Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony both return to the cities that birthed their superstar NBA careers, this week. Anyone with a head can see that the efforts of both to play off these visits as ‘business as usual’ are in vain. Both Howard and Melo, in relation to Orlando and Denver, respectively, illustrate the craziness that permeates the relationship between would-be-savior athletes and their audience of an American city. And this is a particularly strained relationship, in basketball—where that one special player is popularly seen as converting famine into feast.
Just ask Derrick Rose, who can now not go to his dentist’s, or have a sore thigh, without both of Chicago’s major newspapers—and surely all of its Bulls-centric blogs—wrapping the moments into worlds and worlds of city-wide narrative. But this is nothing in comparison to what happened between the other two and their cities; whether it be this season or next, Rose will return from his injury, and as soon as he re-proves himself as an MVP-caliber player, all will be forgotten.
D12’s stamp on his franchise is more permanent. Long considered the giant to fill the void left when Shaq spurned the Magic in free agency, Howard eventually turned his eyes elsewhere; he realized that his career might have already peaked, if he stayed put. His subsequent here-and-there behavior, in regards to the media spectacle that was his impending free agency, was regrettable. But perhaps more notable is the creation of a context that allows such widespread emotion to rest on the shoulders of one twenty-six year-old—even if his shoulders are as shockingly large as Howard’s.
Hopefully new Magic coach Jacque Vaughn can follow the lead of his former boss Greg Popovich, and develop a basketball culture so thorough and systematic that it largely eliminates the need for a super-talent. While the Spurs have more than reaped the benefits of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker’s presences—sure to be Hall of Famers—their championship success (and incredible competitive longevity, overall) has been more about the consistent development of marginal players. Manu Ginobli has undeniable talent, but it’s easy to believe that his specific skill-set could’ve been made into less than an integral piece to three championships, in an inferior basketball system.
The point here is that the NBA is absolutely loaded with talents, particular as they are, and that the superstar conundrum staring most franchises in the face might be more illusory than real. Winning is impossible without the right balance of skills, but the Spurs prove just how many NBA skills are being wasted in other cities.
Anthony’s former team is doing it, too. In Denver, coach George Karl has developed a system that similarly maximizes his player’s abilities. Weeks ago, the Nuggets beat OKC in Denver—a team which obviously leads them in the superstar department. When asked during a timeout about the team’s strategy, Karl said that they would win so long as they played fast, and kept the game away from half-court execution, where the Thunder would surely thrive. And while this strategy is less likely to work in a seven-game series, it demonstrates the importance of developing an adaptable team style, and exploiting player strengths adequately enough to boast some roster depth. Carmelo Anthony’s become even more of a superstar with the Knicks, but his exit from Denver has been incredibly positive for the franchise—Karl long valued building a gestalt team concept, but had always been encumbered by the media pressure that comes with having a superstar among your ranks. Now he’s building a culture that can compete for years and years to come. Like Popovich, he’s committed to organizational strength: a hard, long, and nuanced task that’s often seen as a futile struggle in a league that over-values the acquisition of one do-it-all player—even the salary structure reinforces this unfortunate myth. Superman isn’t coming to most of your American cities, anytime soon. So why aren’t teams set on building better basketball societies, instead of waiting for him?