LeBron James Abandons Cleveland, Creates Power Trio in MiamiThe 2010 NBA free agency circus--headlined by LeBron James' narcissistic power plays and publicity stunts--climaxed on Thursday night when James commandeered ESPN's airwaves for one hour to stab a sharp, rusty stake right through the hearts of Cleveland sports fans by proudly declaring that he will sign with the Miami Heat. For seven years, the Cleveland Cavaliers' organization bent over backwards to cater to James' every whim, the Cleveland media showered him with unending praise and the team's fans cheered his every move while also literally begging him to return their unwavering affection by re-signing with the team. James responded by leaving without even saying goodbye, fleeing Northeast Ohio at night for the comforts of a Connecticut TV studio and not even having the common courtesy to bother to make a phone call to Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert.
It is already quite obvious that the coverage of this over the top drama will be very parochial in nature: for instance, in Cleveland this will be framed as a story about betrayal while in Miami this will be depicted as a story about LeBron James joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The larger story that is seemingly getting lost in the hype is that Pat Riley outsmarted everybody else so completely that he looks like Bobby Fischer playing chess against a bunch of little children. While so many league executives, media members and fans speculated about what LeBron James really wants, Riley not only figured it out but delivered it on a silver platter: Riley realized that anywhere James goes he will get paid big bucks and he will be able to be a "global icon" (even if that nebulous term has never been precisely defined) but the one opportunity that James could not readily obtain was the chance to play with other All-Stars who are also in their primes.
Riley handled this entire process masterfully; after Wade refused to sign a long term contract extension in 2006 but later griped that he did not have enough help Riley essentially said "If you are not going to commit to this franchise long term then just shut up and play and I'll build the team how I see fit." Riley made it clear that until Wade committed to the Heat that the Heat would keep their options open, including going after max level free agents if Wade decided to bolt; so, Wade kept his mouth shut, led the Heat to the playoffs and then decided to help Riley recruit top players to come to Miami.
I don't think that anyone anticipated that Riley would be able to clear up so much salary cap space that he could not only re-sign Wade but also bring in two other max level players. It seems unlikely that a team can win a championship with three stars and nine minimum salary players but even if the Heat do not win a title this year Riley has assembled an impressive troika to build around for upcoming seasons--and if Riley and his super trio can entice a few aging but still capable veterans to come to Miami on the cheap in order to try to get rings then the Heat will be a viable championship contender very quickly. It must be added that if James, Wade and Bosh truly teamed up with winning--and not making max money--as their top goal then they could greatly accelerate the process of creating a powerful team by agreeing to sign for $10 million or $12 million per year instead of $16 million per year; the millions of dollars that the Heat save would enable them to sign some players for more than the league minimum--and I suspect that James, Wade and Bosh could figure out some way to get by on "just" $10 million per year.
Most observers considered James, Wade and Bosh to be the three most desirable free agents--and Riley swooped up all of them!
Meanwhile, many of the remaining top players quietly re-signed with their original teams, leaving relative table scraps for teams like the Knicks and Nets, franchises that tanked--I mean, strategically positioned themselves--in order to theoretically woo one or more of the top tier free agents to the New York metropolitan area.
I never for one moment believed that James would go to New York. The Knicks are the clowns of the free agency circus: for several years they have been ripping off their fans by selling an inferior product packaged with the promise that LeBron James' dream is to play in the "Mecca" of pro basketball. Two seasons ago, I pointed out that the Knicks had not improved during the early part of the Mike D'Antoni era and that there was little reason to expect that they would get better any time soon; my "reward" for speaking the truth was to get trashed by Knick fans and an associate economics professor from the middle of nowhere who moonlights as a "stat guru"--but everything that I have been saying about the Knicks has been proven to be correct: they were even worse in 2010 than they were in 2009 and all the Knicks have to show for their "efforts" is Amare Stoudemire, who they will now overpay to replace David Lee, a more versatile and productive player who is also healthier and younger. New York fans--and especially the season ticket holders--have a right to be puzzled, if not outraged, at the rudderless mess their franchise has become.
Chicago Bulls' supporters seem baffled that James apparently does not consider their squad to be a dynasty in the making but I have to concur with James on that count; the Bulls have a rookie head coach, they do not have a defined style of play and I think that their roster looks better on paper than it will perform on the court. Why would James leave the Cavs to make, at best, a lateral move?
