What Have We Learned During “LeBron-a-Palooza”?

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Until the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal series between Boston and Cleveland, I had always been very impressed not only with LeBron James’ obvious athletic gifts but also with his work ethic and the way that he seemed to be mature beyond his years. James seemed to “get it”: James avoided off court trouble, did not disrespect his coaches and teammates and he worked very hard to improve his main skill set weaknesses (defense, perimeter shooting, free throw shooting). James evolved from an All-Star to one of the league’s five best players to someone who was almost Kobe Bryant’s equal to someone who surpassed Bryant in terms of regular season productivity/consistency.

LeBron James

My perception of James shifted after game two of the Boston series: the Cavs lost 104-86 at home and James looked lifeless for most of the contest, though he made his boxscore numbers somewhat respectable with a late scoring burst during garbage time. Anyone can have a bad game, but things really got weird during the postgame press conferences when Coach Mike Brown came out ranting, raving and (literally) cussing about how poor the team’s effort was only to have James follow him to the podium and act as if nothing was wrong. In my game recap I wrote:

Are Brown and James playing “good cop, bad cop” with the other Cavs? Or is Brown’s message about the team’s lack of intensity simply not resonating with James and the other players? We will not know the answer to that question until we see what happens in game three. It is incumbent on James to not only put up big numbers in that contest but to also play with a sense of commitment and intensity that commands/inspires his teammates to likewise display energy, focus and passion. Kobe Bryant is often criticized for harshly calling out his teammates but his leadership style has a proven track record of success: three championships won alongside O’Neal (when Bryant’s burning desire and work ethic provided a necessary contrast to O’Neal’s more laid-back approach) plus a Finals appearance in 2008 and a championship in 2009. If the combination of James’ calm demeanor and Brown’s demonstrable anger drives the Cavs to victory in game three then that is all good–but if the Cavs do not respond appropriately then there will be reason to question if James’ casual response to the game two loss struck the right tone.

James and the Cavs bounced back in game three but that only proved to be a temporary reprieve that was soon followed by a horrifically passive effort by James in game five; James simply quit during that pivotal contest and there is no other way to put it: this has nothing to do with numbers (though his numbers were terrible, too) and everything to do with the total disinterest that he displayed, simply giving up the ball and standing so far away from the hoop that he did not even represent a viable threat. Though James put up better numbers and seemed to try a little harder in game six, that contest ended disgracefully as the Cleveland players literally quit en masse with the outcome still potentially up for grabs: when no Cav bothered to commit a foul to force the Celtics to make free throws to ice the game, ESPN’s Mark Jackson declared with disgust, “This smells to me of quitting. You’ve given up.” I cannot ever recall seeing a team just throw in the towel near the end of an elimination game if the remotest possibility of victory still existed—but James set the tone in game five and everyone else followed his lead after that.

Despite all of the talk about James’ mystery elbow ailment, MRI tests revealed nothing more than a bruise and there is no indication that James required any special treatment after the Cavs’ season prematurely ended; throughout the Boston series, James was tossing half court shots before games with his “bad” elbow, so it is hard to believe that he was experiencing a serious problem.

What do the preceding paragraphs have to do with James’ much anticipated upcoming announcement? Prior to the Boston series, I believed that James was very focused on winning multiple championships and I did not see any advantage that he could gain by leaving his hometown team that could pay him more than any other team and that had an owner who is willing to spend a lot of money, a general manager who continually upgraded the roster’s talent/depth and a defensive-minded coach who had guided the team to the 2007 NBA Finals plus the best regular season record in 2009 and 2010. Even though James clearly has always loved attention and craved the idea of being courted by various franchises, I had always thought that for all of the above reasons he would re-sign with the Cavs and I repeatedly said that I thought that James would be foolish to become Captain of the Gotham Titanic, the destination that so many broadcasters/journalists assumed/hoped that James would select.

After the Boston series, the Cavs made Coach Mike Brown and–to a lesser extent–General Manager Danny Ferry the fall guys for the team’s failure to win a championship. James has no right to be disappointed with the quality of the team’s roster: it is known that he gave at least tacit approval to the various transactions that Ferry made and it is also obvious that Ferry had a figurative gun to his head precisely because James did not sign a long term deal in order to create this free agency frenzy this summer; Ferry had to try to put together a championship caliber team on the fly instead of having the freedom to develop young players who could assume larger roles over time. Ferry did a remarkably good job of continuing to upgrade the roster despite the deadline looming over his head.

