On the NBA Finals

June 14th, 2011 by John Krolik

The NBA Finals are over. For the eighth consecutive season, the playoffs have ended without LeBron James winning a ring. For the first time, LeBron not winning a ring was a cause for celebration in Cleveland.

My feelings, as they would have been if the Heat had won a championship, are mixed.

I’m happy for Dirk Nowitzki, who has always been one of the NBA’s true class acts, is a once-in-a-generation joy to watch, and was the most disrespected superstar in the NBA because of a missed free throw in the 2006 Finals and a first-round matchup ambush in his subsequent MVP season.

I’m happy for Jason Kidd, one of the best pure points to ever play the game and someone who stayed in the league by fighting through microfracture surgery and adding a three-point shot.

I’m sad for Erik Spoelstra, a brilliant young coach who was maligned all season long, will be under scrutiny until the Heat do win a championship, and would have won a championship if his best player had shown up in the fourth quarter of Game 2 or any of Game 4.

I’m sad for Big Z, for obvious reasons.

I’m truly, truly happy for everyone in Cleveland who got a happy end to the season after some really rough playoff exits and a miserable regular season. Was I celebrating? I was not. But I’m still happy for everybody that got to. Wife/girlfriend analogies have become their own cliche post-“Decision,” but my analogy is this: when you see your friend get married, you’re not happy because he got to marry the person you wanted to marry. You’re happy because you see him happy. I’m never one to begrudge happiness, even a night of it, however people may find it. It’s very difficult to find. And a lot of people I consider friends found happiness at the Heat losing.

So how do I feel about LeBron choking away the finals? I’m having a hard time celebrating it, although I don’t begrudge those who do. I spent a lot of time on this blog and on other outlets defending LeBron as a player, and those feelings didn’t change when LeBron changed teams. I’ve never tried to defend “The Decision.” I think it was silly and egotistical. I think LeBron is kind of silly and egotistical. (Latest evidence: his post-Finals “my life is better than yours” comments.) I thought he was kind of silly and egotistical when he played for the Cavs, and made the case that I didn’t really care about it. I stand by that.

Still, for whatever reason, I never really, really got angry about “The Decision.” I don’t know exactly why I didn’t, but here are some of my theories:

1. I was at a really good place in my life when “The Decision” happened. I was 21, it was summer, and I had a great one. I spent 4th of July weekend with friends at UCSB, and I still consider that weekend to be the best weekend of my life. The night of “The Decision,” I was packing to go to Summer League in Las Vegas, where I got to meet and hang out with some awesome people, watch 4-5 basketball games a day, live in a house that ESPN paid for, and got paid to write about all of it.

2. After the Boston series, I knew LeBron was gone. He played like crap in those last two games, but the team was completely exposed and dismantled as a whole, and his supporting cast didn’t provide him with compelling reasons to stay. I understand why some people had faith that he would stay, but I knew he was gone. The week or so after those playoffs ended were rough for me. I didn’t really leave the house too much. I drank too much. I grew what my friends referred to as a “downward spiral beard.” I sort of got my depression and anger out of the way early.

By the time the actual “Decision” came around, I’d made peace with the fact LeBron was going to leave. At some point well before the thing happened, I’d made the cognitive disconnect between “the best player in the world is leaving my favorite team and I’m not going to get to cover him anymore” and “where will this bizarre, fascinating, free-agency journey end?”

3. From a really selfish point of view that I don’t expect anyone else to understand, I was happy that the decision (lowercase) was actually scheduled and set up on a specific day. As I mentioned, I was 21 and enjoying my summer, hopping from couch to couch, and my great fear was that the big news would break at 2 AM and I’d be at a party with no access to the internet. The way things were, with the news essentially breaking a day before the actual show and the show taking place at a scheduled time, I got to sit down and craft my post on the ordeal on a solid schedule, which made my life easier. Again, totally selfish reason.

So then the NBA Finals happened, and LeBron choked away the Finals. My mix of emotions comes from this thought: the Finals weren’t a referendum on the LeBron that made “The Decision” and left Cleveland in a silly and tone-deaf fashion. They were a referendum on the best player in the history of the franchise, the one who brought Cleveland so much joy for his seven years with the team.

When I’ve talked to Scott Raab or a lot of other people about LeBron, they don’t just talk about the fiasco of a television show; they talk about how LeBron did nothing as the Cavs got blown out in Game 5, and seemed content to accept their fate at the bitter end of Game 6. Those performances were used as evidence that LeBron already had one foot out the door on the Cavs, and couldn’t wait to bolt to Miami with Wade and Bosh. Well, he did the same thing in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and all of Game 4. It wasn’t a Cleveland thing, it was a “LeBron doesn’t really know what to do when the game/series isn’t going his way” thing. And the Heat simply broke at the end of Game 6 against the Mavericks the way the Cavs did against the Celtics — you could see it in their body language after one last offensive rebound for Dallas.

