SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Don't blame LeBron James for leaving Cleveland. Don't fit him for a ring yet, either.
That was the message at the Hall of Fame on Friday, where James' move to Miami was a topic among this year's induction class.
With James joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat have become a title favorite. But Karl Malone is sticking with the reigning champions, and Scottie Pippen isn't even sure Miami will reach the NBA finals.
"I would say this: With the guys they got, they're going to be a hell of a team," Malone said of the Heat. "I pick the Lakers."
Malone also joked that former coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy "must have had some red wine that night, a lot of it," when he predicted recently that the Heat could break Chicago's record of 72 wins set in 1995-96.
Pippen, who played on that team, said the Heat need to start with smaller expectations.
"I'd like to see them win a championship first," he said.
James was criticized for deciding to announce his free agency decision during an ESPN special, rather than inform the Cavaliers and his other suitors himself. Pippen agreed that wasn't the best choice, but said there was nothing wrong with him leaving Ohio.
"I don't know what all the grief was about," Pippen said. "No fans, no organization, no one can decide what a free agent can do or should do or where he's going to go, and there's no reason for anyone to hold a grudge against LeBron for making that decision."
Oscar Robertson also defended James, saying the free agents were just taking advantage of the "Oscar Robertson Rule." Robertson, as president of the NBA Players Association, filed a class-action lawsuit against the league and its teams that the league settled in 1976, removing a team's option to keep a player for life and opening the door for unrestricted free agency.
Malone spent nearly his entire career in Utah before joining a powerful Lakers team that had Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for a last-ditch run at a title in 2003-04. So he wasn't going to criticize James for bolting Cleveland for a better shot on a better team — though he didn't care for the way it was done, either.
"That's his decision. My decision, when I left Utah, I went to L.A. to win a championship and had an opportunity," Malone said. "Him leaving, that's him. I don't know what to tell you. The way it went down, I'm not into that."
Malone ended up getting hurt and the Lakers fell short, and he warns that injuries could get in the Heat's way. Pippen, meanwhile, thinks Miami's size could be a problem.
"There are a couple of teams in the East that they're going to have to contend with, that they're going to have matchup problems with," Pippen said. "You think of Boston, Orlando. I don't see anybody that they can get to run up and down the court with (Dwight) Howard right now and that's a game changer."