(via The Daily What)
Let me start by saying I apologize if this piece is suddenly obsolete. In our 24/7 media world, I can only presume you have read your full share of Lebron stories with varying angles, from “THE HEATZ THEY BE ROLLING!” to “LEBRICK WILL NEVER BE KOBE!” But I found it necessary to slow down, take a look around and not let the whirlwind of it all lead me to reacting with half-baked opinions. I have no intention of waxing poetic on the same topic we’ve been hearing about non-stop over the past few days. No, you’ve seen enough of them. Think of this as a response to the general conception, as the way one man sees what we’ve all been hearing.
Public Response vs. My Response
Public Response 1
Lebron stabbed Cleveland in the back not in leaving, but in the way he did it.
Yes. Moving on.
Public Response 2
Because he left Cleveland, Lebron will never be Jordan.
Well, this one is true, but you can drop the “because he left Cleveland” part. It’s time we realize that NOBODY WILL EVER EVER EVER BE JORDAN. Let’s just stop having this contrived debate between Jordan and every dominant wing player that enters the league. It will make all of us much healthier.
Public Response 3
Because he left Cleveland, Lebron will never be Kobe.
In no way can you make that statement right now. No freaking way. Kobe never left the Lakers? He damn well wanted to in 2007, requesting a trade after 3 years of going nowhere without Shaq. The request went so far that the Lakers actually had a deal in place with the Bulls, set to send Kobe to Chicago for a package revolving around then-promising youngster Luol Deng. Only Kobe vetoed it because, without Deng, the Bulls had so little talent that Kobe didn’t think he could contend with them. Kind of like Lebron chose Miami over all other options because he felt they gave him the best chance to contend.
Kobe never quit on his team in the playoffs? Why don’t you ask the 2006 Phoenix Suns how much easier Game 7 vs. LA was than Games 1 through 6. I guess it was much easier, with Kobe taking three shots the entire second half, making none. Or, if the 2006 Suns lack credibility in your book, ask the 2008 Boston Celtics how much easier Game 6 of the NBA finals was than Games 1 through 5.
Look, the great thing about NBA basketball is that we don’t know anything until it actually happens. Yes, Lebron has zero titles seven seasons into his career, by which time Kobe had three. Also, Kobe took those three titles alongside arguably the most dominant player ever in his most dominant stretch ever. The best player to ever play alongside Lebron in the postseason was Daniel Gibson. So while Kobe’s career is thus far superior to Lebron’s in every which way, and anybody making an argument to the contrary is either blind or incredibly unintelligent, we must always remember that career comparisons come at the end of careers, not in the middle of them. Will Lebron ascend to Kobe’s level when all is said and done? Right now, it looks as if he doesn’t. Not when Kobe’s claim to fame is his unquenchable thirst to win and to improve, while Lebron wastes his summers on hour-long TV specials. But there is no possible way to say that he never will. Unless you can see the future. At which case I’d like to know next week’s lottery numbers.
Public Response 4
If he wanted to win, he would have gone to Chicago.
Ummm … what? How is an up-and-coming, All-Star point guard, an undersized All-Star power forward and a borderline All-Star defensive center better than a top two shooting guard and a much better, not undersized All-Star power forward? I’m sorry, but I just don’t get this line of thinking at all.
Role players excluded, Wade/Bosh is a much, much better combination than Rose/Boozer/Noah. It’s no contest defensively (yes, Noah is great, but Wade is an all-worlder in this regard, and while Bosh isn’t the best defender you’ve seen, he’s better than Booze). It’s even more of a no contest offensively, where Bosh is amongst the league’s best, and Wade is amongst history’s very best. And while Rose’s and Noah’s youth enable Lebron to grow old with them, it also means that they’re not as good as Wade and Bosh right now, which is when Lebron wants that ring. Not to mention, they will never be as good as Wade and Bosh. Both have tremendous upside (more so Rose), but this is out of their league.
The only place I see an advantage for Chicago over Miami is in depth. Rose/Boozer/Noah are three guys, Wade/Bosh are two. In addition, the Bulls have a Luol Deng/James Johnson/Taj Gibson supporting cast, while Miami has just Mario Chalmers. But that brings me to my next point, which is…
Public Response 5A
The Heat can’t win a title because they have no role players.
