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Monday, July 14, 2014

Why "The Decision" was so wrong and so right for LeBron James

Looking back four summers, one of the most controversial free agent moves in any sport was executed by then Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James.  Stringing along several teams, he decided to make his Decision one of public record.  Being aired on ESPN for 30 minutes.  Despite promises to the contrary, the episode (literal and figurative) drug out for 25 minutes before he shamelessly surrounded himself with youngsters, then declared he was leaving his home state and the team that invested their number one pick in him, for a quick title fix in Miami, joining an already winning team and two superstar players.  It was a cop out.  I was fed up with the process, swore off the NBA, and realized that it can be a sham when players just decide who joins who to win, vs. loyalty to a hometown team.  Mind you, I'm neither from Cleveland or Miami or really a big NBA fan.

Now let's fast forward four years and analyze what has happened.  In the four seasons LeBron played for the Miami Heat, the team averaged 59 wins per season (if you assume 82 games and their winning percentage), won four Eastern Conference titles, and two NBA Championships.  They rendered the other 14 teams in the East as the Harlem Globetrotters do to the Washington Generals.  Mind you, those teams and the NBA collected all their revenue for playing in a fixed scenario.  Only strong teams from the Western Conference could split four NBA Finals, with all opponents coming from the Texas/Oklahoma corridor.

And now, in case you hadn't heard (because you're an alien), LeBron goes back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The announcement of "The Decision #2" was relagated to an essay.  Followed by a surprise deal for only two seasons.  With a verbal commitment that he is a Cavalier for life.  Should we believe him? Yes.  He played the system.  He and the Cavaliers benefited.  And here's why.

The Decision was an unequivocal failure (Credit: Getty)

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers were better off.
How can I say that!?!?  They went from averaging 64 wins in LeBron's last two seasons there, to 64 wins total the next three years!  One answer.  Draft picks.  LeBron quickly realized that finishing way out of the lottery he would never get a high draft pick sidekick to play beside.  So he had three choices.  Recruit a top free agent to Cleveland, join other stars somewhere else, or keep not winning titles.  He opted for #2.  Don't knock the recruit thing, Kobe recruited Shaq, Jordan recruited Rodman, Pierce recruited Allen and Garnett.  He just felt like he needed to go somewhere else.  Had he stayed on the Cavs, they would have been just good enough to NOT get any impact draftees.  But probably not that much better without a big free agent (or probably 2 or 3).  Meanwhile, after The Decision, the Cavaliers, mainly due to their ineptitude with LeBron, have added an unprecedented five picks within the Top 4 of the last four drafts.  That's five very young and talented players.  To go with James, who is still just 29.

With Kyrie Irving (L) and Tristan Thompson (R), the Cavaliers have reloaded


2) LeBron had to win a title sooner than later
Today's media and fandom put way too much emphasis on a title.  Is Dan Marino not a good QB b/c he didn't win one?  Is Jim Kelly no good because Scott Norwood couldn't make a field goal?  Is Tony Gwynn lousy because he never had any star players around him?  No, no, and no.  LeBron is the best player of this generation (debate ever) but somehow the media and fans still say he hasn't won enough titles.  They put up memes with MJ, Kobe, Magic, Bird and all their rings.  Those guys played with superstars.  LeBron's sidekick in Cleveland was Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao.  Seriously.  So if those are the rules, LeBron will play by them.  Add Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (two All-Stars, but not mega superstars) and he dominates.  Two titles out of four is nothing to sneeze at.  That threesome was no more stacked than Bird/McHale/Parish, or Magic/Worthy/Kareem, or Jordan/Pippen/Rodman (or even Grant).  He realized "I have to win a title, and this is the way I can do it.  Now."  Well played.

The media says he has to win a title to be important. Okay. Now what?

So now LeBron finds himself on the team that drafted him, his hometown team, and positioned to win those titles "on his own" that he gets so much criticism for not doing.  Both sides needed a break and they're both better off for it.

The downside was the fans.  Cleveland fans felt stung by his departure.  Fans have loyalties to teams for their entire life, players until their next contract is up.  It didn't feel right.  LeBron had no ties to Miami.  It was cheap and they felt used.  Now it's Miami fans that are hurt.  He used the franchise like toilet paper.  Got his titles (and legacy) and ran.  Now they're stuck with a Chris Bosh (and maybe Dwyane Wade) led team that won't come close.  In today's NBA, you can't get by with only two superstars.  Because somewhere else, three guys are joining forces.

Fans may forgive, but may never forget (Reuters/Landov; AP)

The NBA also loses in all this.  Fans like to see great players play together, but the league needs thirty healthy franchises.  And they have about 4 that could win a title any given year, another 4 or 5 that might make a run.  And 21 who are just a joke.  Because they don't have any player like those aligning at the top.  Why even bother in Phoenix or Minnesota or Charlotte or New Orleans or Utah.  Unless superstars happen to converge on your city.  Just pay your dues and let the other big markets (LA, Miami, New York, Chicago) dominate.  At some point it won't be fun anymore.

LeBron James will go down as one of the Top 3 to 5 players in history.  Amongst the Jordans, Magics, Birds, maybe Kobes, and lots of big men.  He played his hand well.  He went down in chips after The Decision, but it was all worth it in the long run.  I went from cheering him to win in Cleveland, to hoping he'd lose in Miami.  But he has made good in coming back.  And doing it with a team full of guys who haven't won before.  He can now lead HIS team.  And we'll see if it results in more titles than in Miami



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