The entire city of Cleveland feels betrayed by James and this collective civic pain is only exceeded--at least in the context of sports--by Art Modell's shameful abandonment of the loyal, long suffering Cleveland Browns' fans.
James' handling of the free agency process was clumsy and tone deaf, betraying an alarming amount of hubris plus a total disregard for the feelings of anyone who is not a member of his "team"--and it is critically important to note that whenever James uses that word he means his buddies/cronies/hangers-on, not the actual team that employs him to play basketball (and not quit in playoff games).
Gilbert promptly responded to James' announcement with a scathing letter blasting James for "a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment." Gilbert termed James' action a "cowardly betrayal." In an interview with the Associated Press, Gilbert added, "He quit (versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs). Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar." Gilbert also alleged that James quit in game six versus Orlando in the 2009 playoffs. Gilbert's comments are blunt and harsh but they are also true: you don't have to be a basketball expert to realize how disinterested James seemed versus Boston--particularly in game two and game five--and James' performance versus Orlando in game six of the 2009 playoffs was, at the very least, curiously passive. While Gilbert's accusations have much merit, I wonder if he ever confronted James regarding James' subpar playoff efforts and I also wonder why Gilbert fired Coach Mike Brown if Gilbert had such a clear understanding of just how much blame James must shoulder for the Cavs' disappointing 2009 and 2010 playoff runs. In retrospect, Gilbert should have dealt with James the way that Riley dealt with Wade, insisting that if James did not fully commit to the Cavs then the Cavs would not make short term moves to appease James at the possible expense of long term salary cap flexibility--but it is not really fair to blame Gilbert for rolling the dice and trying to win immediately, especially when one of the main reasons that the Cavs did not win is that James quit during the 2010 playoffs.
Gilbert's letter concluded by boldly stating that the Cavs would win a championship before James does; that may sound like wishful thinking but keep in mind that even though the Cavs' teams that Gilbert assembled lacked the star power that the Heat currently have they still managed to make it to the NBA Finals in 2007 and to post 60-plus wins in both 2009 and 2010. If the Heat experience injuries and/or chemistry problems it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that James will never again have as much team success as he enjoyed with the Cavs from 2007-2010; NBA Finals appearances and 60-win seasons are very hard to come by and it would not surprise me if a decade from now we look back at the 2010 season as James' great missed opportunity to win a championship.
It is quite predictable that True Hoop's Henry Abbott finds Gilbert's heartfelt letter more offensive than James' conduct; Abbott is a shill for ESPN--which sold out whatever remained of their journalistic integrity by caving in to every whim of James and his "team" regarding the one hour TV special about "The Decision"--and Abbott is much less interested in truth than he is in superficial appearances: Gilbert spoke the truth about how James quit during the playoffs and about James' deplorable recent conduct but James donated ESPN's ad money from the one hour LeBron infomercial to children, so in Abbott's eyes James must be the better guy. I think that it is great that James facilitated a process to help underprivileged children but that charitable act--done with other people's money, by the way--in no way mitigates or excuses how James handled the free agency process, jerking whole cities around as if they are mere playthings that exist for his amusement.
Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, James had every right to explore his options; the mere act of leaving Cleveland is not a betrayal--and the decision to go to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh is logical, though James could also have contended for championships by staying in Cleveland--but the way that James maximized Cleveland's humiliation was cruel and unnecessary. It is actually quite remarkable how James has managed to essentially alienate virtually every NBA city other than Miami. If James had cut out all of the hoopla and just issued a simple press release a week ago thanking Cleveland for seven great years but saying that the prospect of playing with Wade and Bosh is too good to pass up I doubt that James would be experiencing a fraction of the backlash that he is getting now and will continue to receive for the foreseeable future.
Not long ago, James was almost universally popular and his easygoing demeanor was compared favorably with Kobe Bryant's dour facial expressions and hard driving manner. James' conduct does not change my opinion of him as a player--he is the most athletic and productive regular season performer in the NBA, while Bryant is more skilled and has a more finely tuned sense of how to be effective against elite teams--but it is amusing to watch and listen as the talking heads in Cleveland who used to laud James as being far superior to Bryant now openly mock James and say that he will never match Bryant's accomplishments; just as it was wrong to rank James ahead of Bryant purely out of home town bias it is also wrong to now downgrade James' skills just because he lacks a certain class and grace in terms of how he has handled himself: depending on Bryant's health/durability, James will still be either the best or second best player in the NBA next season, though there is good reason to suspect that Bryant will once again be the more effective playoff performer.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:48 AM