The following is a guest contribution to Cavs: The Blog.
The sports world is filled with uncertainties. The most recent NBA playoffs provided a heavy dose. The Dallas Mavericks just went 20-5 without Caron Butler or Rodrigue Beaubois. In the playoffs. No analyst, pundit, fan, or otherwise predicted that. It goes without saying that the uncertainty of sports gives it the drama that we crave. But it’s not all uncertain – some of it is very certain. When Ron Artest hurdled rows of chairs to punch a fan it was certain that he’d be suspended for a very long time – and that he would never be able to dissociate himself from the Malice at the Palace. What was uncertain was that the Pacers, under Rick Carisle, would fade away into NBA oblivion almost entirely because of a single event that happened in seconds. Ron Artest made a bad decision.
When LeBron James decided he would play for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and newly acquired Chris Bosh, there were a lot of uncertainties. Who else would fill out the roster? How many championships could this super-team win? Who would be the alpha dog? What position would LeBron play? How would Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two high-usage superstars accustomed to having the ball, mesh?
When LeBron James decided he would not play for the Cleveland Cavaliers there were only certainties. A month or so before LeBron decided to turn his back on Cleveland, Brian Windhorst recorded his weekly Plain Dealer podcast. Brian, a voice of reason in a profession dominated by hyperbole, noted that if LeBron were to leave the Cavs the people of northeast Ohio would NEVER forgive him. That he would forever be a pariah – rivaling Art Modell. This certainty had nothing to do with a 1 hour farce dedicated to the Boys and Girls Club of America – simply the fact that he would leave at the prime of his career following back to back 60 win seasons. Mark Cuban recognized the certainty and posted his thoughts on LeBron’s then pending decision in his blog: “In the State of Ohio? Forgetabbout it. People cry. People kick their dogs. They fall into a funk. Lebron instantly becomes the most hated person in the state, and equally hated by anyone close to people who live there.” The guy with the license plate “KNG of OH”, becoming the most hated person in OH, was a certainty.
There were basketball certainties associated with LeBron James’ free agency decision. The Cavaliers were going to struggle. Pick your preposition, they were built [for, around, off, with, through, considering] LEBRON JAMES. The Heat were going to be great – an unprecedented amount of talent on one team. But there were other certainties that immediately struck me when I first heard rumors that LeBron was going to Miami. His legacy would FOREVER be less than it could be. He would NEVER be able to rival Michael Jordan, much less other all-time greats in the eye of the public. He would always be seen as a tag along, a second option, the guy that needed an NBA Finals MVP on his team in order to win. He would never earn the respect and admiration of his colleagues much less NBA fans for teaming up with Dwyane Wade. Every success the Miami Heat would earn would be attributed, fairly or not, to Dwyane Wade, and every failure LeBron James. The only conditions upon which it wouldn’t were if Wade either got injured, or just completely disappeared, and it was up to LeBron to carry a team of Chris Bosh and misfits. In Cleveland, every failure was on Mike Brown, the supporting cast, Danny Ferry, or Dan Gilbert. Every success was LeBron LeBron LeBron. To this day, the conventional wisdom is that LeBron had a cast of nobodies in Cleveland – that he was solely responsible for 60+ win seasons and deep playoff runs. I was 100% in disbelief when he told me where he was taking his talents – LeBron James left a situation where he could literally do no wrong, to a situation where he could only do right with a big fat asterisk.
All the legacy talk ignores the basketball in the present mindset that most pundits (and possibly LeBron) are fixated on when judging LeBron’s decision. Just yesterday, 4 of ESPN’s 5-on-5 writers judged his decision as explicitly the right one, citing the differences in roster strength. Only 1 writer even paid lip service to the damage leaving Cleveland to play with recent Finals MVP may have had on LeBron’s “public perception”.
So let’s talk about rosters. Let’s talk about teammates. Let’s talk about organizations. Let’s GO THERE.
The revisionist history regarding the strength and championship viability of the former Cavaliers is breathtaking – and EVERYONE is on board. While the Cavs were racking up 60 win seasons with LeBron James at the helm, the Miami Heat were shedding contracts faster than a 4th quarter Mavericks comeback. They felt content to hire a rookie coach and win 40 something games for 3 years during Dwyane Wade’s prime. In 2008 when Dwyane Wade posted a PER of 30.4, the Heat spent approx 40 million less on payroll (+ luxury tax) than the Cavaliers and won 23 less games than number 23 did. Not once did the media lambaste the Miami organization for wasting the prime of Wade’s career. OH BUT, THE HEAT MANAGEMENT IS FIRST CLASS. So first class that they addressed the prime of Dwyane Wade’s career by drafting a number 2 pick that they would later trade for cap space. So what were the Cavs doing while the Heat were treading in the waters of mediocrity? EVERYTHING.
