LeBron James: Untitled
Let's flashback to the 2003 NBA draft. The draft is an event that does not only serve the purpose of replenishing teams with young talent. It is also a means of leveling the competitive playing field. Without taking into account the skewing by the random draft lottery that scrambles the very worst teams and any trades that might take place, the teams with the poorer records of the previous season choose players first, and the teams with the better records follow in inverse order.
What if I had told you at that time that three of the top five players in that 2003 draft would quickly and completely fulfill their envisioned basketball statistical potential, thus becoming three of the top twenty-five players in the league? (Some might even argue that currently they are all in the top ten.) What if I told you that at the beginning of what should be the peak of an NBA superstar's career - seven years after being drafted - these three individuals would take advantage of their free agency status by joining the same team in an attempt to win championships together? That would not simply seem like an extreme, unprecedented shift in competitive balance for the NBA from a raw talent perspective; it would in fact be exactly that. If you lived in Toronto or Cleveland and were armed with that foreknowledge, would you wonder if there was any point to drafting a first round draft pick at all?
As we know, that is exactly what took place when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade joined forces on the Miami Heat almost one year ago. I am not writing this to lambaste the free agency system. I might have problems with what it hath wrought, but I do not believe that changing the rules specifically to prevent this from happening again is the correct response. Some sort of mild tweaking might be in order that gives teams the ability to secure a player with a restricted, designated "franchise tag" like the one that has been used in the NFL, if we want NBA small markets team to remain vital. However, in general players deserve the protection that free agency currently affords them.
What we had here was a perfect storm in the convergence of contracts ending and the bonds of friendship among those three best players available. It had not happened before with players of this caliber in their primes, and it might not happen again. Even if I do fear that this sort of maneuvering could become an attempted trend in the league, thus potentially consigning certain lower profile franchises to a culture of losing, I cannot fault the Heat for doing their best to put together a winning team. I cannot fault LeBron for leaving Cleveland either. I am sad for the city, and I do think it is reasonable cause to root against him as a fan, but his action in itself is not any different than the action of Shaquille O'Neal fifteen years ago when he left Orlando for Los Angeles. It would have been a great, heartwarming story had LeBron stayed in Cleveland, but that was not the path he chose.
The difference from Shaquille, of course, is the tacky method LeBron used to make the announcement. I remember learning about Shaquille's departure in 1996 from a morning Internet headline. That's a stark contrast with the primetime appointment television that LeBron gave us. Even so, LeBron later expressed regret over the manner of his hyped special "The Decision," and I think that he deserves credit for admitting that mistake. In spite of that admission, LeBron's status as the supreme NBA villain increased, and the general buzz and scrutiny over every single box score from the Miami Heat games intensified over the course of the season. Certain actions of his only fanned the flames.
There was his gloating via Twitter over a historically humiliating defeat by the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers. (He did deny that was the subject of his tweet.) There was the cocky braggadocio of the Miami event introducing their "Big Three," at which LeBron famously said, "Not five, not six, not seven..." in reference to the number of championships that James, Wade, and Bosh would bring the city.
Yet wasn't the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert a little petty and obnoxious in his own reaction to LeBron's departure? Certainly LeBron could have taken the high road, but is LeBron's response in their war of words that unreasonable? And shouldn't confidence in one's new talented team and encouragement for your fans be considered positive things?
Above all, the villainy can be attributed to this perceived "shortcut" (as Dan Gilbert called it) that LeBron was taking in trying to win. Past superstars of the NBA publicly said that they never would have considered making a similar super-team with the other best players in the game; they would rather have defeated them on the court. The idea that a few players could essentially circumvent that system that strives for a level playing field by making agreements off the court simply rubs us the wrong way on the fundamental level of sportsmanship. Nevertheless, what they did was entirely within the rules, and are we not partially to blame for making the legacy of our greatest athletes so contingent upon the number of titles won? Would Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and Reggie Miller not indulge in at least a little fantasizing over what could have been given a similar opportunity?
I almost wrote this column a few weeks ago before the playoffs were even completed. I was that confident that the Miami Heat were going to prevail and that cynical about the foregone conclusion that James, Bosh, and Wade had engineered. They had improved immensely over the course of the season, and I thought they looked nearly unstoppable in handling the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. After their efficient victory in the final series, I would have snidely called the column "What Did The Miami Heat Prove?"
