poverty and disenfranchisement by creating a new establishment of family success out of basically nothing.
To have a legacy seems to be one of those elusive qualities that we apply often to overly-successful individuals in society in order to quantify the impact of their headlining deeds. But what exactly does it mean to have a legacy? Merriam-Webster defines the word in part as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.”
To create a legacy, especially one that hasn’t had much precedent, one has to put in an abundance of work now to stand any chance of benefiting the next generation after you. In the NBA, the concept of legacy has followed many athletes’ dreams in regards to winning championships. This year’s off-season in the NBA has proven to significantly change what it means to have a successful legacy in the highest level of basketball and what it means to pursue that type of legacy. We largely have Kawhi Leonard to thank for that.
Often times as fans and media we compare players not just based on their success with the franchises they represent, but in the way they achieve that success.
Regarding the older generations who built the game up through the 1970’s and 80’s, your best way of winning championships was by relying on your franchise to draft and develop exceptional talent or, failing that, trade for an all-star caliber player. In the 90’s and 00’s, freedoms expanded individually for players — free agency movement becomes more normal and people are seen taking advantage of their leverage and influence within the league to create the best situations in which their nascent legacies can thrive.
In 2011, LeBron James took that concept to another level and partnered with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win championships before ultimately returning home to bring Cleveland its only championship to date. Doing that, along with essentially defining the Big 3/super team era of free agency, are the twin pillars of James’ competitive legacy.
In taking his talents to South Beach, James went to a team that only won 45 games and helped them win two championships while Kevin Durant used James’ concept to join a 73-9 team that featured a 2-time MVP who had helped the franchise win a championship prior to that historic regular season. Still, Durant brought two titles of his own to Silicon Valley and made himself into the closest rival legacy-wise to James in this era which at one time seemed destined to be the King’s to rule.
Back to today’s reality: in choosing to become a Los Angeles Laker, James continued the now-common theme of enhancing his legacy of winning by joining an established franchise with a winning history, in this case arguably the most legendary sports franchise in history.
James’s LA detour was to many supposed to be only the beginning, it was to bring a slew of additional talent, likely the kind to rival that which LeBron is playing with on the set of “Space Jam 2” currently. However, Durant and Leonard — two of the most rumored future Laker future super-pieces — each took a different approach and accepted challenges elsewhere that on one level may seem like gambles but could also enhance their legacies forever.
Beyond simply adding another trophy to the Lakers’ storied history, both Durant and Leonard are tasking themselves to bring unprecedented title wins to long-suffering “little brother” franchises. These twin efforts, even before any results have come to pass, have ultimately fulfilled the NBA’s mission of broadening interest in the league and fostering a depth and parity that keeps more fans truly interested in the league day-in and day-out.
Listen to Josh and Kyle Means response to the Kawhi decision and PG trade (Anchor.fm)
In a previous column, I mentioned that Kyrie Irving and Durant should not overlook playing for the Clippers and/or Nets due to the potential of living out both of their business lives off the court as they like while also having better opportunities to establish a winning culture and start legacies of championship success instead of having to re-establish and kick-start such things.
Durant and Irving agreed to follow that concept. In some ways Leonard has too, but he’s really combining the old and new school concepts of winning in the NBA.
An established champion, Leonard, with his latest championship run with the Toronto Raptors, has proven that he is so impactful that he can win a championship without an additional superstar. He enhanced his legacy as the only player to bring an NBA championship to a foreign country, a franchise that prior to the last couple weeks was not known for any high achievements such as a championship.
In choosing to go forward with the Clippers, Leonard is using the new school James concept of accepting the challenge to add to his already enhanced legacy, the old school concept of not joining the league’s established shot-caller (James) and newly acquired sidekick Anthony Davis and instead accept the challenge of elevating a non-historical Clipper franchise, combined with another new school concept that featured the recruitment and coercion of Paul George to demand a trade from Oklahoma City to be Leonard’s sidekick.
For years, the NBA’s two biggest market cities have had two teams that represent their cities, and only one of them those teams in New York and Los Angeles has sparked true passion and worldwide support and coverage. In the face of the growing franchise legacies of the Lakers and the Knicks, the Nets and Clippers mostly floundered and were left to be taken for granted.
Now, the second-tier teams have a chance to quickly change long-held narratives of competition and create or renew two crosstown rivalries at a level that not only sells NBA fans, but also increases the odds of fulfilling the NBA’s true vision of formerly second-tier franchises and small market teams winning championships and invigorating the NBA every year just like the historical franchises we are accustomed to.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media