It has been more than three weeks since the Mavericks defeated the Heat in the NBA Finals, and the last of the confetti from the championship parade has (presumably) been swept off the streets of downtown Dallas. But many, many fans in Dallas and elsewhere (especially in Cleveland) are, if no longer vocally, at least internally still reveling in the demise of the Heat, and in particular that of LeBron James. He provoked the ire of a sporting nation one year ago this coming Friday with “The Decision”, and seemingly everyone who follows the NBA is delighting in his comeuppance.
But not me.
I’m not a “LeBron fan” per se; he doesn’t play for my team, so I don’t root for him as a matter of course. But I don’t root against him either, and I do enjoy watching him play. I like how on the court, he seems to focus more on the team than most other players of his caliber. I like how, even when he goes off for mega-points, he makes sure to include a healthy number of rebounds and assists, such as the 52-9-11 that he put up against the Knicks in February 2009, or the 51-11-8 he put up against Orlando this past February. I especially like how he’s dedicated himself to defense over the past few years, turning himself from a defensive liability earlier in his career to one of the best defenders in the game.
All of these point to someone whose approach to playing the game is, at its core, unselfish (at times overly so), and at some level I have to think that part of the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to “The Decision” stemmed from the fact that it seemed so contrary to the way he plays. But that didn’t turn me into a hater, and nothing that transpired since has changed that.
Why have I not joined the LeBron Haters club? Here are the main reasons:
1. I’m not from Cleveland
OK, let’s get the easiest and most obvious reason out of the way first. Because I’m not from the Cleveland area, I wasn’t nearly as emotionally invested in his free-agency decision. I can’t imagine the extent to which Cavs fans were on pins and needles leading up to “The Decision”, nor can I imagine how utterly devastating, humiliating and infuriating it must have been for Cavs fans to find out, not to mention the way that they found out, that he would be returning to Cleveland only in a visitors’ jersey. I understand that, as an outsider, there are limits to my ability to fully comprehend what “The Decision” did to Cavs fans. But there are some factors, as set forth below, that I think even Cavs fans, not to mention other LeBron haters, should consider in weighing their hate.
2. He has significant character flaws, but he’s not evil.
This will no doubt come as news to LeBron haters, especially to Cleveland fans, most (if not all) of whom rate LeBron at roughly the level of Satan, or even worse at that of Art Modell. I think it’s important to break down exactly what “The Decision” was: an inconsiderate, thoughtless act of youthful arrogance by someone who was advised by people who were being paid to know better. (On a side note: the uncomfortable truth about “The Decision” was that LeBron’s advisors may have actually been right in terms of it helping to build his brand. After all, this past season of LeBron hate was also the season in which his jersey became the league’s highest-selling jersey for the first time since his rookie season. I doubt anyone bought his jersey this past season for purposes of burning. All in all, though, I would still have to rate “The Decision” as a bad idea)
Three of the most widely-used adjectives to describe “The Decision” (one of which I just used myself) are: thoughtless, ill-advised and misguided. As far as can be determined, LeBron simply didn’t give any thought to how “The Decision” would be received in Cleveland and elsewhere; all he thought about were the ratings that would be generated, the platform that his personal brand would get and the money that the Boys and Girls’ Clubs would receive. On this count, he received spectacularly bad advice and errant guidance from his inner circle; many (Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe most recently) have commented that LeBron needs to rid himself of them, and I tend to agree.
But in my mind, all of this is still quite far away from being able to say that LeBron was or is evil. The reason is that there is no evidence to suggest that he had any overt intent, at any point, to “stick it” to Cleveland or to any other fan base. You’re probably saying to yourself, “It doesn’t matter, he still should have known how it would come across”, but the available evidence indicates that he really didn’t. Does that mean that he’s exceedingly tone-deaf and in his own world? Yes, it does. But to me, these are not attributes that warrant hate, let alone the level of hate that has accompanied LeBron for the past year. Disappointment? Sure. But hate? Not for me.
3. He didn’t quit on the Cavs last year.
Game 4 of this year’s Finals (arguably the single worst game of LeBron’s career) caused at least some fans to re-assess their reaction to Game 5 of last year’s Cavs-Celtics series, when LeBron was so ineffective and passive that many accused him of quitting on the Cavs. There is no way that LeBron quit in Game 4 this year, not with the Heat just two wins away from the title that would have validated his move to Miami. Likewise, he didn’t quit in Game 5 last year. In both instances, he got frustrated by the opposing defense against him and his inability to crack it, and let the frustration take him out of his game. In both games he showed a lack of mental toughness which cost him and his team. But that’s not the same as quitting. If he had really quit on the Cavs last year, then why bother to show up at all for Game 6? Why turn in anything close to the 27-19-10 line that he turned in for that game? Yes, he shot poorly from the floor (7-21) and committed 9 turnovers, but surely the Celtics (who came within 5 points of winning last year’s title) had something to do with that. It was definitely not the effort of a player who had quit.