Let’s ignore for a second that Miami has traded Michael Beasley for nothing, which, combined with the new Superfriends all taking less money, enables signing Mike Miller. The Heat can now offer any free agent only a minimum contract … but this comes with the opportunity to play with a nearly unprecedented force in this league. Of course, some of these guys need money and won’t tag along, but plenty of others will. Ben Wallace played for a minimum deal last year, and his renaissance in Detroit would have been a huge story had the Pistons been relevant. You think he wouldn’t want to start at center for this team? What about Raja Bell, on the downside of his career? Eddie House, looking to taste that sweet victory champagne again after being let go by the Celtics? Every single bought-out guy in late February?
And even if the familiar faces choose not to join for whatever reason — we are coming off the best season ever for D-League talent. The Golden State Warriors featured Anthony Tolliver, Cartier Martin, Chris Hunter, CJ Watson and Reggie Williams as rotation players throughout the season — all D-League guys. Alonzo Gee broke into the scene in Washington. Sundiata Gaines rose to fame after making a game-winning shot against the Cavs.
The D-League is full of more of these NBA-level players just waiting to get a chance. The Miami Heat roster is full of empty spots waiting for contributors to step in. There is no reason why the marriage can’t work. The Heat have 82 games to filter through this pool of talent — a pool that we know, now more than ever, is overflowing — find the best guys and trot them out. And playing with some of the best players in the world, the chances of them finding absolutely nobody who can step up are minuscule. Add that to what the brilliant Mark Deeks of ShamSports calls “one of the best undrafted classes of recent years,” and Miami should have themselves a rotation in no time. Not to mention that Lebron made Daniel Gibson, JJ Hickson and Jawad Williams look like legit NBA contributors in Cleveland. With Wade and Bosh creating even more open looks for the other guys, that trend should continue.
Of course, there is another side to this coin that is being mentioned quite a bit …
Public Response 5B
Miami is an immediate title favorite.
Again, let’s slow down a bit.
Yes, the Heat now bolster a trio nearly unparalleled in the NBA. But basketball isn’t played three against five. And confident as I am in the Heat’s ability to fill out their roster (see 5A) there are still 29 other teams in the league that, until opening night, are tied with the Heat for the best record in the league and pose big questions.
How do the Heat stop the Dwight Howards and Pau Gasols of the world with no current defensive player in their frontcourt? How can they rival the depth of the Magic and Celtics? Even the pseudo-contenders of the East, a group that as of today consists of Chicago, Milwaukee and Atlanta in my eyes, probably have something to say to whoever is anointing Miami as Eastern Conference champs — let alone NBA champs. And we don’t even know how this trio will work on the court or in the locker room. Talk to me next April. Actually, make that June.
Public Response 6
Lebron has admitted he can’t win alone by going to be Dwyane’s sidekick.
This is probably the dumbest statement I’ve heard throughout this mess, and yet it is the most prevalent.
Yes, Lebron James failed to win a title as the leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But look at the rosters he had to work with over the years. NOBODY in NBA history won a title with a roster that bad. Nobody. The only All-Stars Lebron played with in their primes were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, whose skill diminished noticeably by the time Cleveland was a championship contender, and Mo Williams, who is as much of an All-Star as you and me.
And yet, he took that roster to the best record in the league for two consecutive years, carrying them night in, night out. He took them to the NBA Finals, behind one of the greatest playoff performances ever that we somehow allowed ourselves to forget. Yes, he choked against Boston. But it was his first playoff loss that was his fault, the first time in five years of overachieving that he didn’t do everything humanly possible in a playoff series. And least us not forget — Boston was the better team, and won not because Lebron was bad, but because the Cavs had nobody to guard Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett. Lebron simply didn’t do anything to counter that.
So now, when Lebron is taking less money to play on a better team — a potentially historically great team — we’re calling him out? We’re actually faulting this guy because he chose playing with an all-time great and an all-NBAer over playing with Anderson Varejao and Anthony Parker in his starting lineup? If everything is indeed about winning, and the main criticism on Lebron was that he doesn’t want to win as much as his peers, isn’t this the only move he could have considered?
As for the sidekick thing – give me a break. When Shaquille O’neal signed with the Lakers in 1996, it was Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos’ team. Was Shaq the sidekick? When Tim Duncan came to the Spurs, it was David Robinson’s team. Was Timmy the sidekick? The fact of the matter is, Lebron James is still the best player in the league, and he will be the best player on the Heat even if they bring in Josh Boone in free agency. The “I was there first” argument works for standing in line at a pizzeria, not when discussing the pecking order on an NBA team. Even if the player who was there first is responsible for the team’s only title.