Many people had assumed that none of the major free agent dominoes would fall into place until James announced his decision but James will actually be among the last of the “top tier” players to act because Amare Stoudemire has already agreed to sign with the New York Knicks and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be teaming up as members of the Miami Heat. Wade and Bosh have both publicly said that they are willing to sacrifice because their primary goal is to win “multiple championships”; Bosh may be giving up $30 million or so to go to Miami if Toronto does not agree to a sign and trade deal and both players may end up reducing their scoring averages. Meanwhile, Stoudemire is clearly trying to recruit James to come to New York and Stoudemire is boasting that next summer he will be able to entice other star players—most notably Tony Parker—to join the Knicks.

James has been conspicuously tightlipped about what his ultimate goals are and/or what he would be willing to sacrifice to obtain those goals but it is fascinating to consider what his decision will say about him. The first and most obvious point regarding all of these players is that it is difficult to take seriously any statement suggesting that winning is the top priority: if that were the case, then each of these guys would have been lining up to sign with the Lakers for the mid-level exception. The Lakers have been to the Finals three straight times and won back to back championships, so the addition of any “top tier” guy would significantly boost the team’s overall talent and depth, but the reality is that all of these guys want to make max money—or as close to it as possible.

New Jersey Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov offered an insightful take after meeting with James; Prokhorov speculated that James will not join Wade and Bosh in Miami because even though the Heat could win two or three titles in that scenario it would “damage LeBron James’ brand” to win championships as part of such a powerful trio. Basically, Prokhorov is saying that James would rather win fewer—or no—championships than to possibly be surrounded by so much talent that his greatness will not be endlessly praised, as if Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are somehow diminished because they each played with multiple Hall of Famers.

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By the way, I am not convinced that Wade and Bosh—or even James, Wade and Bosh—will automatically make Miami the best team in the East, let alone the NBA. Championship teams generally need not only two legitimate stars but they also must have a supporting cast of solid role players; the Lakers have little bench strength other than inconsistent quasi-starter Lamar Odom but their starting lineup includes two All-Stars (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol) plus a former All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year (Ron Artest), a solid center (Andrew Bynum) and a wily, clutch veteran point guard (Derek Fisher). Miami’s plan, at least for next season, appears to be to surround two or three stars with a bunch of minimum wage (by NBA standards) players—and that formula may be good enough to win 55 games and a couple playoff series but it will not work against championship level teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Magic (or even the Cavaliers if James stays put).

Here are James’ most likely options and what each choice would reveal about James’ mindset:

5) New York Knicks: Even with the Stoudemire signing it still does not make much sense for James to go to New York if his number one goal is winning. The Knicks have absolutely no depth, plus Stoudemire is not legitimately a max level talent and there is a very real risk that the injuries to Stoudemire’s knees and/or eyes will curtail his effectiveness in the near future (that is why the Phoenix Suns did not want to give him max money even though he played so well down the stretch last season). Also, Coach Mike D’Antoni’s preferred style of high octane offense combined with tepid defense is not a championship winning methodology. If James goes to New York then he is choosing glitz, glamour and what he perceives to be potential marketing opportunities over winning.

4) New Jersey Nets: The Nets had the league’s worst record last season, so even though they hired an excellent coach (Avery Johnson) and even though their talent base is not quite as bad as their putrid record suggests they still are clearly not a championship caliber team even if James comes aboard. Prokhorov has vowed to make the Nets into a championship team within five years and many people are wowed by his huge personal fortune but it is important to remember that he amassed his money in Russia by buying assets at depreciated prices in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union—essentially, he profited from insider deals because he formed alliances with powerful members of the government. It is far from certain that the “talents” Prokhorov used to become a billionaire are applicable toward building an NBA championship team. If James signs with the Nets then he is saying that his top priority is to leverage Prokhorov and Jay Z’s visibility to become a “global icon.”

3) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls already have a nice nucleus in place with Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer (who has said that he will sign with Chicago), Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. New Coach Tom Thibodeau is a highly regarded defensive-minded assistant coach who helped the Celtics to win the 2008 title and reach the 2010 NBA Finals but he has never held a head coaching job at the NBA level. Adding James would clearly make the Bulls one of the top four teams in the East but it is doubtful that the Bulls could beat the Celtics or Magic in a seven game playoff series if those teams are at full strength. Chicago is a more likely destination for James than New York or New Jersey if James’ top priority is winning but Chicago will not have the raw talent of the Bosh/Wade duo or the deep roster that has propelled the Cavs to 60-plus wins for two straight seasons.