The other facet of this argument is that LeBron quit on the Cavs because he had already planned his departure to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Until recently, I also thought that the so-called “Scheme Team” had planned their union in advance. Then I remembered that on the morning of “The Decision”, Chris Broussard had reported on ESPN.com that LeBron had decided on Miami after Bosh had rebuffed LeBron’s efforts to get him to agree to a sign-and-trade to Cleveland. There’s also this column from Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times. These guys have no reason to lie for LeBron or to make up stories from thin air; their reports strike me as more credible than the mountain of rumor and innuendo, without any hard evidence to this point, of an advance agreement among the Big 3.
4. Cavs ownership and management from 2003-2010, especially Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry.
The morning of “The Decision”, I e-mailed two of my closest friends and opined to them that as a basketball matter, LeBron should not return to Cleveland. The reason was that Cavs ownership and management had 7 seasons in which to build a championship-caliber supporting cast around LeBron, and failed badly. They didn’t get a single impact player in the draft. (Varejao is a valuable role player, but not someone who will ever be mistaken as a consistent scoring option.) Their search for a legit #2 got them Larry Hughes, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison, decent players all, but not of the required caliber for a championship team. They didn’t flip Wally Szczerbiak‘s large expiring contract for another piece at the ’09 trade deadline, when it was (or should have been) obvious that the ’08-’09 Cavs were overachieving like crazy (because of one player in particular) and were bound to be exposed come playoff time without further reinforcements. They dealt for Jamison at the ’10 deadline instead of including J.J. Hickson to get a younger, more explosive scoring option in Amare Stoudemire, as if to excuse themselves from going all-out to try to re-sign LeBron because they were afraid it wouldn’t pan out anyway. (rumor has it, the Cavs apparently resisted including Hickson in a deal for Stoudemire because they thought the world of Hickson’s potential. In that case, they must think the earth, the moon and the stars of Omri Casspi, judging from last week’s trade).
LeBron no doubt noticed all of this, and it had to have left him seriously doubting the competence, or worse, the commitment, of Cavs ownership and management. Looking at it objectively, it would be hard to blame LeBron for having such doubts, esp. when the alternative was Pat Riley in Miami. For all the times that Dan Gilbert insisted that the Cavs had done everything they could to re-sign LeBron, the truth is either (i) No, they didn’t; or (ii) if they really did, then they were really, really incompetent. Gilbert and Danny Ferry should be sending LeBron red roses, chocolates and champagne every week for making them look like innocent victims, when in reality they deserve to go down in history as The Men Who Lost LeBron.
5. His move to Miami was motivated by the desire for the best possible chance to win.
This is absolutely indisputable, yet LeBron is derided for it (more so, among many people, than even “The Decision” itself), because joining Miami didn’t fit with our vision of what LeBron should be. We wanted him to be the undisputed “alpha dog” of his team and to validate comparisons to Jordan and other all-time greats by leading “his team” to titles. Many of us also wanted, at some level, for “his team” to remain the Cavs because it would have made for the ultimate pro sports feel-good story of a local guy leading his hometown team to the pinnacle of success and raising up a downtrodden city and region in the process.
It’s a great script that we envisioned, but it’s his life and career, and shouldn’t he have the say-so over how it goes? Even when he was carrying the load on a nightly basis in Cleveland, many observers noted that he enjoyed being a passer and distributor as much as, or perhaps even more than, being a scorer. That’s why I thought Miami made sense for him; the level of talent on that team was well-suited for the type of game that he wanted to play. People have called him a “sidekick” as an insult and have unflatteringly compared him to Scottie Pippen, but they’re not insults to him; rather, they’re indicative of the role he’s most comfortable playing. Maybe it means he’s not the type of player we wanted him to be, but that’s not a crime against humanity.