Besides, why do we need a sidekick anyway? Why do we need only one alpha male, only one player who takes the last shot? If the Charlotte Bobcats had a team consisting of Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard, you think that team wouldn’t win the title just because everybody would want the last shot? No, I’ll tell you what happens in the last possession: Chris Paul will handle the ball, because he’s the point guard; he will get a screen from Dwight, because he’s the best screener in the game; Dwight will roll to the basket; and from that point on, the team will move the ball to the open player, who will knock down the shot because he’s awesome.
Same here. This consensus that final possession basketball consists of an isolation play for clutch guy X is absurd. It works when you have said clutch guy, but why should it be the final option? If you have two or three guys that can all step up, why categorize them into “the guy with the ball” and “the guy who’s watching”? And why does it even matter if the team is good enough to win the game in the first 47 minutes?
The whole legacy discussion in sports is looked at the wrong way. We say titles matter the most, but players have to win the title in the predetermined mold, and each title carries different weight depending on the role said player had on the team. And that’s fine. Nobody thinks Robert Horry is better than Michael Jordan because seven is a bigger number than six. But this point of view comes with an undefined resolution. Jordan was the best guy on his title teams, and Kareem was the best guy on his, except Jordan had Pippen, and Kareem had Magic. Does this give Kareem more credit? Or Jordan? Shaq had young Kobe, old Kobe had Pau. Is Pau as good as young Kobe? Is old Kobe as good as Shaq? What about the coaches? What about the role players? We insist on pegging these guys into these rigid roles and use those roles to analyze the hell out of them. But what if we miss by just a bit? What if Pau is a tiny bit better than Manu Ginobili? Nope, they were both the number-two sidekick, so they’re the same. Please.
Besides, as much as I hate repeating this point, we have to remember that there is still plenty of basketball to be played. What if the Miami Heat win the title next year, only the finals feature Lebron averaging 40, 10 and 10 while shutting down Kobe, and Wade shoots 14%? What if Lebron is injured in the first round of the playoffs, but Wade leads the team to the title without him? What if the Heat never win a title because Kevin Durant turns into the Optimus Prime and doesn’t lose a playoff game until 2025? We don’t know what will happen, because it hasn’t happened yet. Just like in 2007, when Kobe was getting criticized by every punk with a keyboard, nobody imagined that the summer of 2010 would turn him into the guy everyone is rooting for to take down the Miami axis of evil.
I get the need to write some of the stuff that we’ve been reading. You don’t sell papers by telling people to wait for the games to play out. But the bottom line is that we’re discussing the sport of basketball, not the sport of offseason moves. And as such, legacies are built in the games themselves. Lebron James still has plenty of basketball to play. History shows he’s very good at it. That doesn’t change just because his jersey has different colors or because he’s no longer playing in a city that recognizes the concept of cold weather.
I’m not trying to defend Lebron. Though his decision to leave was perfectly legitimate, he handled the entire situation in the worst possible way, and I, too, hoped he would stay in Cleveland and prove he could win over there. But I do think that this backlash has been overdone.
Has Lebron shown that he’s a narcissistic human being with little to no awareness as to how his decisions affect the millions that idolize him? Yes. But this decision does nothing to diminish the fact that he is the best player in this league, that his MVP awards were blowouts of the 1992-Dream-team-against-Angola proportions, that he single-handedly carried the worst NBA Finals team ever within four wins of an NBA title or that, from a skills-only standpoint, he might be the greatest player to ever play basketball.
That much we know, because it’s in the past.
The future? It could go anywhere.
The true beauty of this league is that less than an hour after Lebron’s much-criticized Decision, the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors completed a trade that both teams hope will improve their chances at a title of their own. And less than a day after that, the Charlotte Bobcats re-signed Tyrus Thomas. And the Chicago Bulls signed Kyle Korver. And the New Jersey Nets signed Johan Petro. Each for their own reasons. (Tyrus has ridiculous upside, the Bulls need a shooter, and I have absolutely no idea) Each with their own dreams of success.
Good as the new-look Heat may be, we still have 29 teams — lead by the defending champions, least you forget — that want a title just as much. Who will win it? We have no idea.
Which is why, come late October, I will be watching.