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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fully Evolved LeBron James Returns to Cleveland

When 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM



At Sunday, July 13, 2014 5:51:00 PM, Blogger HP said...

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At Sunday, July 13, 2014 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Im dissapointed because i was a fan of the big 3 but i respect lebron commitment to northeast ohio and akron home is where the heart is i get that and respect it. I think dan gilbert did him wrong and cleveland fans who burned his jersey to jump on the bandwagon is comical. But i believe lebron is a top 8 player all time and his legacy is secure so he can do what he wants nd if going to cleveland is it fine.

I dont see cleveland being in mix next year i think its heat bulls and pacers. Lebron will keep them relevant but irving overated waiters is avg wiggins is a rookie and anderson had better days. If lebron get this team to conf semi or finals that would monumental.

lebron is arguably the biggest and most powerful nba player other than mj in nba history

At Monday, July 14, 2014 1:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I mentioned in my article, signing a two year deal is a shrewd business decision--but that does not change the reality that this also gives LeBron a lot of leverage and presents him with the opportunity to leave if he decides that there are greener pastures elsewhere.

If staying in his hometown were of paramount importance then he never would have left in the first place--and if loyalty to his friends were paramount, then LeBron would not have just left Miami. So, while LeBron has grown as a man and as a player, there is good reason to be skeptical of the storyline/timeline that he describes in his SI article. If he always intended to return home then why did he wait so long to announce his decision this summer? LeBron is a big-time businessman making big-time decisions and there is nothing wrong with that but his attempt to claim a higher motivation for his actions does not quite ring true. I think that those higher motivations are part of what drives him but not necessarily his first and foremost consideration.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 1:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There is no doubt that LeBron James wields an extraordinary amount of power. The whole free agency process ground to a halt until he announced his decision.

Is James one of the top eight players of all-time? A good case could be made that he is; James' combination of size, speed and skill is unusual, if not unique, but he has yet to have the impact in championship level play that Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, Jordan and Kobe did. Those players won more rings than James, they had better winning percentages in the Finals and they dominated in the Finals. Wilt Chamberlain was more dominant individually than James and Chamberlain won his two titles with the two best regular season teams in NBA history up to that point in time. If one includes his ABA resume--and there is no reason not to include it--Julius Erving won four regular season MVPs and three championships. Larry Bird won three championships in five Finals appearances. Oscar Robertson "only" won one ring but he may be the greatest all-around threat in pro basketball history. Tim Duncan has a better Finals resume than James--and a 2-1 head to head Finals record versus James--but Duncan has not been as statistically dominant as James.

James is in that top 8-10 conversation but it is important to remember the greatness of the players who came before him.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 11:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We really need to stop declaring James the best player in the game or best regular season, etc. If he really is, then he needs to start playing like it. With the stacked teams he's had for the past 6+ years, if he was truly the best player, he would've won more than 2 titles. He's had 6 ridiculously good rosters around him for the past 6 years with no other superpower teams to go against. And if he played even average for himself in the 07 finals and in the 08 EC semis, he could've won titles each of those years. If he was truly as great as most think he is, he would've won at least one title in cleveland, and more than 2 in miami. And it's much easier to win titles when you have weaker competition until the finals, even if miami barely made it there a couple of times. He coasted during the 2014 season and most of the 2014 playoffs, no wonder they didn't win it all. Playing like that would've gotten him and his team either a first round exit or not even making the playoffs in the west.

It's really silly to declare James a top 10 player right now in nba history, especially with how many times he's quit on his teams in the playoffs or just coasted along. It's also very important to realize how good a certain player's cast is and the competition he's going up against when comparing players in different eras. Bird/Magic had tremendous casts, but they had to go up against each other and some other great teams. James has had the best casts every year in recent years, except possibly for this year's Spurs.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 11:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with many of your critiques of James and I have mentioned many of those critiques in this specific article and/or in previous articles. However, James' overall body of work places him among the greatest basketball players of all-time. As I indicated in my previous comment, I do not believe that James has earned the greatest of all-time status that some people bestow on him--and I am far from convinced that James is even the greatest player of the post-Jordan era--but James is the best player right now and he has "played like it" for the better part of the past several seasons. His flameouts in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs are puzzling/bizarre and those episodes do impact his legacy but he has also authored some tremendous regular seasons and some epic playoff runs that culminated in back to back titles.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 3:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea, saying 'among' the greatest is fine, but there's probably somewhere between 20-40 players that could fit this description. His career isn't over. He's certainly nowhere near greatest of all time status. Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe have all clearly had better careers than James has had thus far.

Duncan's at worst, had very good casts around him especially in his prime, and usually great. The same can't be really be said for Shaq/Kobe, though much less so for Kobe. In Shaq's prime, he had Kobe, but not much else after that, but that was enough. However, Shaq didn't remain hungry. Kobe had nothing in the middle of his prime. James has had an elite cast around him every year for years now, and while playing in the extremely weak East for his entire career, his results aren't that great, if he truly is as great as most make him out to be.

