May 14, 2010

LeBron's Last Stand?

27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 9 turnovers

Does that look like the stat line of a failure?  Is that a game to be ashamed of?  Most players would be thrilled with putting up a triple double in a playoff game, especially one so close to 30 points and 20 rebounds.  But, to hear the sports world today, LeBron James threw up his second stinker game in a row.  And now, his Cleveland Cavaliers have gone home early . . . again.  The best record in the NBA, the favorite for the title, the MVP winner - they all get to watch someone else hoist the trophy.  The Kobe vs LeBron matchup gets put on hold . . . again.  And everyone is left scratching their heads.  Except for the city of Cleveland.  They aren't scratching their head - they are puling their hair out.  They have watched ANOTHER title go down the drain.  The Celtics were so dead three games ago that die hard fans like Bill Simmons of ESPN were selling their tickets rather than watch Bron Bron steamroll them.  Then, between Rajon Rondo's crazy good Game Four and LeBron's crazy horrible Game Five, Boston came back and beat the Cavs.  And now the questions begin about James - will he stay in Cleveland?  Go to New York or Chicago or LA or Miami?  Is basketball dead in Ohio?

I have no love for the Cavaliers or for LeBron James.  I think he is a great player.  But I am a Magic fan.  So let's face it, the Cavs' morphing into the NBA's version of the Atlanta Braves (great regular season, lousy playoffs) is fine by me.  Orlando already got one trip to the Finals courtesy of Cleveland's ineptitude. And they have a great chance to go back this year.  So, thanks to Cleveland for that.  However, as a sports fan, I am a bit puzzled by LeBron James.  He is, without a doubt, the best player out there.  When he is on a roll, he is an absolute menace.  He is a freak of nature - built like a tank, can do everything on the court.  But there is just something a bit off.  I think that is what everyone is overreacting to do today in the sports universe.  What's wrong with him?  And can it be fixed?  And where will it be fixed?

When I look at the situation, there are several things that stand out to me.  First of all, James has an absolutely horrible supporting cast.  He is carrying that team.  That is why a stat line like what you see up there doesn't translate to a victory.  He has no margin of error.  He has to play out of his mind every night because he isn't getting any help.  Who exactly is supposed to step up on the Cavs?  The lead singer of Counting Crows?  The reanimated zombie corpse of Shaq?  Boobie Gibson?  A team with just one great player doesn't work!  Quick, name the last time that a team with just one big star won the NBA title.  (And no, Shaq is NOT a big star.  He WAS a big star.  But now he is a dying star.  When he runs up the court, it looks like those scenes in Happy Gilmore where Jaws from James Bond had to run after someone.  Only he can't run, so they always filmed them in slow motion to make it look like he was still imposing.  That's Shaq.)  Did you find the answer yet?  The 1994 Houston Rockets.  Hakeem Olajuwon was the only real player they had.  But, he was against the beat up New York Knicks - and their solo star Patrick Ewing.

Teams with one star don't work.  It doesn't matter how good you are, at the level of play we see in the playoffs, there just is no way for one player to win.  Greatest proof of this?  Michael Jordan.  He had Scottie Pippen and won six titles.  No Pippen?  Nothing.  Kobe had Shaq and then Gasol.  Shaq had Kobe and Dwayne Wade.  Duncan had Robinson and then Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.  Then you had teams like the Pistons (tons of very good players) and Celtics/Lakers of the 1980s (tons of great players).  But there needs to be at least one other player.  You can surround those two with all the role players and Robert Horrys and Mo Williams you want.  Then those role players are expected to just do a couple things a game - and they usually do.  But when you have only one big star, the one-step-from-the-CBA players filling out the roster have to do too much.

That is where you have to blame the Cavaliers organization far more than James.  And if LBJ takes off this summer, they have no one to blame but themselves.  He wanted them to help him.  He basically begged them.  If they had done that, I think James never would have thought of going to the Knicks or Bulls.  He would have settled in and won ten titles and retired as a Cavalier.  But Danny Ferry and his moron squad did nothing.  The resigned Varejo (the only other player who played well these playoffs, it seemed to me).  They traded for Shaq - hoping his broken down aircraft carrier of a body would hold out long enough to fight Dwight Howard in the playoffs.  They traded for Antawn Jamison.  Huh?  I remember everyone saying the Cavs had secured the title with that move.  What?  It's Jamison!  Hasn't this guy played for half the teams in the league?  What exactly has he done?

Take a look at the Orlando Magic.  (Please, someone look at them.  They are 8-0 in the playoffs, you know!)  They have a mega-star in Dwight Howard.  But, let's face it, he is NOT going to carry that team to a title alone.  He is what he is - a dominant defender and powerful presence. But he still is in early-Shaq phase.  He gets too many fouls, wants to rely on dunks too much, can't shoot free throws.  They go out and get Rahard Lewis - someone who can shoot and score.  (I remember everyone trashing this signing.  "All he can do is score!!"  That's all he NEEDS to do.)  And they turn Jameer Nelson into an All-Star.  And they sign Hedo Turkoglu for scoring and leadership.  So, the Magic get to the Finals last year and just can't finish it off.  They see where the team is weak.  They opt to NOT re-sign Hedo (and get KILLED for it al over the sports world).  They pick up Vince Carter and Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass and re-sign the Polish Hammer.  Now, they are freaking loaded.  They have Howard or Gortat clogging the middle.  And then they have artillery stationed all around the three point range just raining shots down.  Now, their management and coaches look like geniuses.  The key?  They DID something.  They surrounded Howard with other players to carry the load.  And, amazingly, they have gone on this 14 win tear with Howard riding the bench more than normal.

