LeBron James Blames Everyone but Himself for the Cavaliers' Recent SkidLeBron James has an interesting take on personal responsibility: instead of looking within himself, he looks around to find the person(s) responsible for whatever he believes is not going right. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick invariably says that he did not coach well enough. Belichick understands that, in order to achieve maximum success, responsibility inevitably begins at the top. That is true leadership and that is one reason why Belichick's players are so loyal to him and play so hard for him--a facet of Belichick's coaching success that most media members have never understood simply because they are too focused on being offended that Belichick rolls his eyes at their stupid questions. Belichick is not trying to be popular in the media; he is trying to lead his team to championships.
James thinks about things quite differently. "We're top heavy as s---," James declared of his Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost two in a row and five of their last seven but still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. In case anyone missed the point, James explained that the "top heavy" portion of the roster consists of himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while the other players are--in James' view--not particularly good. James urged General Manager David Griffin to not be complacent. James publicly told Griffin that he is not doing a very good job and he offered very specific instructions about what kinds of players Griffin needs to sign as soon as possible.
To his credit, instead of meekly accepting James' ungracious public attacks, Griffin fired back, noting that the Cavaliers' front office is not complacent but that he has observed some complacency on the court--a not so thinly veiled shot at James' admitted tendency to shift into "chill mode" during the regular season. Don't be surprised if James decides to sit out a few games in the very near future as a power play to suggest to the Cavaliers that they are nothing without him.
Keep in mind that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the highest payroll in the league over the past three seasons. It is not like owner Dan Gilbert is pinching pennies and assembling the roster as cheaply as possible. Not only that, we all know that James put this team together. The Cavaliers kept the players he wanted and shipped out the players he did not want. The Cavaliers fired a head coach who had led them to the NBA Finals the year before in order to promote a coach who better related to James. This is not meant to suggest that James has been a bad behind the scenes general manager--but it is meant to suggest that James has no right to act like he had nothing to do with putting this team together just because the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch three months before James feels like playing hard on a nightly basis.
Let's look at Cleveland's current roster. Irving was the Rookie of the Year (2012) and an All-Star before James returned to Cleveland. Love made the All-NBA Second Team in 2012 and finished sixth in the MVP voting that season. When you have three max or near max players, there is not a lot of money left for other players--but the Cavaliers did open up the vault for Tristan Thompson (who is represented by LeBron James' friend) to the tune of more than $15 million per year. The Cavaliers were bidding against themselves, as it is doubtful that any other team would have paid Thompson that much. If General Manager James thought that the Cavaliers were too "top heavy," perhaps he should have suggested to Thompson that he accept a little less so the Cavaliers could have more money to spend on other players. Or maybe James could have accepted less than the max (that idea apparently only occurs to the media with regard to Kobe Bryant's contract).
Griffin recently acquired Kyle Korver, who made the All-Star team in 2015 and who has led the league in three point field goal percentage three times. The team's eighth man in minutes played, Richard Jefferson, twice averaged more than 22 ppg in a season and he was a starter for two NBA Finalists. Yes, Jefferson is 36 years old but he is only playing 19 mpg; he is a wily veteran who has shown that he still has some bounce in his legs.
The Cavaliers have spent a ton of money to surround James with two All-Stars in their primes, a (recent) former All-Star, a role player who is represented by James' friend and several other specialists who have been hand-picked by James. Does James think that a $127 million payroll is a sign of complacency? How much talent does James need around him so that he feels like he can contend for a championship?
One fascinating aspect of this is how the media either supports James' criticisms or, at worst, simply deems these outbursts as the inevitable price the Cavaliers must pay for signing James--a price that most say is well worth it. That take is only acceptable if it comes from people who apply the same reasoning toward other superstars--for instance, Kobe Bryant.
