About a week ago, I saw a poll on ESPN.com that asked the question,
Who will be the face of the NBA in
This may not have been the exact question, but it was along these lines. It then offered 3 choices:
Before I tell you which of these options I chose, I think it's worth discussing what it really means to be "the face of the NBA." Being the face of the league (or at least being viewed this way) is obviously a big deal; it's an honor of sorts that isn't just bestowed on some average player. There are several criteria that any candidate for this figurative position must match, in my opinion. Along with each, I'll give an example of a current player that particularly epitomizes the category. These are roughly ordered by importance.
Excellent player, good stats, shines on the court
Any player that is going to be viewed as the face of the league must be, above all, a star player and athlete. After all, the face of the league is a beacon to fans and outsiders to the league, he must be a player that represents the game well. As viewers we notice players' activity on the court first and foremost. Therefore, a player must shine and stand out during games to represent the league well. Additionally, for better or worse, we turn to stats (this is happening more and more as the statistics grow in complexity and how representative of the actual sport they are) to judge a player's worth first. While sabermetrics and much of the statistics revolution that have thrived in baseball have not yet reached basketball, stats are increasingly the way to judge players in modern sports. Therefore, the face of the NBA must have great stats along with an awe-inspiring, highlight reel style of play.
However, he must balance his high-flying style with an unselfish attitude, and a devotion to playing the game the way it was meant to be played. He doesn't just dunk the ball, he shoots, passes, and has overall fantastic fundamentals.
Example: LeBron James, Miami Heat SF/PG/who knows what he'll play...
LeBron, despite having outraged an entire city and organization, and crushing the dreams of numerous others, is the epitome of this first criteria. His stats speak for themselves.
Of course, LeBron is on at least 300 SportsCenter Top 10s every season, and simply put, nobody plays like he does. This was actually what convinced me to choose LeBron as the example for this category over Kevin Durant. Durant also brings it in the stats category, and manages to do so with slightly less talented teammates than LeBron (in the past, and most definitely in the future). Unfortunately, Durant is no comparison to LeBron in what viewers see on the court. Let's face it, Kevin Durant is a skinny guy who barely stands out from other players. He's the kind of guy who makes you wonder at the end of a game how the hell he just scored so many points when you didn't notice him doing anything special. LeBron just takes over, scoring in bunches, dunking over anyone in the way, and on top of it all he's probably one of the 10 best straight up athletes in sports. LeBron stands out , and that's what the viewers notice.
Team leader, well-respected by league peers, well-thought of by his community and the media
The face of the league must be a player that is respected by literally everyone involved in the league. He must be an important figure in his team's community, and in the locker room. Additionally, the media must respect this player, because NBA fans are fed the majority of their opinions by random media personalities, and these opinions are what we use to base our judgments of players. As I've mentioned indirectly, the face of the NBA must be viewed as such by the fans and the general public, or else they do not deserve this position. Finally, he must be respected by the majority of the other players in the league. He can't have any kind of "beef" with other players, he has to stay out of trouble off the court, and he must be seen as a worthy person to represent the league by all.
Example: Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets PG
Note: Again, Durant is closely edged out by Paul because I believe Paul is more respected by other players in the league, mostly due to his experience.
Despite the recent trade-demand rumors that are surfacing around Paul, he exemplifies this criteria very well. First-off, he is extremely well thought of by his teammates and those around him in the Hornets organization and the community of New Orleans. Here's a nice summary of what he's given to the community, notably in the time of crisis after Hurricane Katrina. While he's very respected in his community, the respect given to him by teammates is even more noticeable. In his book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," Bill Simmons mentions a story about Paul's teammates going to a commercial shoot of Paul's and then accompanying him to his interview on the Leno show. This kind of comradery and support is only given to players that show great leadership qualities, and have demonstrated to their teammates that they are worthy of leading the team.
Additionally, he is well-thought of by other players in the league. He can be seen having fun and goofing off regularly during All-Star weekends with stars from other teams, and other players view him as a great player and a good person. Additionally, he behaves well for the media, and is never a spectacle during press conferences or interviews. This behavior has earned him great respect from members of the media.
Paul is a good role model, and is not only a fantastic player, but a worthy choice to represent the NBA as the "face of the league."
Very marketable, able to make money for the league
We must face the facts about sports at some point: they're about making money. Basketball is no exception: with its million dollar show deals and accessories from shooting sleeves to headbands, basketball is a business. The NBA is out to make money, and they need players that are marketable and popular in the wider world to help gain publicity for the league. Any player who is viewed as the face of the league must be marketable. He must be well-known and popular in other countries and among people who aren't serious NBA fans. He must advertise for a variety of products and must put on a show on the court (touched on in the first category) so that games are fun to watch. Overall, he has to make money (and lots of it) for the league through his play and his image.
Example: LeBron James
How can this be anyone but LeBron. Easily the most well-known athlete in America, he is also the most marketable and one of the most fun to watch. Many people said after his "Decision" special on ESPN, which was watched by millions around the country, that only LeBron could pull off something like that. No other athlete in any sport could do such a thing successfully. LeBron has hundreds of sponsors and advertising ventures, and is extremely popular in the general public, even after the whole "decision" spectacle. There really isn't a whole lot more to say. For years, to come, LeBron will make money for the league, starting this year with Miami Heat games that promise to be very, very popular events.
There you have it. Three important criteria that a star must match to be viewed as "the face of the league." We also must consider that the original question was: Who will be the face of the NBA in 10 years? Therefore, it can't be a player like Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan, it has to be a rising star who will continue to perform in the future. Considering all of this, I put a vote down for Kevin Durant. He may not be the epitome of any of these criteria, but he is a close second for the first two and in the top 5 for the last one (behind, say, LeBron, Kobe, Dwight Howard, and Dwyane Wade). Additionally, he got my vote over LeBron because there is absolutely no way that LeBron will stand out and lead on his current team. Forget the fact that it's already Wade's team, LeBron just won't be a one-man show like he was in his Cleveland days. Durant is in OKC for the next 7 years and has only Russell Westbrook to compete with as that team's alpha dog. He is their hands-down leader (he has been since his rookie year in Seattle) and will be for years to come.
Therefore, you can count on Kevin Durant to be your face of the future in 2020. If only we can get Usain Bolt in the league by then...