While james might be the best all-around player in the game today, and regardless if he was playing less minutes, etc., Durant outplayed him during the regular season. He should never get outplayed by Tony Parker, Jason Terry, or Kawhi Leonard in the finals(which neither 3 were even the best players on their respective teams and 2 are role players), which all 3 have done to him during his teams' finals' losses. A lot of fans like to make excuses for him, but if he can't outplay those above players, there should be no excuses.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 5:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't rank James as top ten yet, but he's certainly in spitting distance. I'll be surprised if he isn't there by the end of his career.

For now, though, I can't put him above Erving, Jabbar, Jordan, etc.

James vs. Kobe is an interesting argument for me, as while Kobe's overall body of work is better, it's also much longer, and I sort of feel like James' "peak" was/is higher than Kobe's; while it's true that Kobe won more rings, they've won the exact same number of rings as the best player on their team (it's this sort of logic that sometimes leads me to wonder if perhaps Magic Johnson- surrounded by MVPs and perennial All-Stars- is perhaps a little overrated relative to guys like Jordan/Erving/etc).

It mostly comes down to a question of peak value vs. body of work, and I go back and forth on which I think matters more. I suspect by the end of his career, I'd probably take Lebron (assuming 5-8 more years of relative greatness), but for now they're a toss-up to me.

If I had to number things,my list (which changes almost daily, but rarely by more than a spot or two) would be something like:

1) Doc
2) Kareem
3) Russell
4) Bird
5) Jordan
6) Duncan
7) Oscar
8) Hakeem
9) Barry (the one I expect people to argue about)
10-13) Wilt/Magic/Shaq/West in some order
14-15) Moses/Baylor
16-17) Kobe/Lebron
18-23) Thomas/Havlicek/Walton/Frazier/Pippen/Nowitzki
24) Roger Brown
25) Sabonis (counting Euro play) or Connie Hawkins

Bob Pettit and George Mikan probably deserve some consideration, but I just haven't seen enough of their games to have an intelligent opinion.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 7:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't agree with everything that LeBron James has said or done and I probably put more weight on his 2010 and 2011 playoff debacles than most commentators but I still would rank him squarely in the top 20 all-time.

I do agree with you, though, that he has not maximized his championship possibilities. However, if you put him in the 20-40 range then you inevitably rank him behind guys who won no championships and/or no MVPs, which does not do full justice to what James has accomplished. In other words, we agree that James could have done more so far but we disagree a bit in terms of how much value to place on what James has already achieved.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 7:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Placing Doc at number one is a minority viewpoint but there is a lot more justification to do so than many people realize. My position, as expressed in my Pantheon series a few years ago, is that there are several players who could legitimately lay claim to the number one spot, depending on how much weight one puts on peak value versus longevity and depending on how one evaluates various eras in pro basketball history in terms of rules, level of overall competition, etc.

Kareem is very underrated.

Based on both longevity and peak value, I would take Magic over Bird.

Pettit was an absolute beast but it is difficult to figure out how to rank guys who played prior to 1960 because the rules were different and segregation was a major factor in lowering the overall competition level. Of course, those same factors make it equally difficult to say anything about Mikan other than he was clearly the best player of the pre-shot clock era.

At Monday, July 14, 2014 10:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I agree that rating guys across eras requires some guesswork, but I try to rate them relative to the level of their competition*; Pettit gets in for me by virtue of being one of the two guys to be the best player on a team that knocked out Russell's Celtics, and by virtue of his MVP awards and consistently high production during his career. His placement is one I feel less confident in than most of the others, though, for the reasons you described.

Your work on Erving was what initially attracted me to your writing, actually; he's been my pick for the best player ever since the first time I saw the 1976 finals (it was not in 1976).

Kareem is hard to evaluate for me for the same reason as Magic (and to a lesser extent, Bird), in that his championships all came while playing with a historically great supporting cast, but his longevity and reputation among his peers (both Erving and Gervin has gone on record calling him the best ever), and his sheer numbers let me feel comfortable putting him in the top 2.

In terms of Magic vs. Bird I've always felt that both guys bring a tremendous amount of intangible benefit because of their smarts and personality. I just find it hard to rate Magic all that highly because over his 12ish year career he played almost exclusively on borderline All-Star teams; this is somewhat true of Bird as well, but in general I find those 80s Lakers teams to be stronger from spots 2-12 (or 1, 3-10 in the early 80s when Kareem was still king) than Bird's Celtics, and Bird to me seemed more able of taking over a game when he had to. I'd also trust Bird more to make a clutch defensive play, though both were a little inconsistent on defense generally (Bird because of his athleticism, Johnson because of occasional mental lapses or over enthusiasm).

In general, I agree with your "Pantheon" perspective, but in the context of the conversation, it felt like more fun to work up a list. By tomorrow, I suspect several of those players would move up or down slightly if someone asked me to reproduce it.

*I am a hypocrite here, as probably my primary justification for rating Bird over Jordan is that Bird generally had to beat better teams than Jordan did to win.

At Tuesday, July 15, 2014 2:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

Erving's work in the 1976 ABA Finals--and in the ABA in general--is stunningly underrated, even among people who are purportedly basketball experts.

