One of the things that always leads to decline of great clubs or franchises (they’re called different things in different countries) or causes a lot of problems is when a player becomes bigger than the team he is playing on. Lionel Messi at Barcelona, LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the destructive relationship between Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are the prime examples of this at the moment.
Who is worse? Hard to say. The drama at Barcelona is fresher, more exciting, and a bit more surprising. Cristiano Ronaldo is playing for the biggest football club in the world and sometimes it does seem like his ego goes even beyond the limits of what Real Madrid can hold. Jose Mourinho leaving had something to do (but not just with) with his broken down relationship with the star, but Mourinho is another example of someone who always puts his own interests above the club, and it “helped” him become an unwanted figure at the Santiago Bernabeu after only three seasons without a Champions League trophy.
Messi has won everything possible with Barcelona. League titles, Champions League trophies and has been crowned the best player in the world, maybe of all-time. He has broken every scoring record for the club and in the La Liga. Even on a bad year he scored close to 50 goals with about 30 assists. He’s truly one of a kind, a talent that comes along once in a generation. It just happened to be right along with Cristiano Ronaldo, special in his own way, but on this blog most of us usually prefer Messi when it comes to choosing the better footballer.
But if for years Messi seemed like the quiet type, internally leaving his struggles away from what happens on the pitch and in the dressing room, but the last few months, especially the last two weeks and maybe even deeper in the past, a different side comes to light. Maybe it’s always been there, and the media is only focusing on it just now. Pep Guardiola left, and maybe it had something to do with Messi. The hiring of Tata Martino is rumored to be because of Messi and no one else. Ibrahimovic never settled in Barcelona, possibly because of Messi’s dominance and demand to play in the middle. David Villa was sold because of him.
Now? It’s Luis Enrique. He’s been trying to treat Messi like every other player, and that doesn’t seem to be working out well for him. Has Enrique been given an ultimatum? Has he told the Barcelona board that it’s either him or Messi? Messi doesn’t seem to be worried, benched for the Sociedad match because he arrived late for training. That sparked this current scandal and drama. Enrique wanted to fine him, but was convinced by the club captain to possibly give him preferential treatment. Messi means that much to Barcelona, and he knows it.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in a less “sexy” city called Cleveland, there’s another player who might be less than happy with his head coach. After four seasons with the Miami Heat in which he reached four NBA finals and won two titles, LeBron James decided to head back “home” to Cleveland, to play for the Cavaliers he left four years earlier in the famous “Decision” which made him, for a while, the most unpopular athlete in the United States. His legacy and popularity among a lot of fans is still suffering not matter what he does.
James didn’t take a discount to help build a championship team. He took a max contract with an exit option after one season, signing for just two years. Promising to stay forever on SI doesn’t mean anything. James came after David Blatt, an Israeli-American with 0 experience of coaching outside of European basketball, was hired. The two were full of compliment to each other in the beginning, but a rough start has changed all of that.
The moment James was signed, everything changed. The expectations and the grandeur of everything. James became not just the star player, the returning son and prodigy, but almost like a general manager. James might not be the best player in basketball anymore, but few if any have his ability to convince others to play with him. He’s considered an unselfish superstar, even though he’s the most famous face in sports in North America.
So he got Mike Miller and James Jones to come, although that hasn’t really helped. He convinced Shawn Marion to sign. Bigger than everything has been his involvement in the trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland. The Cavaliers gave up on their future – Andrew Wiggins (a number one pick), Anthony Bennett (a bust more or less, but another number one pick) for Love, a player who might bolt after one season, just like James.
Regardless of how badly the Cavs have been doing, the news of James approving the trade for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert by telling the team he’s willing to play next to Smith, shows just how much power he has in the organization, maybe too much power.
Moving even further West to our final spot, we land in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant is a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. He drove Shaquille O’Neal out of town and has never been loved by almost every one of his teammates. His coaches, including Phil Jackson, who won the titles with him, never had too much love for him. Maybe respect. Possibly fear as well.
The last few years are a perfect example of what happens to a franchise that blindly follows the ego of one player. Kobe Bryant should have been amnestied because that was the only way to get rid of him (no trade clause), but the Lakers chose to keep him and do it to Metta World Peace instead, not actually saving too much money in the process. Bryant, at the age of 35, got a two year deal keeping him as the most expensive player in the NBA, making $24 million a season.
What? Yes. The Lakers showed loyalty to their franchise player, but shot themselves in the foot while appeasing him and a fan base (or part of it) that’s not very logical in its support for Bryant, who seems hellbent on scoring points to put himself about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and less about helping out his team. The Lakers couldn’t really improve the team with Bryant eating such a huge chunk of the salary cap. Players might not admit it, but Kobe Bryant isn’t someone stars want to play next to. There’s one reason the Lakers had 0 success in their chase after big name free agents. Bryant consumes all that are next to him. Just ask Dwight Howard, run out of town because he wouldn’t bow down to Bryant and his attitude.
Becoming bigger than the team you’re on might lead to short-term success, but it never lasts forever. The same players who have done so much for their respective clubs, becoming an obstacle in the way of success, becoming too smug and arrogant to see or even care that their own cult of personality is actually hurting their legacy, not making them greater.