The Destiny of Sports Dynasties

Update: I found my electric razor. It was in the side pocket of my school backpack. I have no idea why I would have put it there. Now I’m back to square one, still looking for the charger.

No longer a matter of “if?,” rather “how many?”

Before I went to be last night, I watched the Clippers beat the Heat. To be sure, most casual basketball fans will regard this outcome as an anomaly. The Miami Heat are penciled into the NBA Finals and the favorites to win the championship.

When the Heat failed in the first Bosh/Wade/LeBron season, people were quick and giddy to ridicule their master-planned attempt to create a super team. Well, now that the Heat have won a title in convincing fashion and it appears LeBron has elevated his game to an other-worldly level, the question is how many championships will he/they win? It’s a pointless question because of the human inability to see the future and all of the events which will unfold over the course of time, but it’s a question always asked of seemingly dominant sports teams. I think the relevance of this question stems from two truths about the human condition: we’re drawn to greatness (and conversely tragedy) and we’re all too aware of the way the passing of time can arbitrarily though inexorably effect our lives.

Thanks, Mel, for breaking England’s hold on America.

There was a commercial that ran during election season that featured a classroom full of Asian students and their teacher discussing the rise and fall of famous dynastic empires. Of course Rome was referenced, as was Great Britain. The point of the commercial, though, was to imply that the same ruinous fate would eventually befall America because of the debt crisis. I don’t understand that stuff at all, and am reticent to comment on it, but the one statement that stood out to me was the teacher’s remark that all those empires fell because at some point they abandoned the principles that made them great. That’s likely an oversimplification of hundreds of years of history, and I have no desire to fact check it, but in theory, it sounds possible. So this got me to thinking about empires on a smaller scale: sports teams.

Is this what the kids refer to as “swag?”

While Michael Jordan’s Bulls are the modern standard for sports dynasties, I feel as if a critical point is left unmentioned. That stretch is an aberration, not the norm. Jordan was a singular talent with a set of skills and the psychological make-up that by all accounts would have made him the world’s greatest basketball player or the world’s greatest serial killer. I think things worked out for the better. Anyway, the combination of Jordan’s talent and sheer will and force of personality is a cosmic coincidence that never happens. Except that one time. Add that to Pippen and Jackson and everything else, what becomes clear is that luck was highly involved in the formation of the Bulls dynasty. That’s why people hated LeBron and Wade and Bosh: somehow we prefer our true greatness to originate, develop, and bloom organically. Maybe this goes all the way back to the Big Bang theory of our universe and life on planet Earth. It’s just all just a crapshoot. The Miami three were conspiring to manufacture greatness.

Two sports stories got me into this line of thinking. The first is the James Harden trade.

Now we’ll never know. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Like everyone else, I’ve watched and listened to sports analysts approach the Thunder’s trade of James Harden to the Houston Rockets from every conceivable angle. The point that most seem to come back to is that Oklahoma City broke up something special. The Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio were logical foils to the Big Three in Miami. All three were homegrown stars peaking at the same time. The OKC front office tried its best to build a championship team around this nucleus and last season fell a single step short. This team was held up as the way teams are supposed to reach greatness, the antithesis to the secret conversations and conspiracy theories that surrounded the eventual arrival of James and Bosh in South Beach. The Harden trade derailed that narrative and also likely precludes this particular group of players from winning a championship together. It’s the other end of the spectrum, the tragedy of “what might have been.”

Well, that didn’t last very long.

The second story which caught my attention is the much-maligned deal the Miami Marlins are reported to have agreed to with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Marlins will send Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and just about everyone on their roster making money to the Blue Jays for Yunel Escobar and a bunch of prospects. I am leaving out some of the details, but that’s basically what it comes down to.

At first blush, it looks like a straight salary dump by the Marlins. The move has been met with criticism largely because the Marlins just opened a new, publicly funded stadium last season, and now the ownership has dismantled the team. There is another angle, though, and Grantland’s Jonah Keri wrote a piece outlining Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria’s shrewd business sense. As a baseball fan, I can only mount emotional arguments against Loria’s tactics. As far as reason goes, sure, it might be an unpopular move, but man, is it efficient. The Marlins finished in last place least season. They can do that with a $30 million dollar payroll, too.

The norm.

While both trades are generally viewed negatively, the underlying theme apparent in both moves is the consideration of history. While it’s easy to rattle off the great sports dynasties of the past half-century, what gets overlooked is that there is an exponentially larger number of also-rans who had all the makings of the former group. I think of the Oakland A’s of the late 90s with Hudson-Zito-Mulder at the top of the rotation and Chavez, Tehada, and Giambi around the infield. That kind of personnel development is exceedingly rare – they came into their own at the same time and featured as much talent as any team. They never even made it to the World Series. I think of the Philadelphia Phillies of this past decade who won a single championship with homegrown stars – Hamels, Howard, Rollins, Utley –  in their primes, but have steadily declined despite attempts to augment the team via the external the acquisition of stars. It’s hard to win a championship, even more difficult to create a dynasty.

Even the Yankees have taught us that nothing gold can stay, even with a deep wallet.

Fans tend to think of their teams in a vacuum. Sports teams do not operate in a vacuum. Loria spent all that money last off-season in hopes of fielding competitive team. It didn’t work out. One of the reasons? The Washington Nationals became contenders before anyone thought they would. How could anyone have foreseen that?

In fact, I am of the belief that Toronto only agreed to the deal because of external factors:

1. With more teams extending their homegrown stars through their first few seasons of free agency (into their late 20s), the free agent market has been depressed. There will be very few young, impact players to hit the market in the coming years.

2. This significantly mitigates the financial advantages once held by the traditional powers in the NL East, the Yankees and Red Sox. Both teams are old and bereft of young talent.

3. Due in part to the high income tax in Canada, free agents are not likely to sign with Toronto.

What all of this means is the NL East is the weakest its been in years. The only way the Blue Jays were going to come across such a large influx of impact talent was through trades (like Encarnacion and Bautista, both of whom luckily became far better players after joining the Blue Jays). They Blue Jays now have a lot of money tied up in a few players. This is their all-in move and maybe they’re not done yet.

The problem with both the Harden trade and the Marlins’ move is perception. The overall sentiment is that the respective decision-makers hadn’t allowed either situation to play out. They hadn’t given their teams enough time to challenge for a championship (more specifically in the case of the Thunder). But maybe time wasn’t a luxury these teams were willing to afford themselves, because while winning was never guaranteed, impending financial disaster was all but assured.

The question is this:

If the most efficient way to build a successful team is to draft well and develop one’s own talent, is it wise to over-extending one’s finances and resources in an attempt to prolong that success by retaining aging stars and adding players and signing them to high-priced, lengthy contracts?

History says no.

But fans say yes.

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