- Twenty-Five Million Dollar practice facility conveniently located minutes from LeBron James’ homestead
- Twenty (effectively 40) million in payroll added after being the only team in the NBA to outscore the Champion Celtics over a 7 game series
- Another Twenty (effectively another 40) million in payroll added following a 66 win (injury riddled) season
- Absorbing Shaq and his 20 million+ dollar contract SIMPLY so that Dwight Howard would not have to be double teamed
- Earning whiny gamesmanship quotes from Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson by exploiting the buyout rule
- Striking fear and reverence into an esteemed writer’s heart following the Joe Smith buyout
- Surrounding LeBron James with complimenting players to the tune of 143-46 (.756) from 2008-2010
- Selling more total tickets than any team in the NBA in 2009-2010 AND LOSING MONEY for the second straight year
Suffice to say, the Cavs organization went above and beyond for the sake of winning. Winning was (and is) the directive from the top. “Money doesn’t lead it follows.” This isn’t tattooed on Dan Gilbert’s chest, but he’s certainly lived by this creed as owner of the Cavs.
Let’s talk about teammates. I have nothing to say on the matter – I’ll just let you read what everyone else was saying about the Cavs:
“The Cavs, in my opinion, have improved themselves more than any team in the East. They’ve added talent and athleticism, plugged some holes and surrounded LeBron James with complementary pieces.” – Bob Finan
“1. Cavaliers – Might not win as many regular-season games but they’ve come back stronger after addressing matchup problems.” – Brian Windhorst
“Despite the championship banner hanging in Los Angeles, I’ll always believe the Cavaliers were the best team in basketball last season. (…) And, of course, it employs the best player in the league. James may not register the superhuman PER he posted a year ago, but he may not need to, either, given all the talent around him. (…) The Cavs were incredible a year ago until things crumbled in the conference finals, and they look stronger this time around.” John Hollinger – Preseason
“This time around, he has more help, and I think he gets it done in a seven-game slugfest. (Cavs over Orlando) – “Moreover, Cleveland will have home-court advantage, and few crowds are louder than the gatherings at the Q. I suspect they’ll have plenty to cheer as King James leads the the Cavs to their first championship.” (Cavs for the ‘Ship) John Hollinger – April 15
“The addition of Shaq will make things easier on LeBron in all areas, plus they kept their team intact and brought in a couple of more athletic types — I like the additions of Anthony Parker (guarding 2s and 3s) and Jamario Moon (guarding Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom and Rasheed Wallace). Also, Mo Williams will be better because he now knows what the big stage is like. LeBron won’t leave Cleveland without giving the city a championship.” – ESPN Basketball
“LeBron will find that less is more now that Shaq can handle the inside buckets for him. No matter where LeBron ends up next year, he may never have a better team than this one.” – JA Adande
“I think Cleveland will win the 2010 title. Best team, best player, best season.” – Bill Simmons [April 2010]
“Two votes for the Lakers, two for the Cavaliers and one each for the Celtics and Spurs.” -NBA Scouts (From Ian Thompsen)
“Even though the Cavs roster is loaded with talent, LeBron is the team’s end-all and be-all.” – Charley Rosen
“Last year’s collapse in the Eastern Conference finals only made LeBron hungrier and more willing to expand his game. Now, opponents can expect to see him in the post more. Scary. And look for a resurgence from a truly motivated Shaq.” - Chris Broussard (yes, I threw this one in just so we could all LAL)
So there we go. And I guaransheed every single one of these writers has either already written that LeBron was surrounded by a bunch of nobodies or has said it in an interview since “the decision”. And maybe the most disheartening part of following the NBA the past 12 months was finding that even the most fervent of “objective-based evidence”-writers felt compelled to pile on. I almost pulled one of these when I read John Hollinger trying to use the Cavs horrible 2010-2011 season as evidence for LeBron as the MVP – taking the path of least resistance like everyone else and ignoring all the other variables at work that added up to the misery that was the most recent Cavs season. Revisionist history is a bitch – and from a basketball perspective, that, in a huge way, is why I never want LeBron to succeed. Not simply because success for LeBron = vindication for the decision, but because vindication for the decision = everyone in the world taking a huge dump on the Cleveland Cavaliers of 2008-2010 – an organization that did it the right way, while celebrating a team that gambled Wade’s injury-prone body for 3 years for a mere chance to assemble a super-team.
Many people feel that the Cavs core moving foward was one of the main reasons that LeBron James left. That it was too long in the tooth. Guys like Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker were too old to compete in the NBA. I wonder how Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry did it. Is there really any doubt that the Cavs, given Dan Gilbert’s willingness to spend no matter what the cost, were NOT going to re-tool, re-shape, and rebound from the 2010 disappointment at the hands of the Celtics? Of course they were. LeBron’s gone and Dan Gilbert was willing to spend $30 million on TWO (2!) draft picks! In a draft that everyone hates! Criticism comes from every direction regarding the Cavs inability to secure a Dwyane Wade-like second banana for LeBron over the course of his time in Cleveland. But since 2007, almost every move made by the Cavaliers was lauded as a good move, an improvement, and a move that made the Cavs better. It’s supremely disingenuous of the NBA media-sphere to gleefully criticize the Cavs “inability to put talent around LeBron” when those same people would have taken up pitchforks and invaded Ohio had the Cavaliers been content to waste the prime of LeBron’s career so that they could get better draft picks, make their team younger and less experienced, build for the future (etc etc) – you know, what the Heat did. Make no mistake, given their unique circumstances, the Cavs did it the right way. They spared no expense, they made shrewd moves, and they gave LeBron a 60+ win supporting cast year after year (something Miami GM Dwyane Wade hasn’t done for LeBron yet) – and now they’re being punished for it. LeBron winning a title would be the ultimate punishment – and that’s why many of us die-hard Cavs fans hope it never ever happens. If what the Cavs did was not enough, if that’s not a recipe for success, if 60 win seasons and 90 Million dollar payrolls aren’t enough for homegrown free agents – then NBA basketball in Cleveland is doomed.
