Fully Evolved LeBron James Returns to ClevelandWhen LeBron James left Cleveland four years ago, he was a great player--the best regular season player in the game--but his on-court game still contained flaws (including an inconsistent outside shot, the reluctance to post up and an incomplete understanding of what it takes to lead a team to a championship) and his off-court game betrayed a lack of maturity: he would be the first to admit now that the "Decision" was poorly thought out/executed and that the subsequent preseason victory party in Miami displayed a staggering combination of hubris and naivete; it is not easy to win "Not one, not two, not three, etc." championships nor is it prudent to boast about the inevitability of doing so before playing a single game with a new team and right after quitting in his most recent playoff series.
Spending four years in Miami changed James. He finally added an outside shot and a post up game to his repertoire, he learned that the best player must assert himself as the best player--and not defer to anyone else--and he figured out the paradoxical truth that understanding how difficult it is to win a championship makes it easier to win a championship. The latter point is perhaps the most important one: if you think that it is easy to win a championship then you will take shortcuts in your preparation, you will be overconfident against opponents who you perceive to be inferior and you will be inclined to quit when things become difficult--because you never expected things to become difficult and thus you are not prepared mentally, psychologically and physically to rise to the challenge. Think of George Foreman versus Muhammad Ali; most of the world thought that Foreman was invincible and Foreman bought into the hype, so when Ali took Foreman's best punches for several rounds and then asked Foreman if that was all he had, Foreman realized that he had nothing left. In his worst playoff performances at the highest levels of competition, James looked like Foreman: an imposing figure physically who was outsmarted and defeated by wily, tough opponents.
James' explanation for why he is returning to Cleveland is mature and measured; he hit all of the right notes, said all of the right things and showed that he has shed himself of the hubris and naivete he displayed to the world four years ago. He wisely declared, "I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver." James set a confident but not brash or defiant tone. He is the best player in the NBA and he can reasonably expect to win at least one more championship if he plays up to his potential while being surrounded by a competent supporting cast--but nothing is guaranteed.
James' closing remarks are touching and, if backed up by sincere actions, will profoundly affect many lives and perhaps be a positive influence on other elite athletes:
I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
One part of James' essay sounds insincere, though: "I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there." Was he lying when he stated his goal to win eight championships (he stopped at "not seven" in his premature Miami "victory speech" four years ago) in Miami or is he lying now when he says that returning to Cleveland was always part of his plan? I am sure that after Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert blasted James and Cleveland fans burned James' jersey the last thought in James' mind was returning to Cleveland. When James went to Miami, he thought that joining forces with two stars in their primes would create an unstoppable team that would win more championships than the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took minor pay cuts--accepting slightly less than the maximum--but the three stars really did not leave too much cash left on the table to build a supporting cast; they collaborated to build the Heat and they figured that they could win multiple titles while playing alongside spare parts and castoffs. Wade was thrilled to be joined by two stars in Miami, Bosh was happy to be the third wheel and James naively believed that all that was missing in Cleveland was the star power that he had helped assemble in Miami. After the debacle in the 2011 NBA Finals, James realized that he cannot escape the fact that the responsibility to win a championship lies firmly on his shoulders: yes, Michael Jordan passed to John Paxson and Steve Kerr when the situation warranted but Jordan also did work in the first 47 minutes of those games to force teams to trap him; Jordan never stood around passively, expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting the way that James did against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals and against Boston in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. James is a dominant scorer, like Jordan and like Kobe Bryant, but until James arrived in Miami he lacked the inclination/complete skill set necessary to consistently be a dominant scorer against elite teams in championship level competition.
If Wade had not declined so precipitously, I doubt that James would have left Miami. Now that James understands how difficult it is to win a championship, he realizes that it is important to surround himself with young, athletic players to provide a cushion for when his formidable physical gifts begin to fade (though James' game will likely not fall apart the way that Wade's has, because James not only has a more well-rounded skill set than Wade but James is also much bigger than Wade, an important--though underrated at times--factor in NBA greatness/longevity). Vowing to return home not just to reward Cleveland's long-suffering fans with a championship but also to exert a positive influence beyond the basketball court is a pledge that cannot be criticized--but I do not believe for one second that this is part of some master plan hatched in 2010. James left Cleveland for what he presumed to be greener pastures, he experienced great success--though not as much success as he expected--and now he is making a decision (no capital letters, no premature victory parties this time) based on a combination of financial, social and basketball factors. Take note that James signed a two year max deal with Cleveland, with an option to leave after one year; James says that he is fully committed to stay in Cleveland long term and, based on a variety of considerations, it is a shrewd business decision to leave his options open--but James is also giving himself an escape hatch. James has every right to do so, but let's not pretend that his return to Cleveland is primarily motivated by altruistic concerns; he left Cleveland in the lurch four years ago and he just abandoned his "band of brothers" in Miami, so there is every reason to believe that leaving Cleveland after one year is not just a theoretical possibility but also a bargaining tool/threat that James will use to maximum effect. Is James loyal because he is coming back to Cleveland or does he lack loyalty because he is leaving behind two supposedly close friends merely because one friend declined physically and the other friend may not be quite good enough to help James win more championships? If James were truly motivated primarily by hometown concerns, then he never would have left Cleveland--and if his move to Miami was primarily motivated by the powerful bond of friendship (as some writers suggested at the time, speculating that he was trying to recreate his high school experience at St. Vincent-St. Mary) then James would not desert his friends but rather he would finish his career playing alongside them.
LeBron James fully realizes just how much power he wields in the NBA universe and he is not bashful about using that power. That does not make him a bad guy at all, but I am not ready to elevate him to sainthood, either; returning to Cleveland makes sense on many levels for James and I truly hope that he accomplishes all of the off-court goals that he eloquently listed but I do not quite buy his revisionist history about why he left or why he is coming back. I am intrigued, though, by how much he grew as a person and as a player in Miami, and it will be fascinating to watch that process continue in Cleveland--for at least one year.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM