Chicago Bulls

Revisiting “The Decision”

It was a muggy July day in Cleveland as Jerry Reinsdorf and team arrived in two black SUVs to court LeBron James to sign with their up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team. Their pitch? A star point guard, all world defense center, and $30M in cap space. Lebron listened patiently for three hours. This was the last of the six meetings he would take during this landscape altering summer of 2010.

LeBron James is back in Chicago this week for the second time since “The Decision” last July.  The first time was for the Heat’s 93-89 loss to the Bulls on February 24.  This time, of course, the stakes are far, far higher, and the fact that it is the Bulls battling the Heat for the Eastern Conference championship puts a sharper focus on one of the points that many commentators made at the time of “The Decision”, namely, that if LeBron really wanted the best opportunity to compete for multiple championships, Chicago and not Miami made the most sense.  The Bulls’ performance during the regular season would seem to support this contention, which puts a spotlight on the question of why LeBron passed up Chicago.

No one knows exactly why Lebron chose to pass on the Windy City. There is no factual evidence to support any of the prevailing theories, only suppositions and speculations, simply because there is no hard evidence as to what dictated his thought process on this point.  One possible reason that I will not discuss is the oft-bandied notion that LeBron, Wade and Bosh planned their union in advance, because (i) it’s been beaten to death and (ii) there’s no hard evidence for this either (if you have some, I, and the rest of the NBA-following world, would be interested to see it).

To many, Chicago seemed to offer the best opportunity for multiple championships because they had most of the essential components of a true team (as opposed to just a collection of individual talents) already in place last July.  Derrick Rose was on the fast-track to stardom and offered the legitimate #2 option that LeBron never had in Cleveland (sorry, but Larry Hughes, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison don’t count).  Joakim Noah excelled in defense, rebounding and the other “down-low dirty work” that is essential for any contender, part of which included the episodes of borderline dirty play (if not worse) that served to throw riled-up opponents off their games.  Taj Gibson headed a group of capable bench players, and the day before “The Decision”, the Bulls signed Carlos Boozer to provide frontcourt scoring and more rebounding.  After getting Boozer, the Bulls still had room for one more big-ticket free-agent signing, and it is hard now not to let the mind run wild with the possibilities if LeBron had chosen to go there.  They won 62 games this year without him, after all.

So if we discount the possibility that the so-called “Scheme Team” had planned their union in advance, what are some possible reasons why LeBron decided Chicago wasn’t his kind of town?

Well, while the Bulls had plenty to offer, it wasn’t quite the slam dunk at the time that it now seems in retrospect.  The Bulls were coming off a .500 season and had question marks at key places.  Boozer has been injury-prone throughout his career and lived down to that billing this year.  Tom Thibodeau had no prior head-coaching experience and, for all his plaudits as an assistant with the Celtics, it was unknown how he would fare in his new role.  Heck, as good as Rose already was in his first two seasons, few if any thought he was capable of the leap that he made this year (a leap which, it should be pointed out, he probably would not have made with LeBron on the team, simply because he wouldn’t have been asked to shoulder so much of the offensive burden otherwise).

Those are the main possible basketball reasons.  LeBron knew that, at this stage of his career, it was critical to be in a situation where he could contend for championships on an annual basis.  In this sense, he was looking for the closest thing to a slam dunk that he could get, and in his mind, Chicago wasn’t it.

But there are other existing theories too.

One is that, while he would have been forever reviled in Cleveland anyways for leaving to go anywhere else, going to Chicago might have been seen as the ultimate insult because of the defeats suffered during the Jordan era (more on him in a moment).  Perhaps at least part of LeBron was thinking, “They’ll be mad no matter what, but perhaps they’ll understand (i) Miami because, seriously, who could pass up the opportunity to play with Wade and Bosh in their primes or (ii) New York because, well, it’s New York.  But Chicago?  They’ll never understand that.”  The idea that Chicago was less than a slam dunk basketball-wise would have reinforced that line of thinking.  Yes, I’m probably giving LeBron too much credit for giving any thought whatsoever to how Cavs fans might feel, but who knows for absolutely sure?

The other possible reason? The obvious — it would require chasing the Ghost of 23. A task that Kobe Bryant practically begged for three summers ago (that, and a ride to Pluto), may have been precisely the factor that turned The King away. It wouldn’t be such a big deal for a big man, or even a point guard such as Rose, but any talented wing player who considers Chicago as a possible destination will immediately face non-stop comparisons to #23. That factor surely weighed on Wade, and had to have weighed on LeBron at least a little too (again, assuming that the so-called “Scheme Team” hadn’t already set their destiny).  Any talented wing player looking to carve out his own legacy (or a group legacy with others) would have to consider the ramifications of playing in the shadow of the player generally considered the greatest of them all.