Center and point guard are historically the two most important positions in basketball. During Bryant's prime, his L.A. Lakers surrounded him with Kwame Brown at center and Smush Parker at point guard. During the 2006-07 season, Brown split time at center with Andrew Bynum, a second year injury prone player whose conditioning, work ethic and maturity left much to be desired at that time. Bryant carried the Lakers to back to back playoff berths in the tough Western Conference but he was understandably frustrated by how horrible his supporting cast was. Some fans encountered Bryant in a parking lot and Bryant, unaware that he was being recorded, accurately described how poorly Andrew Bynum was playing. Bryant's comments became a huge national story and were cited as proof that he is a bad teammate and a bad leader. The reality, as Bynum told me years later, is that Bryant was a tremendous mentor for Bynum. Bryant helped mold Bynum into an All-Star. How many players have developed in that fashion while playing alongside James? James likes to team up with already formed stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
It is also worth noting that Bryant did not publicly blast his general manager and his teammate to the national media but rather he let his guard down while talking to some fans. The Lakers later added one one-time All-Star to the mix, shuffled around some of their role players, and--behind Bryant's extraordinary play--advanced to three straight NBA Finals, winning back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.
James thinks that his current team is "top heavy"? Do you remember who was the eighth man in mpg for Bryant's 2009 championship team? Luke Walton, an injury-prone career journeyman. The seventh man was Jordan Farmar, a young player who was not even in the league three years later. Heck, the third man was starting point guard Derek Fisher, who would not have started for any other championship contender in recent memory. When the Lakers won the 2010 title, their eighth man was Farmar and their seventh man was Shannon Brown, who just two years earlier had been the 15th man for James' Cavaliers (who are still mocked as a team that was supposedly bereft of talent and depth).
Yes, Bryant had a private moment of frustration (that was then publicized because the fans recorded his off the cuff comments) after two years of playing alongside subpar teammates during his prime but he also took it upon himself to mold the Lakers into a mini-dynasty in the next three seasons. Years later, Bryant joked that the Lakers started Parker at point guard because they were too cheap to sign a true NBA caliber starting point guard--but when Bryant was going to battle with Parker he was not berating him in the press the way that James has indicated that everyone on his team not named Irving and Love is essentially worthless.
Speaking of Bryant and the Lakers, boy it sure is a good thing that the Lakers no longer have that Bryant albatross around their necks. Now all of their young players can show the world just how great they are and just how much Bryant's selfish gunning held them back. I mean, at the very least they can roll over a bottom-feeding team like Dallas, right? Dallas owner Mark Cuban loves "analytics" and has expressed theoretical support for tanking, so it is reasonable to assume that his Mavericks are at least considering heading into the tank pretty soon. The rising Lakers should have no problem with the Mavericks, right? Hey, wait--that must be a typo: Did Dallas really beat the Lakers 122-73? I know what happened; the Lakers are still so traumatized by the way that Bryant selfishly outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters of play several years ago that the mere sight of Dallas uniforms induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah, that's the ticket, because no matter what happens the key narratives much stay intact: LeBron James is a great teammate who is a pass-first player (even though he publicly belittles his teammates and ranks fifth in pro basketball history in career points per game), while Kobe Bryant is a bad teammate whose selfish gunning cost his team (even though Bryant won five championships and was annually his team's best playmaker despite playing in a system that does not produce high individual assist averages).
It really is OK to acknowledge that James is a great scorer who likes to shoot the ball. Those indisputable facts do not in any way diminish the equally indisputable fact that James is a great passer. It really is OK to acknowledge that Bryant's strong-willed ways might not be everyone's cup of tea but he was a great leader and champion.
Regarding James' recent public comments, maybe James is a master motivator who has the pulse of his team. Maybe James will lead the Cavaliers to another championship; that certainly would not surprise me. My point in comparing the media coverage of James' career to the media coverage of Bryant's career is that the media members who killed Bryant for his alleged basketball sins are hypocritical for twisting themselves into knots to try to justify words from James that they would declare to be unacceptable had Bryant uttered them.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM