Got Skillz: Kanye and Jay-Z, LeBron and Wade

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This edition of Got Skillz is not, strictly speaking, about the musical pursuits of basketball players. As anybody with a functional Twitter account no doubt is well aware, last night saw the release of Watch the Throne, the hotly anticipated new album from Kanye West and Jay-Z. The track “Gotta Have It” features this line from Kanye: “Ain’t that where the Heat play?/N***as hate ballers these days/Ain’t that like LeBron James?” To which Jay responds: “Ain’t that just like D-Wade?” Rappers name-check ballers all the time, but this one felt strikingly appropriate. An album-length collaboration from Kanye and Hov is more or less equivalent to LeBron and Wade teaming up in Miami, and comes with many of the same questions.

The similarities between Kanye and LeBron are obvious, at least post-2009. They’re both stratospherically talented egomaniacs who routinely say things in the media that make them easy to hate. It didn’t seem possible for a relatively harmless PR screwup to do as much damage to a famous person’s reputation as the Taylor Swift VMAs incident did to Kanye’s…until LeBron went on TV and dropped the infamous “taking my talents to South Beach,” line, which became just as annoying to hear people imitate as “I’ma let you finish.” When Kanye released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last Fall, even his most ardent detractors had to give it up for his achieving something ambitious in scope even by his standards. By that same token, LeBron had a terrific season in 2011, one that plenty of people would (and have) argued should have netted him a third MVP award. He was never actually going to win it, because voters wanted to punish him for at least one year for The Decision, but the numbers and quality of play were there.

It took the Heat a few months to figure things out, but once they did, they were a true juggernaut, steamrolling some formidable playoff challengers in the Celtics and Bulls…right up until LeBron’s mysterious disappearance in the Finals. That series drove home the fact that, while the Heatles may well go on to dominate the upcoming decade like Jordan’s Bulls did the ‘90s, they’re not there yet. The same holds true for Jay-Z and Kanye. Watch the Throne has been out for less than 24 hours, and I haven’t fully decided how I feel about it, but I’m not ready to declare it the greatest album ever made, or even superior to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

The Heat were assembled hastily from the free-agent scrap heap following the signings of James, Wade, and Chris Bosh to nine-figure contracts. On any given night, their fourth-best (sometimes even third-best) player was Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, James Jones, or Mike Bibby. This team won 58 regular-season games and made the Finals basically on top-end talent alone. That’s before they get to things like putting decent role players around the big three, which seems inevitable in two years when the lockout is resolved. Once they do that, they may never win games by single digits again.

That’s also the impression I’ve gotten my first few times through Watch the Throne. It was always going to be worthwhile simply by virtue of Kanye’s and Jay’s larger-than-life presence. Album cohesion is a secondary concern—sometimes it’s enough just to be able to watch two all-world talents on the same stage. Some of these songs are among the best in either of their catalogues (“Murder to Excellence,” the two tracks featuring Udonis Haslem-like secret weapon Frank Ocean). Some are spectacularly awful. They should have devoted more of the album’s budget to bribing Swizz Beats not to add backing vocals to “Welcome to the Jungle.” They need a coach willing to confront them about the auto-tune thing. Like the Miami Heat, this superstar collaboration comes with its share of drawbacks and question marks. But damn if I’m not excited to see where both of them go from here.

Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.