So here are some “alternate” possible reasons, if you will, why LeBron made the Second City his second (or lower) choice last summer.  The biggest question of all, of course, is whether he made the wrong choice.  That will start to be answered this week and next, but won’t be definitely answered for the next several years as Bulls vs. Heat assumes its’ place as the next great rivalry in the NBA.


5 Responses to “Revisiting “The Decision””

  1. Live in tropical weather, play with his buddies, low taxes, a decent chance to win – I would have done the same thing.

    Posted by bla | May 17, 2011, 7:10 am
  2. Fun read E-Dog!

    if not assuming they had already planned their destiny to play together; your first point made the most sense, i felt the same way last year however i highly considered Lebron moving to the Bulls, also hence why he changed his number (prior my friends in Florida advising me that the Heat also retired #23) to #6 to reflect Lebron’s actual style of play as the Big O.

    moreover – the change of number (in general) most likely meant that he did not want to be compared to #23 so he distanced himself.

    but at the end of the day – i am 90% sure that wade/bron/bosh sat down and planned the whole thing. 3 players in their prime, 3 good friends combine for with an experienced’ish head coach like you said it may as well be an alleyoop to his first ring.

    Posted by Logan | May 17, 2011, 8:20 pm
    • Logan, thanks for writing. Like many, I lean towards the notion that LeBron, Wade and Bosh planned their union in advance. (Unlike many, I don’t regard this as inherently nefarious. Maybe their line of reasoning went like this: “Look, the Lakers are LOADED, the Celtics are LOADED, and there are a bunch of other teams that won’t be going away any time soon. Our best chance to win anything is to team up.” What is so hard to believe/offensive about that?) The point of my post is that there is room (even if only 10%) for reasonable alternate explanations.

      Posted by E-Dog | May 18, 2011, 5:36 pm
  3. Great article, this is well-written.

    If I was in James’s shoes last summer, given all evidence and facts at that time, I would have done the same thing.

    Everybody, big winner or not, dreams of being “the guy” on the winning team, let’s not kid ourselves about that, and that includes James. At that given time you have to consider the circumstances:

    1. The dominating teams at the time had too much talent to think you could go on another team and dominate for years to come. In LA Kobe has 3 7-footers (or close) with Odom, Gasol and Bynum, and Artest who, let’s not forget is a former defensive player of the year and led the Rockets when they pushed LA to a game 7. The Celtics has their big 3 and another player that is arguably their MVP in Rondo.

    2. What options where out there to be in a team where you are would be the alpha dog and place yourself in a position to be a serious contender in years to come? Frankly, none. Again, this is answered with a reasonable analysis of potential teams that could have landed James.
    The Clippers? Who could have predicted Griffin would be this good instantly? Even then, with James on the team would they contend to the title. No.
    The Nets? Let’s be serious, who would be your second option there? Would you think a team that just hit rock bottom who suddenly contend for the title. Again, no.
    The Knicks? You have Amare, yes. What other elements do you think you have to get over the Lakers/Celtics obstacle? None.
    The Bulls? I won’t repeat what was said in this article, which I think was on point. The one thing I will add is this: Very, very few people could have predicted Rose would make such a leap within a year or even two with facts and logical arguments (that last part is important). Analyzing the circumstances at the time, would you think you’d make a great team there with Lebron? Yes. Would you believe you’d get past the Lakers or the Celtics? No. Obviously looking back at this season proves you wrong, but I strongly don’t think it was not the safest bet at the time.

    Then comes the other option: The Heat. What if you could match the concentration of talent the contenders have with exactly the same recipe? What if you could team up with another top 5 player and one of the best big man available? Sure, you share the spotlight, you rotate alpha dog duties (and benefits), but you most importantly you put yourself in a great position to WIN. You’ve tasted what it is like to be the best player with one of the worst cast. You can still do that, in Cleveland or elsewhere. I still believe it was the best option.

    If (I like the if-game) you don’t have that Gasol trade and if the Celtics Big 3 was not created, you surely get a different decision from James. You could also throw in the Cavs decision not to give up Hickson in a Stoudemire deal.

    Ultimately, James made the right decision. Good for him.

    Posted by Rarity | May 19, 2011, 1:01 am
  4. Rarity, thanks for writing, and for your kind words. I’d like to expound on one point that you hinted at near the end of your response. There were many, many reasons for LeBron not to do the TV special, but one in particular is that by doing so, he let Dan Gilbert and Cavs management off the hook for 7 years of mismanagement. They had 7 years to build a title-worthy supporting cast around him (including a legitimate #2, their version of Gasol), and failed miserably. Not including Hickson for Amare is a move for which they’ll be heavily criticized; another is not flipping Szczerbiak’s expiring contract at the ’09 deadline. These are just 2 of the most glaring examples. LeBron felt that the Cavs weren’t truly committed to winning, and they gave him good reason to feel that way.

    Posted by E-Dog | May 24, 2011, 4:03 pm

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