James was trying to do it all himself.  He had no help.  This can translate into a great regular season.  It's little wonder that he won the MVP.  He was the only one doing anything!!!  And it is a testament to just how stellar he is that the Cavs were the favorite with just him and the extras from He Got Game.  But there was no room for error.  And James got hurt.  He hurt his elbow during the fifth game of the Chicago series.  If you remember, he was absolutely shredding the Bulls that series.  But he got a chink in his armor.  And so, when it came time to play the Celtics - a team with tons of stars who certainly know how to win - James no longer had the strength to do it himself.  He got through the first three games, but I think it began to wear on him.  If he just had one other player to carry some of the weight.  But there was no one there.

I think LeBron is in a tough spot.  I have to believe, based on what has been presented about him, James is a good guy.  He is loyal to his friends and community.  He's from Akron.  There is incredible chemistry on the Cavs - they really enjoy each other and play well together.  Those things mean something to him.  And he has an understanding and appreciation for history.  He respects those who came before him and the example they set.  (Remember his "I'm not going to wear 23 any more" thing from earlier this year?)  So he knows that beloved and transcendent players in the modern NBA rarely switch teams mid-career.  Jordan, Bird, Magic, Isiah Thomas, Duncan, Kobe.  There is a lot of precedent for players of that stature doing whatever they can to stay put and build a legacy there.  [I know Jordan played for the Wizards, but I am trying to forget that.  And it wasn't mid-career.]  In the last 20 years, Shaq is the only huge NBA star that I remember switching teams of his own volition.  And, that just proved he was a selfish mercenary.  Which is why one of the ten greatest players ever has played for five teams.  LeBron wants to be seen the same as Jordan.  An icon.  Icon's don't switch teams.

But, what does he have to look forward to if he stays?  Another year of carrying Cleveland on his back alone?  They have enough money to re-sign him, since you can go over the salary cap to sign your own players.  But they don't have a ton of money to bring in some other big name.  So he would be signing on, hoping that at some point the Cavs will be able to bring him some help.  He has some options.  Chicago will probably have enough money to sign him, and then keep their little collection of mini-stars (Deng, Noah, Rose, Hinrich).  That would be a MUCH improved collection of supporting players.  They are good enough to get into the playoffs without a big star - something I severely doubt about the Cavs without LeBron.  The Knicks may have enough money to land two big names - LeBron and someone else like Chris Bosh.  The Heat may be able to re-sign Dwayne Wade and get LeBron there.  Then there are teams like the Nets and Clippers with lots of cap space, young players, marketing opportunities - and upcoming high draft picks.

I don't envy James' decision.   I know, rough, having to decide where to make $16 million a year.  But, from his point of view, he's kind of in a lose/lose/lose/lose situation.  Lose #1.  He can stay in Cleveland, secure his status of hometown hero.  Keep the chemistry alive.  But he will do so knowing that he will never win a title - let alone multiple titles - until the Cavs can get some help.  And he'll be doing it with a new coach and GM, since there is no way that Smith and Ferry can stay there after the debacle of the playoffs.  Lose #2.  He decides to leave and go to the Knicks or Heat.  He gets to be in a bigger, more prominent city with more marketing options.  He's have another big shot with him.  He may even win some titles there.  But he will forever be seen as a money-grubbing turncoat who single-handedly murdered basketball in his hometown.  Lose #3.  He goes to the Bulls.  Nice collection of stars around him for a few years, until they need paid and bolt to other teams.  He probably can win a title there.  But he would be signing with the team that is his hometown team's biggest rival - even worse than going to the Knicks.  And he will be living in Jordan's shadow.  That switch of numbers would be out of necessity.  Does he want to daily be forced to live up to Jordan's epic shadow?  Lose #4.  He goes to the Clippers or Nets.  Again, painted as a turncoat.  But this time, he is setting himself up for the long term - with little payoff in the short term.  Neither of those teams become competitive as soon as he arrives.  So, he goes back to early playoff exits - or, worse, missing the playoffs.  And with the Clippers he has to compete with the mammoth hold that Kobe has on LA.

I don't know what LeBron would decide.  I don't know what I would decide if I were in his shoes.  Those of us out of the sports world like to criticize players for doing things for money.  But, if we had to decide those things in our own jobs, what would we do?  I have worked places where I felt like I was having to carry things by myself.  It sucks.  You have no help, too many responsibilities, not much hope for improvement.  I know that in those cases, if someone came along and offered me a job that paid the same with more help, I would have considered it.  I also know how important chemistry is to a job.  We've all worked places that appeared great and where everyone hated each other.  That doesn't make you want to punch in, does it?  And we've been in places where the pay may not have been as good, but it was a great place to work.  (Apple at the Florida Mall and ICS for me.)  You loved going to work, even though it didn't provide as much.  And, I know the thought of leaving a place suffering because you left - is a strong pull to stay.  I wouldn't want to have to make that call for LeBron.  Sure, I would love the money and fame and endorsements and freak of nature body and world class skills.  But, that decision would be horrible.  I wonder if the media is going to cover that process at all.

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