2) Miami Heat: The Heat offer more star power than any of the other options: Wade and Bosh are in place on the court, while Pat Riley is in the front office (and could very well decide to take over the coaching reigns, just as he did when Wade and Shaquille O’Neal led the Heat to the 2006 championship). If they team up, James, Wade and Bosh will surely say all of the right things about sacrificing and working together but when things get tough who will want the ball in the clutch and who will get it? It is obviously tempting for James to go to Miami to play alongside Wade and Bosh but I think that he should reject that option not because of Prokhorov’s reasoning about “LeBron James’ brand” but because it is not clear how the Heat will fill out their roster; if James returns to Cleveland the Cavs will once again be top level championship contenders even if owner Dan Gilbert does not further upgrade the roster—and there is every reason to believe that the Cavs will find a way to add some more veteran talent to help James. If James goes to Miami this will indicate that he believes that three stars can essentially win a championship by themselves.

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: It has become fashionable in some quarters to act as if James has had no help in Cleveland but the Cavs had enough talent to post the league’s best record the past two seasons while ranking among the league leaders in point differential, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding—clear indications that the team was well coached and had sufficient depth to execute the coach’s game plan. If James is really concerned about his legacy as a great player—as opposed to his ability to market himself or become a “global icon”– then he should stay in Cleveland. Even winning “just” one championship in Cleveland will say a lot about James’ talent and character.

Byron Scott is not necessarily an upgrade over the fired Brown but Scott  is clearly a very good coach who knows how to lead teams to the NBA Finals: the ironic thing about Scott is that other than his credentials as an NBA player his resume is eerily similar to Brown’s: the beat writers in their respective cities asserted that their offenses were largely run by their assistants (John Kuester in Cleveland, Eddie Jordan in New Jersey), they led teams to the NBA Finals but did not win and their tenures ended when it seemed like their teams had quit (Scott’s Hornets were blown out by the Nuggets in the 2009 playoffs by even worse margins than Brown’s Cavs lost to the Celtics last season). Nevertheless, I think that both Brown and Scott have been wrongly criticized and that Scott is a good enough coach to win a championship provided that he has a championship caliber roster. If James remains a Cav then Shaquille O’Neal—one of the few centers who has the size to guard Dwight Howard one on one—will likely also come back and the team will have several veteran, playoff tested All-Stars (James, O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and possibly even Zydrunas Ilgauskas). Assuming that Scott maintains the defensive focus that Brown established the Cavs would once again be a 60-plus win team that likely would earn homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. In that scenario, the Cavs should resist the temptation to make wholesale changes the way that they did in the past few seasons and instead simply try to develop more chemistry with their current roster; O’Neal and Jamison hardly had the chance to play together before the Cavs faced the Celtics in the playoffs.

LeBron James has proven many things:

1) He can post numbers that make “stat gurus” drool all over their spreadsheets.
2) He has a unique combination of athletic talent, basketball skill set and high level conditioning that enables him to be a dominant performer throughout the course of the grueling 82 game season.
3) When he feels like it, he can perform at a very high level during postseason play.
4) He has an insatiable desire for attention and praise.
5) He can cause wealthy, famous, accomplished people to figuratively–if not literally–grovel at his feet.

However, LeBron James has not proven one thing that is more important and more substantive than all of these things put together: he has not proven that winning a championship is his all-consuming goal. This is not about whether or not James is capable of being the best player on a championship team: he clearly possesses all of the necessary athletic gifts and basketball skills to do so. The unanswered question is whether or not James is consumed by winning the way that Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were and the way that Kobe Bryant is.

LeBron James and the Cavs developed elaborate pre-game dance routines but we have seen that all of the togetherness that this supposedly represented proved to be meaningless in terms of winning a championship: championships are won by teams with serious-minded, focused leaders. James has had his fun by dominating the airwaves with all of this free agency hoopla but that was just the “pre-game dance routine” for the rest of his career: after he makes his announcement on Thursday he must get down to the hard business of leading a team to a championship. If he fails to do so then his reputation in the minds of serious, knowledgeable basketball observers will never match the ranking that he receives from the “stat gurus.”

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