Also, LeBron choking away the Finals almost reinforces the fact that he made the correct basketball decision by leaving Cleveland. He lost the Finals with Wade going off at will and Bosh quietly having an excellent series — I can’t honestly imagine how he would have been able to get the Cavs to the promised land in the near future playing anything like the way he did in those Finals.

If he’d failed to mesh with Wade and Bosh and the Heat’s lack of depth had proved crippling, that would have been one thing. But he got all the support he could have possibly dreamed of, and still failed. That’s not about “The Decision.” That’s about the player. The same player whose abilities we all believed in for so long.

The same way I imagine most readers of this blog never imagined that LeBron would never leave Cleveland, I never imagined he’d choke away a golden opportunity to win a championship. Plenty of people, including myself, knew the former could and would happen. Plenty of people also knew the latter could happen, and I was not one of them. I am stunned, I am disappointed, I am confused.

The Boston massacre of 2010 was as much about the roster being built for Orlando as it was about LeBron’s poor play, although the latter was a huge factor. Game 1 of the Orlando series was the deciding game there, and that may have been LeBron’s best playoff game as a Cav, right down to the final possessions. LeBron exploded offensively in Game 7 against Boston in 2008. The Cavs had no business being in the same arena as the Spurs in 2007 or the Pistons in 2006. And on and on it goes. This time, though, LeBron has nobody to blame but himself, and I have nobody but myself to blame for trusting in his abilities and mentality.

(For those of you interested, this is the story behind my Heat Index sojourn. It was never about The Cavs, The Heat, LeBron, or anything else. It was about the writing. I was asked to join a really great team of writers and editors and provide insight, mostly because of how well I’d come to know LeBron’s game and the narratives that had grown around him in his seven years in Cleveland. It was a golden opportunity as a kid fresh out of college and paying his own bills by writing about basketball to get great exposure, make some money, and work with great people, and I took it. I have no regrets whatsoever.

Also, I was exhausted at the end of each NBC/Heat Index day, and knew Mo, Kevin, Colin, and Ryan had things running smoothly here without me, and I didn’t feel I had much Cavs-related stuff to contribute at the end of a day of obsessively watching and writing about the playoffs.

I will also add this — I’ve written just about everywhere on the internet in the last four years ((five if you count my days writing on Cavs message boards)), and I can say that the ESPN experience has, without question, been my best one. My pieces are well scheduled, placed, and edited, the communication with the editors is constant, the higher-ups show interest in my work and my well-being, I get to write alongside people I have admired for years, and I’ve made lasting friendships. After all the time I’ve spent doing this as both an amateur and a professional, I’ve come to really, really value those things in a way that’s hard for most to understand. So that’s my story. I apologize if you have a serious issue with it.)

Getting back on message — why is LeBron’s failure a cause for celebration, even though it wasn’t really a referendum on his “Decision?”

I had a hard time finding an answer to this until I started thinking about Carlos Boozer. I dislike Carlos Boozer. I think that lying to the team’s owner, fooling him into not picking up his option, and bolting for more money was, objectively, worse than LeBron going to a better team as an unrestricted free agent and announcing it with a silly television show. (LeBron’s extra crimes: being born in Cleveland and being much better at basketball than Carlos Boozer.)

I’ve always dealt with the Boozer fiasco by convincing myself that the Cavaliers were better off for it — they made desperation moves that ended up landing them Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao after losing Boozer, which I feel was ultimately a good thing.

I feel like Boozer screwed over the Cavaliers in an inexcusable fashion, albeit one made possible by front-office incompetence. I also believe that Carlos Boozer is a vastly overrated player who doesn’t play defense, settles for too many mid-range jumpers, and doesn’t help his teams nearly as much as he’s supposed to. I’d like to think that these beliefs exist independently from each other, but they probably don’t.

When I see Carlos Boozer fail in the playoffs, I feel a sense of happiness. It’s not a happiness that comes from a quest for revenge, or a personal ill-will towards him. It’s a happiness that comes from relief. When I see Boozer fail, I feel relieved that the Cavs weren’t doomed by Boozer’s fiasco of a departure from Cleveland. I imagine the happiness at LeBron failing in the Finals comes from that same place of relief. The LeBron that showed up against Dallas would not have won the Cavs a championship — in fact, he probably would have caused them to leave the playoffs earlier after Boston or Chicago made him struggle and put the team in any sort of position where they had to fight for their lives.

That feeling may go away if the Heat pull themselves together next year and win the championship, although they’ll have a harder road back to the finals than most think, but for now, the sense of relief is there. I invite you to correct me if I’m wrong, and I imagine that Tom might in the next two installments of his post, but I believe it’s relief that Cavs fans reveled in after the NBA Finals were over.