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(And now, the exciting conclusion:)
“I couldn’t stop running it over and over and over in my mind: the vague and distant suspicion that we never understood what happened that night.” – Patrick Kenzie, “Gone Baby Gone”
Here were the possible storylines coming out of free agency: LeBron goes to New York to try and save basketball in its holiest city, LeBron goes to Chicago to team up with a potential-loaded team and follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps, LeBron goes to Brooklyn via Newark to play for an unpredictable billionaire in a brand new gajillion-dollar arena, LeBron goes to Los Angeles to try and unhex the long-cursed Clippers, LeBron stays in Cleveland and decides to bring Cleveland a championship or proverbially die trying, LeBron goes to Miami to hang out with two of his friends and eight guys making the minimum salary. If you didn’t have a horse in that race, which would you have picked? I liked Chicago, but I’ll tell you what; I wouldn’t have been unhappy with Brooklyn, Cleveland, Manhattan, or Los Angeles.
In Chicago, the thought of adding LeBron to one of the league’s best defenses was drool-worthy. A crunch-time lineup of James, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson/Kyle Korver (defense/offense) would be at least as good as anything the Lakers, Magic, Celtics, and Suns could trot out. Instead of having to bring the ball up, LeBron could run ahead on the break and deliver even more “holy everything I’m gonna wear out the rewind button on my remote watching that over and over” dunks. The set offense would be equally devastating, with James’ slashing ability keeping defenses honest as Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer, two players built for pick-and-roll, handle the secondary duties. If somehow a defense can clamp down on all that, there’s Korver’s 3′s and Noah’s offensive rebounding to worry about. It’s a nightmare of a team to try and gameplan for, and that’s not even getting to how frustrating a defense with that much length would be to play against, with Rose hassling the opposing team’s ball-handler and James doing that thing where he takes two giant strides and steps in front of a sloppy pass. Run. Dunk. Repeat.
Championship Ceiling: 6. No joke, this is a monster of a team (whose oldest core guy is 28!) that is built in the same vein as the last four champions, and eight of the last nine (excluding the 2005-06 Heat, who won with a combination of Wade’s star play and Donaghy-esque reffing) Even allowing for a year of lockout, this team could be favorites to win every championship from now until Tim Duncan’s son declares for the draft.
With the Nets, LeBron’s got a lot more work to do. No way they win anything serious next year, although it was rumored around the draft that Utah is in love with Derrick Favors (as I’m writing this, they’re trying to acquire Al Jefferson; great move, and I’d love to see Big Al play in front of that crowd). If you bundle Favors, Devin Harris, and 2 first-rounders, doesn’t cap-conscious small-market Utah have to consider trading you Deron Williams, since they’re clearly not a championship team now and Jerry Sloan’s a good bet to retire after the upcoming season? It’s a big if, but it’s the type of gamble you take if you can grab the 2nd best basketball player on the planet, according to the best basketball player ever. Avery Johnson is a good coach, certainly better than Mike Brown, and the move to Brooklyn makes this team a very appealing place to play. So it’s definitely an uncertain future, but one with almost limitless potential, especially give Mikhail Prokhorov’s promise to spend whatever it takes to win.
Championship Ceiling: 3. With the roster they have now, it’s difficult to see them getting beyond the 2nd round in the East, so changes would have to be made, but the owner seems to be willing. That’s a huge deal, and Chris Paul, a point guard born to play in New York City, may even be available soon…
An L-Train ride away, a LeBronified Knicks team immediately revitalizes basketball in Madison Square Garden, making the holy grail of arenas relevant once more. With a new point guard (Gotta mention CP3 again, as he’s apparently been talking about a possible Knick future) Amare, LeBron, and Gallinari are a pretty interesting team, and possibly an even higher-octane version of Phoenix’s 7 Seconds or Less squads. They’re defensively feeble, and probably can’t win in 2010-11 because of it, but we’ve all heard how Tony Parker and Carmelo Anthony want to play in MSG. If either one of those guys can be lured in the next 24 months, this team becomes a championship favorite.
