State of Loyalty in the NBA

Jeff Skibiski —  July 28, 2010

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By most fans’ standards, LeBron James’ much-ballyhooed departure from the Cavaliers earlier this month not only tarnished his carefully crafted image, but also any notion of loyalty. In fact, if there is one overarching theme to this topsy-turvy NBA offseason, it is probably just that—loyalty. At what point though, are players released from the burden placed by fans and media and allowed to move on to a better opportunity? If a superstar like Chris Paul officially demands a trade from the mediocre Hornets—a team and city he has almost single-handedly revived over the past few years—is he automatically deemed disloyal? To that end, what happens when a less known role player switches teams? Are they spared the wrath of fans’ since they didn’t mean as much to their teams? Were the Lakers virtually obligated to give in to Derek Fisher’s contract demands this offseason out of loyalty to the wily veteran?

While L.A. hasn’t participated in this offseason’s flurry of superstar moves, the acquisition of Matt Barnes, on the heels of last season’s pick-up of Ron Artest—two players that drew the ire of Lakers fans prior to them donning the forum blue and gold—calls into light the nature by which we judge free agents and trades. A little over one year ago, STAPLES Center roared as a belligerent Artest was thrown out of Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals. This past season, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes engaged in a good ol’ fashioned no-holds barred Twitter war after a contentious road game in Orlando. Flash forward one year later and crazy Ron Ron has cemented a [positive] place in Lakers lore and Barnes just wrapped up a two-week romance with Kobe that eventually led to him signing with the Lake Show.

Former foe Raja Bell nearly joined the team in similar fashion this offseason before signing with the Jazz. Laker circles across the nation even raised the possibility of signing hated Celtic Ray Allen with the mid-level exception—the same Ray Allen who almost single-handedly won Game 2 of this year’s NBA Finals and was an invaluable part of the 2008 championship team that bloodied up Kobe and Co.

In 2003-2004, the Lakers signed two of the franchise’s longtime rivals—Karl Malone and Gary Payton—effectively creating one of the first “super teams” of the decade. For years, Malone was public enemy number one in L.A. for his alleged dirty play, yet all it took was a few months for the Lakers faithful to embrace the Hall-of-Fame forward. One of Karl’s former Lakers teammates, Shaquille O’Neal, finds himself in a somewhat similar position this offseason—clearly aging, but still longing to become a part of a championship team. That state of mind has apparently led to the center’s rumored interest in playing for the Celtics—a potentially traitorous development that has angered many Lakers fans. If there aren’t any other viable title contenders who desire his services though, is Shaq a little less disloyal if he winds up in Boston?

Loyalty is undoubtedly an important quality in life and in a lot of ways, sports acts as a microcosm for the world we live in. However, the truth of the matter is that sports isn’t completely reflective of real life, as much as fans want to believe. NBA players and front offices play by different rules and can’t always be held to the same standards. While outsiders may claim the Lakers are hypocritical by signing or trading for players with whom their fans and current roster have expressed wide-spread discontent, the team’s brain trust consistently bases its basketball decisions on whether or not they will improve the team on-the-floor. In that sense, the Lakers straddle the line between allegiance and disloyalty as well as any team, with Bryant taking the lead.

At the end of the day, Kobe respects players like Artest and Barnes for their gritty play, going so far as to tell Barnes via text that if the forward was crazy enough to mess with him, he was crazy enough to play with him. Instead of professing his animosity toward the Lakers, Barnes excitedly told the world just a few weeks later that playing for L.A. was a lifelong dream. Such is the current state of loyalty in the NBA—both for individual players, fans and teams. At times, it is understandably maddening for fans, while others are more forgiving. Ultimately though, it is a subjective business for all parties involved.

Jeff Skibiski