LeBron definitely made the wrong decision. You’ve already read/heard from the masses – he will NEVER experience what Dirk Nowitzki just did. He is no longer the Chosen One. He failed in his self-proclaimed goal. He chose number 23 for a reason, he chose to do the chalk toss for a reason. He invited the Jordan comparisons, and on the court, he did well for a few years to earn that comparison. But now, he’s ruined any chance he had of being in the pantheon of greatness. And this isn’t because he’s choked in the last 5 “biggest games of his life” – but because the pantheon of greatness is largely subjective – and the King is without any subjects. Ohio hates him, Miami doesn’t care about him, the everyone else finds him more interesting as an anti-hero than golden boy. The conventional wisdom on LeBron’s decision is summed up perfectly by John in the following paragraph:
He is trying to take the easy way to a championship. He’s given up his hometown and his undisputed alpha dog status in order to give himself an easier path to the rings he was supposedly destined to earned. He is a quitter. He is an egomaniac. He is every bad thing that you want him to be. The thing is, LeBron James knows that none of that will matter if he becomes in Miami what he never became in Cleveland: a Champion. He doesn’t care about doing it the right way anymore. He just wants to get it done, and let the opinions fall where they may. LeBron James is no longer interested in winning your approval. He knows that if he wins championships, the fans will come to him, no matter what they’re saying about him now.
LeBron James desperately cares about your approval – you can see it in his awkward responses to every press conference on the subject. You could see it in his eyes when we burned his jerseys. I see John’s thought process here, and I think it’s wrong. A championship doesn’t rewrite a legacy. Just like DeShawn Stevenson will always be an idiot. The first thing most of us will think about when we look back on him will not be NBA CHAMPION-DS, but things like this. The first thing Bill Simmons thinks of when he hears “FINALS MVP-Kobe Bryant” is a fraction that can be reduced to 1/4. I can tell you first hand that Kobe Bryant’s legacy didn’t rebound because of his post-Shaq championships. It did because the entire city of Los Angeles is in love with him possibly more than Cleveland was with LeBron – and over time, when you have enough people shouting from the rooftops, it starts to sway public opinion. I listened to NBC reporters use the phrase “greatest player on the planet” at least 30 times during the 2008 Olympics. This was LESS THAN 3 MONTHS after Kobe’s Lakers got PUNKED by the Celtics. It didn’t take a championship to change public opinion, to change Kobe’s legacy – it took his fans shaking the Staples Center with MVP chants during 1st quarter free throws of pre-season games. LeBron, in one fell swoop, alienated just about everyone that would ever appropriately echo his greatness on the court in the court of public opinion – and no championship will ever change that.
It’s unfair and unfortunate, but reputations proceed reality more often than not in our world. And Cleveland (mostly unfairly) has a bad reputation. From where I stand, it negatively affects the psyche of the people. It turns us into victims-first, looking for any sympathy to embrace, appearing as a third world country vying for geopolitical support. I fear that the “The Decision” reinforces a decades long unfair reputation and the magnitude of LeBron’s decision to leave has unsettling implications for all of our egos. The Cavs, as an organization, and we fans, as a collection of civic pride – did just about everything possible to keep a hometown hero at home. And he left. What does that say to our bright young minds of the future? What does that say to our businesses? What does it say to those people outside Cleveland, considering a re-location to the Forest City? What does it say to Cleveland sports fans that already believe in curses and karma? My hope is that Cleveland’s demons play out like LeBron’s basketball career – at least then it would create the appearance (and we could convince ourselves) that running away from home is never the answer to life’s problems. That choosing the easy way out is not always the right way. That crapping on Cleveland in front of the entire world is a stronger curse than trading Rocky Colavito. That when in doubt, go for the Love.
Part 3 will briefly (for real) summarize why I am so angry with LeBron. Not simply for “The Decision” but for a collection of choices he made over the years. I was always tolerant, always defensive, because he was our guy – he was Cleveland. We don’t know him anymore – he’s not of us. Until then, I leave you with this:
Smeagol lived a good life. He had friends and was well respected in his hometown. Smeagol’s life changed forever when he was seduced by a shiny ring. He killed his best friend, Deagol, over the ring, and that which he lusted for plunged him into darkness.
“And you will weep
When you face the end alone
You are lost
You can never go home”