Championship Ceiling: 2. The two might as well be a double-digit number because one is all it takes to make it worth it. If LeBron is part of a team that brings a championship to New York, he is immortalized forever. I don’t buy the whole “New York is the best place to play in any sport” nonsense that is propagated only by New Yorkers, but MSG is a special place to play, no doubt. In thirty years, there are 50,000 young men walking around from Manhattan to the Bronx with the first name LeBron.
The Clippers, who were probably hampered by the fact that their owner, Donald Sterling, is a personal friend of Satan, were never real contenders in this, which is a shame considering that they have good, if tortured, fans and a lot of underdog appeal. WAY more appealing is the “wow, is that really the Clippers?” lineup they can trot out: Baron Davis (who we have seen can be a great player, but gets lazy on a losing team), Eric Gordon (a jump shot so good-looking it sears corneas), LeBron, Blake Griffin (destroyed Summer League, will do the same to the NBA if he stays healthy), Chris Kaman (All-Star last year on a pretty wretched Clips team). Backup center DeAndre Jordan has shown flashes and there’s still room for a shooter (e.g. Korver) and a defensive specialist (e.g. Tony Allen) off the bench. Not as tantalizing as what Chicago can put on the floor, but a damn good team in theory. Vinny Del Negro doesn’t have it all figured out as coach but A) the Bulls played hard for him, even when the coach was assaulted by the GM, and B) they probably get a better coach if LeBron acts as ambassador.
Championship Ceiling: 3. The West is aging, and if this team can get past the other proprietors of the Staples Center (And HOW awesome would it be playing a playoff series where all seven games are at the same place? By the 7th game, you’d need riot police), they can win championships if everyone’s healthy.
As for Cleveland, I can’t necessarily say we missed out on anything there. As understandably pissed as Dan Gilbert was about the way LeBron left (more on this in a second), the owner is just as guilty as James for standing by while the best talent wasted away with a bunch of also-rans. The management couldn’t land Michael Redd or Amare Stoudemire and couldn’t keep Boozer when it mattered. They traded a 1st-round pick away for Jiri Welsch, who most Celtics fans will remember as a symbol of how easy it is to make it into the NBA if you’re from Europe. They hired a glorified assistant to be their coach and kept him around after losing last year to an Orlando team with no top-tier offensive player on it, only to be burned again by the same coach’s ineptitude in this year’s playoffs.
The cruelty of the decision aside, Cleveland as a team offered nothing more for LeBron unless they made the type of radical changes that had been talked about for years, but never undertaken.
Championship Ceiling: 2. And that’s being generous. This team should’ve gone to the Finals this past year, and with Byron Scott at the helm they’d be much better positioned to do so in the future. Boston and Chicago had teams break their mind-numbingly long championship droughts in the last decade, and maybe Cleveland could’ve too.
If you want to defend LeBron, that’s fine. It doesn’t take a lot of convincing for me to understand his reasoning: he wanted to go play in a beautiful warm-weather city with beautiful people and play with one of the only players in the league who can hold a candle to him. If I’d spent every winter of my life in Cleveland, and every night from November to May, since I was 18, carrying a bunch of teammates who couldn’t hit the side of a barn with another barn, I’d probably leave too. But I wouldn’t be as unfeeling about it as LeBron was, and even if I did, I’d certainly hide it better.
Said LeBron of the decision, “you know, it’s hard to explain, but at the same time my heart, in the seven years I gave to that franchise, to that city, it was everything.” What I gave. This was the only part of the ordeal that I found personally offensive. Sports fans are, overwhelmingly, people who have other interests and responsibilities. It takes time out of the day and cash out of the wallet to be a serious fan, and to hear James imply that fans of Cleveland should be grateful for having watched him play was brutal. This was not indentured servitude, or whatever ridiculousness Jesse Jackson is talking about; LeBron was paid hundreds of millions of dollars for his efforts, and to turn and justify his decision as if he’d somehow paid his dues in Cleveland was outrageous. THAT is why they’re burning his jersey, why he’ll have a tough time keeping his home in Akron, and why his return to Cleveland will likely involve some very bad behavior on the part of fans. It’s not because he left, it’s because he acted as if he had fulfilled some obligation.