Even Erving's NBA career, which is much more widely discussed than his ABA career, is not fully appreciated. From 1976-83, his 76ers made the Finals four times, won one title and had the best overall regular season record during a very competitive era. During that period, the team's coaching staff and roster completely changed; Erving was the only constant. He was a coachable, durable superstar who mentored younger teammates and who never complained about his supporting cast or his role, even when it may very well have been justified to do so. He did not play alongside a great big man until he was almost 33 years old but his teams were annually in championship competition except for the first couple seasons and last couple seasons of his 16 year career.

I agree with you about Pettit and Abdul-Jabbar.

If you look closely at Magic and Bird's careers, Magic consistently produced better in the clutch than Bird; he beat Bird 2-1 head to head in the Finals and 5-3 overall and he played at a high level in the Finals from 1980 to 1991, while Bird's Finals performances were a bit spottier than people may think (Cedric Maxwell beat out Bird for the 1981 Finals MVP during Bird's first championship run, while Magic won the Finals MVP in 1980, when Magic and Bird were both rookies). Good arguments could be made for Magic and for Bird but if forced to choose I would take Magic; the mainstream media narrative is that Magic did not surpass Bird until circa 1987 and that Bird was a bit more dominant overall because of his scoring ability but I think that the record shows that Magic was never worse than Bird, that Magic definitely surpassed Bird in the late 1980s and that if Magic had wanted/needed to score 25-plus ppg that he could have. Magic flirted with averaging a triple double early in his career and by 1987 he was averaging almost 24 ppg while adding a form of the skyhook to his repertoire. I think that Magic could have scored 27-30 ppg but I don't think that Bird could have conducted a fastbreak offense as a PG averaging more than 10-12 apg.

At Tuesday, July 15, 2014 11:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't rating James specifically, just saying when we word it "among", there's a lot more players to consider. I'd have him top 20 somewhere, not sure where. The thing to consider with James is that he's had at worst a top 2 cast for 6 years running and in his prime(which is very important to remember) while playing in the weaker conf., and he only has 2 rings. When we're talking about the greatest ever, he can't really be even considered. Pre-prime Durant and post-prime Kobe would both at least accomplish this if they swapped places with Lebron, if not perhaps a few more current players.

It's not fair to Kobe to discredit him for his first 3 rings because he played with Shaq. Shaq had pretty much the 3 most dominant consecutive years for anyone in nba history and had the #2 player in the league as a teammate. When Kobe dominated at his peak in 06-07, he had smush/kwame as starters. Kobe was only age 21-23 during that 3-peat. Any other player in nba history, would've been #2 at best behind prime Shaq at those ages. Remember, Jordan was 21 as a rookie, and Wilt was 23.

You have to consider peak, longevity, offense/defense prowess, teammates and strength of league(title related to these 2 things), accomplishments. This is why Wilt, Kobe, Jordan, and Kareem are on my shortlist, with possibly Magic/Duncan very close.

At Tuesday, July 15, 2014 11:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you completely about Kobe. I think that you make excellent points about LeBron, as well, but I think that I still rank LeBron a bit higher than you appear to rank him.

Your short list is a very good one.

At Tuesday, July 15, 2014 2:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Again, Magic is hard for me to adequately quantify because he just had such an overwhelmingly strong supporting cast. Bird obviously did too, but I feel like Bird's performance was less dependent on having that incredible supporting cast; as great as McHale was, he was not Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and many of Bird's Celtics teams simply didn't have that fourth and fifth, even sixth, weapon opposing teams had to worry about that Magic's did.

Obviously, McHale is a top 30 all time player, but Jabbar is a top 10 one, and I think the Archibald/Maxwell/Parish/Johnson/Ainge/Walton collection is probably roughly equivalent to the Nixon/Wilkes/McAdoo/Scott/Cooper collection, but then there's also Worthy, Green, Divac, Rambis, etc. who for my money are a step ahead of Wedman and the rest of the Boston also-rans.

Additionally, while it's true Magic made-and won- the Finals more, he had a bit easier route to get there. I'd contend that in the early 80s, the 76ers and Bucks were much stronger than the teams LA had to beat to make the Finals (including the two over-achieving Rockets teams that snuck past them), and in the late 80s/early 90s I'd argue that the Pistons and the Bulls presented a rougher road than the Blazers and the Jazz.

As for clutchness, insofar as individual plays, I think both Magic and Larry were excellent, but I felt like Larry was better at just flat-out imposing his will on a game; Magic was exemplary, but it was Larry who seemed to more often turn on that killer instinct (much like Jordan or Kobe) and just rip out the opposition's heart.

It's not a hill I'm willing to die on, as both are obviously great, but I think perhaps Magic gets a bit of an inflated reputation, as he basically always played on teams that likely could have been strong playoff teams, even title contenders, without him. To an extent the same is true of Bird, but his best star teammate wasn't as good as Magic's, and he had fewer of them than Magic did.

At Tuesday, July 15, 2014 2:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that strong arguments can be made in both directions but I'll stick with ranking Magic ahead of Bird. Even if we disagree about peak value, Magic wins over Bird based on longevity: Magic won the Finals MVP in 1980 and then he was the best player on a Finalist in 1991, while Bird's Finals career lasted from just 1981-87.


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