Published May 14, 2010
If he goes -- and I sure hope he doesn't -- it's with an undeniable sense that the task was bigger than he is.
That's saying something, considering that the player in question has been promoted since his adolescence as "King James" and the "The Chosen One." In its devious brilliance, Nike -- which committed $90 million to a kid who had yet to graduate from high school -- wanted consumers across demographics call you to bear witness. Well, now they have.
Then again, the LeBron James Story -- already the longest-running soap opera in sports -- was always about truth in advertising. There is none. Some years ago, he played various roles and assumed various disguises in an irresistible series of commercials. The one I recall best featured background music by Kool and the Gang -- "Summer Madness," one of the greatest, smoothest, coolest grooves ever -- as James dove perfectly off a high board.
No one could be that cool, I thought. Turns out I was right.
Apologists for James -- those who would seek to place the brunt of the blame on his coach or supporting cast -- will cite his line in the sixth and deciding game against the Boston Celtics: 29 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists. But that misses the nine crucial turnovers, including the one that set Boston on a 10-point run in the fourth quarter. With the estimable Tony Allen checking him, James dribbled the ball off his foot. Rajon Rondo -- the best player in this series -- raced down the court to lay the ball in. It was never a game after that. The discussion had risen to new levels of intensity even before Boston was done with its run: Where Will He Go?
I say, what does he owe?
"I love the city of Cleveland," he said late Thursday night.
Well, love it a little bit more. This is nothing more than my own rooting interest, though in this case, I know full-well what's good for the game. For once, I'd like to see a guy not go to the biggest market or the best climate. LeBron James is from Akron, Ohio. There are many superstars, but perilously few hometown heroes. So, for what it's worth, James should make it right with the people of Cleveland and Akron. They deserved better from him.
A great-looking line in a box score doesn't make you a champion. What's more, in the case of LeBron James, what he did in Game 6, doesn't make up for what he didn't do in Game 5. It wasn't just the 3 for 14 shooting. It was the way a reigning two-time MVP declined to attack the basket on his home court.
James said earlier this season that he no longer wants to wear No. 23, the integer made famous by his idol, Michael Jordan. Well, now you know why. As measured by the most easily quantified barometers of athletic talent -- size and strength -- James would seem superior to Jordan. The corporate sponsors seized on these qualities immediately. A folklore and a narrative was created with billboards and TV spots and as-told-to biographies and documentary movies. But now, seven years into James' pro career -- a season that saw Michael Jordan win the first of his six championships -- he has been eliminated in the conference semifinals.
And get this straight: it's not coaching, though I'm not arguing that Mike Brown's game-time adjustments will ever qualify as strategic brilliance. And it's not the surrounding talent, either, though that might be improved some, too. It's the player. James is a transcendent talent who's yet to transcend. Through 11 playoff games this season, he hasn't made anyone better. And however painful the state of his right elbow, that's a shame.
In 2007, James recorded one of the greatest games in postseason history, a double-overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons in which he scored 25 straight points. Never mind that the Cavs went on to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. No shame there, not when you consider James' fellow starters included Sasha Pavlovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden, and that the team's best perimeter threat was Boobie Gibson.
The following year saw Cleveland lose in seven games in the conference finals to the Celtics, the eventual champions. There had been marginal improvements to the roster. Starters now included Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace, with Joe Smith coming off the bench. It's also worth noting that, according to STATS LLC, James shot a mere 35 percent in that series.
In '09, the Cavs added Mo Williams -- a good shooting point guard, though not the All-Star caliber player he was advertised to be. Still, James won the first of his MVP Awards and the Cavs finished with basketball's best record. Then the Orlando Magic took them out in six games.
This year, James' fellow starters included Anthony Parker, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal. Anderson Varejao (an underappreciated player, I think, the kind you find on most championship teams), Delonte West, and Ilgauskas come off the bench. That's not a bad squad. Maybe it's not good enough to win a title. But after 61 regular-season wins, LeBron's team -- always his team -- should've gotten more than a couple games in the conference semifinals.
So where does he go? New York is all hype. The Knicks are dysfunctional. They don't play defense. Their roster makes the Cavs look like the Lakers. New Jersey? Not enough talent. Plus, what's the point? He's already boys with Jay-Z.
Chicago? Interesting. Who wouldn't want to play with Derrick Rose? Then again, he might as well put that 23 jersey back on.
Of course, Miami is an interesting destination. But it won't be LeBron's team. It will be his and Dwayne Wade's and, most of all, Pat Riley's.
How about Los Angeles? I mean, does he really want to surround himself with unexploited talent and create something entirely new? Think about it: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Thornton, Baron Davis and Blake Griffin. Then again, it's the Clippers.
So let him stop the summer madness before it begins. Maybe he needs a new coach. And a new sidekick. But let him stay and acknowledge his debt to the fans and the town he claims to love. To this point, the LeBron James narrative has been driven by commerce. That won't change, but it doesn't mean he can't make history. Here's hoping there can still be a happy ending in Cleveland.