The only outcome that could’ve possibly come close to justifying this behavior would’ve been a championship, something that was never even a realistic possibility, when it came down to it. In 2006-07, LeBron was just too young, but showed us how great he might be. In 2007-08, he ran into the Celtics and nearly derailed the Big 3′s path to the Finals. In 2008-09, there wasn’t enough firepower to beat Orlando. This past year, as the wheels came off and things turned sour, many accused LeBron of quitting on his team. Four years of failure, which, whether he meant it or not, the 25-year-old sounded like he was telling Clevelanders to be grateful for.
This is why all the questions have arisen about James as a person. For a player who most considered to have come into his prime as a basketball player, LeBron now appears woefully immature for his age, a possible consequence of skipping college basketball and the coinciding maturation that usually accompanies it (unless you go to Michigan State or any school John Calipari coaches at). His business associates are all peers AND friends, and he has no wise elders to consult. And by not seeking advice from any ex-players or coaches (that we know of), LeBron’s basketball credibility has suffered. Many voices have chimed in, all with similar refrains: Jordan or Bird or Magic or even Kobe would’ve never handled things like this.
And maybe this is something that wouldn’t be brutally obvious to a 25-year-old basketball icon, but there was a carelessness to “The Decision” that genuinely made it seem like LeBron hadn’t considered what he was doing to Cleveland. I know that my romanticized version of sports isn’t what it’s really like for these guys, and that agents and owners can siphon a lot of the fun out of the game. And I know that we as fans love these guys a lot more than they love us; hell, we love to love them a lot more than they love to be loved by us (read that twice so it makes sense). We don’t have to sit there for hours of getting low-balled or hearing some slimeball agent try and bump his commission up, and I understand that at some point, it’s numbing. But there’s now that LeBron could have thought about “The Decision” for more than five seconds and not realized it was a cruel thing to do to Cleveland and its fans. And as a University of Michigan fan, it would usually delight me to see Buckeye Country rent asunder, but this felt kind of like beating up the smallest kid on the playground.
Look at it in its simplest terms. Biggest sports star in this country can play anywhere he wants with any teammates, including his hometown team. Not only does he decide to defect from the state AND the region (I think he could’ve sold Chicago with a kind of Midwest Solidarity thing), but he does so on live TV, as if celebrating his right to finally leave. He doesn’t even have the guts to return phone calls from his hometown team and then thinks a couple words about how much he loves Akron, Ohio will make things okay. No matter what his words said, his actions suggested LeBron is disloyal. Ask Art Modell how well disloyalty plays in Ohio.
I don’t think anyone wanted this to become a catalyst for anti-LeBron sentiment. He’s not a Kobe, Rodman, or Laimbeer type, all of whom were easy (and fun) to hate. But it’s clear now that public backlash from “The Decision” has put LeBron on top of the Most Hated Player list, as predicted in this article by Jon Friedman. I’ll admit that I’m firmly on the anti-LeBron bandwagon, and will root for (almost) any team to beat the Heat soundly. By the way, if the Lakers play the Heat in the Finals next year, I’ll just commit seppuku and save myself from having to pick one team or the other.
Across message boards and in newspapers, this has been echoed, and it seems as though the NBA has its first Evil Empire since The Bad Boys in Detroit. Strangely enough though, it seems to all be targeted at James. No one seems antagonistic towards Wade or Bosh (except Stan Van Gundy, who rightfully called out Bosh for acting like Wade’s “lapdog” through the entire process). I guess it’s a shame that a superstar with the once-in-a-generation combination of skill, body, and explosiveness that James possesses may have permanently damaged his chance to have Jordan-esque adoration. Maybe the silver lining is that rooting against a villain can inspire just as much interest as rooting for a hero (not that James is necessarily either, but we know that this is the narrative set up for the upcoming season).
Nobody wanted it to turn into this. But LeBron brought it on himself. It started in his Game 5 no-show against the Celtics, when the league’s Most Valuable Player seemed to quit. And then in Game 6, the same thing happened. Then he drummed up the biggest sports story since the Super Bowl. But it wasn’t enough. He demanded that his crew be taken care of as well, which may have contributed to his leaning away from Chicago. (BTW, check out this related link about the pitch the Bulls delivered to the King; it gives me goosebumps at how badass it is, and then makes me a sad panda to think about what a wuss LeBron is for not immediately saying “Yes, sign me up, give me jersey #24, and let’s go to the United Center RIGHT MEOW”) It was a startling string of events that undermined the narrative we’ve heard so often about what a good teammate LeBron is, and how much he wants to win. Maybe that’s unfair to him, but I have a hard time feeling sympathy for the guy when he not only invited the media frenzy but amplified it tenfold.
