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Monday, August 05, 2019

The Media, David Griffin and LeBron James: A Case Study

Sports Illustrated recently ran a story containing several quotes attributed to David Griffin, who built the Cleveland Cavaliers' first and only championship team. Griffin explained why he left that franchise immediately after the 2016 title run: "Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable. Literally the moment we won the championship I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money." Griffin also stated, "We won despite our culture to a huge degree" and "LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that's not fun for people. They don't like being part of that world." Griffin questioned how motivated James was to win a title after 2016: "I don't think he's the same animal anymore about winning."

Griffin later backtracked a bit about the last remark, stating that prior to the 2017 season he had this concern but it proved to be unfounded after James led Cleveland to back to back Finals appearances. However, if Griffin was quoted accurately then his statement was in the present tense, as opposed to saying, "I didn't think he would be the same animal about winning." The difference in the plain meaning between those two sentences is obvious. Griffin later amended some of his other comments as well, stating to ESPN that when he talked about LeBron James getting all of the credit and none of the blame that was meant as an indictment of the media, not of James. Griffin's retractions and amendments do not make much sense, because he claims that he was quoted out of context, but unless he was misquoted (which is a different) it is not difficult to understand Griffin's message--and even if Griffin meant to target the media instead of James, there is no denying that James has long used his platform to laud himself (he declared "I am confident because I am the best player in the world" on eve of his Cavaliers to Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals) while directly and/or indirectly throwing shade on his owner, team executives, coaches and teammates. After the 2016 championship, James said that the triumph proved that he is the greatest player of all-time, which is not only a highly debatable contention but also a public assertion that does not leave much room to give credit to anyone else.

There are at least three possibilities regarding Griffin's statements followed by Griffin's retractions:

1) Sports Illustrated misquoted Griffin and/or published his statements without providing full context.
2) Griffin regretted his comments after they were published and decided to back away from publicly criticizing LeBron James.
3) ESPN, which has a substantial financial commitment involved with promoting LeBron James, decided that it would be best for all parties involved to suggest to Griffin to use their platform to clarify his message.

Regardless of which possibility is true, the coverage of Griffin's comments is yet another example of the extent to which sports journalism has lost its way. Sports Illustrated has a responsibility to accurately quote its interview subjects and to report those quotes in proper context. If ESPN is to be taken seriously as a journalistic enterprise--a ship that has perhaps long since sailed off without ESPN realizing or caring--then it cannot just be a mouthpiece for LeBron James and certain select, favored athletes. In the wake of the comments and retractions, many media members seem to care less about determining what Griffin said or meant than they do about figuring out how to spin the situation to support their preferred narrative; one preferred narrative is that James is a great player who is unfairly criticized, while another preferred narrative is that James is a very difficult individual with whom to work.

We may never know what Griffin actually said and/or what message he meant to convey about James--but we do not need to read Griffin's mind to know that even though James is one of the most athletically gifted and multi-skilled basketball players of all-time he lacks certain psychological qualities, and the qualities that he lacks prevent him from reaching the level that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant reached. We can figure that out by examining James' actions and the way those actions have been characterized by people who have a much more extensive basketball pedigree than Griffin does.

We know that Adrian Wojnarowski reported that James was such a poor leader and teammate that Coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to leave James off of Team USA, but the powers that be insisted that James must be selected.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals.

We know that the media hyped James as the star of Team USA in 2012, but Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were the team's leaders.

We know that even after James learned how to be a champion he still was a difficult co-worker for his teammates, coaches and team executives; after James left Miami, Pat Riley referred to "No more smiling faces with hidden agendas." You did not need a decoder ring to figure out who Riley was talking about.

We know that by signing a series of one year contracts LeBron James hindered the Cavaliers' efforts to build a sustainable winning culture; he forced the Cavaliers to live year to year, to make stop gap moves, and to overpay players who LeBron James and Rich Paul liked. The reason that the Cavaliers collapsed both times after James left is not just that he is a great player but also that he creates chaos and leaves chaos in his wake. Riley did not let James wreak quite that much havoc in Miami, and the Heat did not become a moribund franchise after James departed.

We know that James and Paul destabilized two franchises last year in their efforts to pry Anthony Davis from New Orleans and send Davis to the Lakers.

We know that most star players who have played alongside James have seen their individual numbers go down, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love being the most prominent examples.

We know that throughout James' career--with the notable exception of his time in Miami--he calls the shots on personnel moves but will not accept responsibility when those moves do not work out.

What we don't know is where the tipping point is when the negative factors about James' personality will outweigh the positive factors about James' on court skills. Up to this point, James has been such an incredibly talented and impactful player that multiple franchises have been willing to deal with the negatives. At some point, that will not be true. 

So, we do not need to parse Griffin's words to understand who LeBron James is: LeBron James is a supremely gifted basketball player who has had a great career but who has also been disruptive to multiple franchises. Have other great players been demanding and difficult at times? Yes, but in most instances not to the extent that James has been and not in ways that make it appear that winning as many championships as possible is not the top priority.

I have often said that James mystifies me more than any other great player who I have covered or researched.

The coverage of Griffin's comments tells us much more about the media than it does about LeBron James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:31 PM



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