It’s one day after LeBron’s very public commitment to join the Miami Heat, and the fallout is just getting started. Never, in recent memory, have the actions of one basketball player gotten casual fans so worked up. The only close comparisons are Kobe in Colorado and Artest at the Palace. Weird, because one guy was accused of rape, one guy punched a fan, and one guy decided to sign with a new team. Call me a LeBron defender, but I’m just trying to provide some perspective. And as a friendly heads up, I will be referring to Wade/Bosh/James, here and on until there is a general consensus on their nickname, as the Super Best Friends. If that undermines your ability to take this post seriously, feel free to stop reading now.
1. LeBron is giving up
There are 3 primary ways to motivate an NBA player: money, love, and winning. Almost any free agency decision, like it or not, gets settled by the former on that list. Guys will say the right things, talk about wanting to build something out of nothing, but 9 times out of 10, the team dangling the biggest paycheck will nab a player’s signature. That being said, it’s not unprecedented for a player to sacrifice a payday for a place in fans’ hearts (think Paul Pierce, just this week, re-signing with Boston even though the Clippers could have offered more).
LeBron, by signing with Miami, has demonstrated that winning is his priority, above all else. He could have re-signed with the Cavaliers, who, as his incumbent employer, were eligible to make the most lucrative offer. That would also have cemented his position as the most beloved athlete (person?) in Ohio’s history. That would have been the easy way out. Instead, LeBron went to Miami, an unpopular choice (even if it’s the most logical) where, keep in mind, nothing is guaranteed: only 1/3 of the Heat’s opening night roster is currently in place. It’s a good situation, but James is going to have to live up to his superstar status, as a scorer, facilitator, and defender, to make it work.
Any suggestion that LeBron is joining a team to make it an instant title favorite is a recognition of his unique ability. Putting three big scorers on one team doesn’t guarantee success (see: Washington Wizards, 2005-2010). What gives the Heat a chance at a title next year is that LeBron is the rare NBA scoring champion who’s probably better passing the ball than he is putting it in the hole. Putting three All-Stars together, you’re going to run the risk of too much overlapping talent and a team that plays as less than the sum of its parts. But LeBron’s versatility could make this particular experiment work. And if he’s the one man capable of doing that, how is he giving up?
James has left money on the table, and accepted that a sizable segment of basketball fans will resent any future success he attains. In the process, he’s also setting the expectations bar higher than it was for him in Cleveland, and maybe higher than it has been for any player in history. This team can make history by winning multiple titles, or it will be seen as the most expensive, high-profile failure in league history. Easy way out? Far from it.
2. The Heat are just lucky
As of now, the details of how much the Super Best Friends coordinated their moves this summer are not, and may never be, a matter of public knowledge. There are all kinds of theories circulating about when each of the Super Best Friends learned of the others’ intentions and how it affected each individual’s decision-making, but it’s clear that James, Wade, and Bosh have long wanted to play with each other. This could have happened, with some maneuvering (like the Heat shipping Michael Beasley to Minnesota, or creative sign-and-trades) on any of the teams actively pursuing LeBron. What made the Heat the only viable option is that Wade essentially refused to leave. None of the three were as committed to one destination, or one franchise, as Wade was to the Miami Heat. That says a lot about Wade’s loyalty, but it also speaks volumes about the organization.
Early in the free agency process, Wade pointed to Miami’s history of taking care of former players in their post-playing days as one reason the franchise had a leg up in securing his services over competing teams like the Bulls. In the past week, Wade reaffirmed that his decision to re-sign wasn’t about finding the best situation for the next few years, but for the rest of his life. Of course, the sentimentality wouldn’t matter much if Miami didn’t consistently suit up a winning product. They might not be the Celtics or Lakers, but for a team that only came to be in 1989, the Heat have done quite well for themselves. They have the 2006 championship, of course, but they’ve also made the playoffs in 14 of their 22 seasons, the best rate of any of the 8 teams (Bobcats, Grizzlies, Heat, Hornets, Magic, Mavs, Raptors, Timberwolves) introduced after the 1976 merger.
Yes, it seems pretty likely right now that the Summer of 2010 will vault the Heat to new heights they wouldn’t otherwise have attained. But it was the track records of Pat Riley and the organization as a whole that paved the way for such a future.
3. LeBron owes the Cavs more
Some simple stats: in the 7 years before they landed LeBron James, the Cavaliers had a regular-season winning percentage of .406, won no playoff series, and consistently finished in the bottom half of the league in attendance. In the 7 years LeBron played for them, they had a regular-season winning percentage of .608, won 8 playoff series (and 2 Eastern Conference titles), and finished in the NBA’s top 5 for attendance 5 times. Those are the team accomplishments. Then think about how James, at the age of 25, is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, his 2 MVP’s represent the only times a Cav has ever won the award, and he represents 4 of the team’s 5 all-time entries onto an All-NBA 1st Team (shoutout to Mark Price).
No, he never won a championship. But for the past several years, as a myriad of statistics demonstrate, no individual player has done more to help his team win, in the regular season or in the playoffs. So what, precisely, does he owe a team that he strapped onto his back from Day 1, made relevant for 7 years, and single-handedly made millions of dollars for through TV appearances and merchandise sales alone? Yes, Cavs fans came out in droves to support him, showed him love, and helped nurture an 18-year-old prodigy into the superstar he is today. But these things would’ve happened regardless of the team that drafted him. Could any other player have brought the Cavs the wins, the fanfare, and the financial boost that LeBron has for 7 years? And he obviously could’ve gone earlier if he wanted. Rookie contracts aren’t signed for 7 years, and James at any point of frustration could have pulled a Garnett or Bryant and demanded a trade. Instead, he kept quiet, pulled up his teammates, and campaigned for other stars (Stoudemire, Jamison, Shaq) to come to Cleveland.
The images of Cavs “fans” burning LeBron’s jersey last night were appalling, as was the childish rant owner Dan Gilbert posted on the Cavs’ website. If Gilbert has a personal issue with LeBron, that’s his business, but the only way that “open letter” could have been a less mature way to handle it is if he referred to James as “poopyhead” a bunch of times. Maybe the jersey-burning and the ranting are just the embittered taking the easy way out, trying to make the split easier to stomach. Yes, LeBron could’ve handled his departure better. It wasn’t necessary to promote his announcement and make it a televised event. It represents a rare blunder for such a poised superstar. But does one misstep erase 7 years of good memories? Without question, it was the best 7-year stretch in Cavaliers history. Cleveland fans were, for a time, the envy of the rest of the league. Imagine.
So why are so many of them, and Gilbert, reacting so vindictively? By painting him as a selfish egomaniac, it dampens the impact of seeing James go. It’s understandably less of a blow to say goodbye to a villain than to recognize, as he leaves, that LeBron was not only the Cavs’ best player of all time but one of its most beloved teammates. Easier to say good riddance than wonder about what could have been.
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