At the same time, I completely disagree with those who say that LeBron took the easy way out by joining Miami. He went there because he felt that the Heat offered the best chance to win, but I don’t think he ever expected it to be easy. He probably surveyed the concentration of talent on teams such as the Lakers and Celtics, plus the Magic, Thunder, Spurs and, yes, the Mavericks, and thought to himself that beating those teams would still be hard with Miami, but would be just about impossible anywhere else.
All that being said, it appears that LeBron did underestimate the extent to which he would need to raise his own game even as a member of the Heat, and that brings me to the last and most important point …
6. He’s being humbled, and he’ll be better for it.
LeBron picked a very, very bad time to have arguably the 3 least impactful games of his career, and has turned into a national punchline because of it. The loss to Dallas further exposed weaknesses in his game and, worse, in his head. He could certainly stand to further develop his post game and mid-range game, become more consistent with his outside shooting and improve his decision-making with and without the ball. More importantly, he needs to develop mental toughness in order to have the confidence to use his full arsenal in pressure situations, to not get frustrated by opponents’ schemes against him and to not let the moment get to him. In his post-mortem with the media the Tuesday after the Finals, LeBron admitted to putting an inordinate amount of pressure on himself, implying that he let the stakes throw him off his game. It also seemed to me that he lost confidence in his Plan A (never mind any Plan B) on offense, which reduced him a passive shell of himself.
This off-season (however long it may be owing to the lockout), I expect LeBron to make major strides in all of these areas. Why? Two reasons:
a. For the first time in his career, he’s coming off a playoff defeat for which he must take the undisputed blame. Even in last year’s Cavs-Celtics series, one could point to subpar performances from Williams (who struggled with his shooting for the second straight post-season) and Jamison (who got murdered by Kevin Garnett) as a major reason why the Cavs lost. Not this time with the Heat; the “supporting cast” played well enough that even just an average series from LeBron would have catapulted the Heat to victory. By choosing Miami last summer, LeBron seemed to be saying “I’m good enough, and now my supporting cast is too.” The second part of that is true, but the first part isn’t. LeBron needs to get better, and he finally started to acknowledge that in the post-mortem the Tuesday after the Finals. I expect that the sting of this particular defeat will get him to confront his weaknesses head-on. As if that weren’t enough …
b. Also for the first time in his career, his name is being tossed around as potential trade bait. The proposed LeBron-for-Dwight Howard swap, which started as an off-the-cuff suggestion from Jeff Van Gundy in the closing seconds of Game 6, has taken on a life of its own, exploding onto the basketball blogosphere and onto more mainstream media such as The New York Times. Whether anyone in the Miami or Orlando front offices is seriously pursuing this remains to be seen, but the fact that it is being discussed at all, as a swap that actually makes basketball sense for both teams no less, has to be an affront to LeBron’s pride, enough of an affront (I think) to make him want to show the Heat that dealing him would be a mistake.
LeBron is at the unquestioned low point of his career, but in defeat lies opportunity. I do think that when all is said and done, LeBron will benefit greatly from this Finals defeat; in fact, I predict that someday, he will look back and realize that he needed this experience in order to get to the top, just like Dirk Nowitzki needed the sting of prior playoff flops in order to get his team to the summit. I am far from the first to make the parallel here between LeBron and Dirk, but it is an instructive comparison nonetheless. When Dallas won this year’s title, I couldn’t help but think back to a Bill Simmons column which posted on ESPN.com on May 4, 2007. The night before, Dirk had played the single-worst game of his career, and had reached the undisputed low point of his career, as Golden State finished off its historic first-round upset of Dallas with a 111-86 romp in Game 6. Here’s how Simmons started his assessment of that game, series and season for Dallas and especially for Dirk:
“Dirk Nowitzki was outscored by Maurice Ager. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t attempt a shot from closer than 13 feet. Dirk Nowitzki got dunked on by Matt Barnes. Dirk Nowitzki finished with more turnovers than field goals. Dirk Nowitzki‘s 67-win team got bounced in a deciding game by 25 points … by a No. 8 seed.”
But then, after going through all the things that went wrong for Dirk and Dallas in that series, he closed with the following:
“Still, I’m not willing to write off Dirk Nowitzki as a Pantheon player. He’s only 28. He’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past. … Maybe he needs to spend the next few months answering “What happened to you?” questions to be properly toughened up down the road, like how years of public doubt toughened Peyton Manning in the end. …”
Reading that now shows just how far Dirk has come, and how the journey made Dirk who he is now. But doesn’t it feel like that last sentence in particular could just as easily be applied to LeBron? It does to me. He is going through the fire now, but will emerge stronger and tougher for it.