If you drew a picture of the negative stereotypes of an NBA player (oh look here‘s one), the aforementioned player would probably be arrogant, selfish, obsessed with money, etc. This player would also probably play for the Knicks, but I digress. We’ve all had to sit through a game with that one person who “doesn’t watch the NBA,” and after their fifteenth “ugh, these guys aren’t even running that hard,” you either need to get up and leave the room or go Ron Artest on them. These people are insufferable, and they often complain most loudly about off-court stuff, about how egos ruin the pro game in a way that they don’t the college game.
And for an hour last Thursday night, those whiners were right. Even David Stern thought “The Decision” was ill-conceived and badly produced. It was forty-five minutes of “look at me,” with fifteen minutes of pundit-assisted “look at him.” As I mentioned before, it was the all-style, no-substance product that haters love to claim the NBA has become.
LeBron’s moment in the sun should’ve been recognized more for what it was: an unprecedented amount of control for a player in a system that has traditionally been dominated by owners. The NBA players union could’ve been right there at LeBron’s side, explaining how this choice exemplifies the beauty of free agency, the type of thing that would’ve made Curt Flood smile down from above. But there was no way a players union that’s bracing for a lockout is going to align itself with an hour long spectacle that the league wants no official part of. And the whole event was in such bad taste that now LeBron’s ability to choose (which, oh by the way, is not some handed-down-from-on-high privilege, but a right that players had to fight for) has been overshadowed by his narcissism. This, the NBA haters can now say, is what the NBA comes down to: ten million people watching a spoiled 25-year-old waste an hour of primetime television to say something that literally could be Tweeted.
Do I care what these people have to say about the NBA? Not particularly. But the league is entering a golden age, with established stars like Kobe, Nash, Howard, Wade, Paul, Nowitzki and James alongside bright can’t-miss guys like Durant, Wall, Rose, Curry, and Rondo. This past year’s Game 7 was the most watched basketball game since Michael Jordan won his last ring. The NBA is back, dudes! But with silliness like “The Decision” making headlines, the NBA misses out on attracting casual fans who don’t need the hype.
I have a confession. This article’s title was a lie. This is really Nine Things I Hate About “The Decision” And One Thing I Potentially Love About It. And if that makes me a liar, well then, at least I’m not a Grizzlies fan.
It mattered. What LeBron did? It effing mattered. It’s not a case of “no such thing as bad publicity.” For LeBron, it’s just bad publicity when it comes to his public perception. But people are talking about the NBA again. In the week leading up to LeBron’s signing, Madison Square Garden stock was jumping up and down based on the speculation about whether the Knicks could lure the league MVP. As Henry Abbott reported in the link above, The New York Times, noses-turned-up publication that they can be sometimes, wrote about the new Miami team in their prestigious Sunday Op-Ed section. And anyone who watched “The Decision” now has an opinion on whether they love or hate LeBron, how far the Heat really can go with eight players making the minimum, whether LeBron is the new Pippen, etc.
The Heat will try to win championships with two of the best five players in the league, and a third who’s in the top twenty. No team has ever amassed as much talent in one fell swoop. It’s possible that no team has ever faced as much immediate pressure to win a championship. It’s possible that Pat Riley could coach against Phil Jackson in an NBA Finals game in 2011. It’s possible that LeBron James isn’t even the guy taking the last shot for his own team. It’s possible that the NBA Championship now goes through the Eastern Conference. It’s possible that we’re watching the beginning of the biggest failed experiment in American sports history. It’s all possible.
And so even if you walked away from “The Decision” with a bad taste in your mouth, you’ve got a reason to watch the NBA now. It’s like the last season of LOST (and after hearing the rumors about the lockout, this analogy may be more apt than I want to know), where there are too many questions and at this point, you can’t turn away because you need to have some of them, any of them, answered.
So hold those questions until early November. You’ll get your answers.
Tags: Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Chicago Bulls, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Cleveland Cavaliers, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, James Posey, Joe Johnson, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Rajon Rondo, Ron Artest, Tony Parker