Obviously, I was compelled to push my thoughts in a different direction by the victory of the Dallas Mavericks. On paper this was not a team that had more talent than the Miami Heat, and in terms of minutes played they were a much older team. A wealth of experience, a strong team game plan, and an uncanny resilience in the fourth quarter worked in their favor, though. Among others, they had a superstar of their own in Dirk Nowitzki fighting for what was likely his final chance at a title, a reliably consistent future Hall of Fame player and ball handler in Jason Kidd that also sought his first title at age 38, outstanding post play from Tyson Chandler, bullseye shooting from Jason Terry (with his prescient preseason championship tattoo), the role playing of veteran Shawn Marion, and the slipperiness of Jose Barea, who looks like a relative of Tyrion Lannister on the court. (I simply do not believe that he is even as tall as his listed six feet.)
I have never formed a strong specific NBA rooting interest; I enjoy watching basketball from a more detached perspective with weak preferences. If you have read more than a couple of my columns, you know that I have strong north Texas sympathies, and I do have many friends that were supporting the Mavericks. Hence, I very much wanted them to win, and - for the reasons outlined above - I wanted to see LeBron James and the Miami Heat receive some comeuppance for their hybris. (That little impromptu act that James and Wade pulled before game five mocking Nowitzki's game four illness served as the crowning jewel in their villainous status.)
After the satisfaction of the Mavericks victory had a short time to settle on Sunday night, I found myself thinking about LeBron James sympathetically. I was not sorry that he lost. I do not have a strong desire to see him win a championship in the future, although I would bet that he will win, if not next year than in the next few years. My sympathy was much more linked to the level of scrutiny, criticism, and gloating that he would receive in defeat. The amount of Internet dogpiling was not surprising but still astounding in its magnitude. The analysis of why he did not perform his best, whether or not he needs a sports psychologist, and the significance of every single word he uttered seems unending. (I acknowledge I am contributing to it in writing this.)
I realize that he has brought much of the backlash upon himself. Still, it is an unfathomable amount of attention. Just take a look at the tweets directed at him over the last few days. I have not read them myself, but I guarantee there is more negativity and rudeness therein than any single person should be expected to weather in several lifetimes. Asked for a response from the press immediately after the final game, he derided those reveling in his failure. We can enjoy it as long as we will and then go back to our inferior, hate-tinged existences. (Those are my words and not his, but that is a fair approximation.) I feel defensive and disconsolate over criticism from only one person; I can imagine lashing out as well were the critique to come from thousands.
Given another day to mull over the situation, LeBron James tempered his reaction. He congratulated the Dallas Mavericks and promised to work diligently to improve before next season. If I could offer him advice (whatever advice from no one of consequence might be worth to the NBA's most talented player), I would encourage him to do exactly that: work hard.
Also, try to ignore those naysayers. That is not to say that he should not be aware of what people think of what he says and does, but there is no point in dwelling on the vast quantity of opposition. Strive to be friendly and generous, because I do think -- although LeBron James might not have the winning persona of Shaquille O'Neal -- that he seemed to have a fun, affable personality before the public opinion of him spiraled into such depths. Give those of us who hold this grudge nowhere to go with our feelings by responding with smiles instead of scowls. It is a tough task, but LeBron James still has a long career ahead of him and plenty of time to alter his narrative.
As I said, I was going to give this column a snarky title. I considered "No Joy In South Beach," as well as "Not five, not four, not three...." Predictably, a Google search revealed that I am not the only one to conjure those two witticisms, and they did not seem appropriate regardless by the time I formulated what I wanted to say. So, I am opting for the multiple meanings of "LeBron James: Untitled." He does not have his NBA title yet, but it is far too soon to place any sort of career-defining label upon him or extend this defeat to apply to his future legacy within the game of basketball. I consider the verdict still out on my personal opinion of him, and, surprisingly after all this, I find that part of me would like to see him win us over.
C. Robert Dimitri congratulates the Cleveland Cavaliers on securing the first pick in the 2011 NBA draft.