We live in a cynical age, an age in which we project and predict based on criteria that include salary caps, mid-level exceptions, biannual exceptions, and even Larry Bird exceptions. We predict what athletes will do based on what other players around them will do, and where they can best enhance their “brand.”
But it didn’t take me more than two minutes of reading LeBron James’s thoughtfully written essay in Sports Illustrated announcing his decision to return to Cleveland to see that he made his choice based on factors that aren’t going to register on an ESPN graphic, or on some coach’s chalkboard.
He made this call with his heart. The essay, which should be read by all, is essentially a love letter to Northeast Ohio. He talks about the streets where he ran, walked, cried, and bled. He talks about how four years ago he didn’t understand that his relationship with Northeast Ohio was “bigger than basketball.” But he does now.
In other words, for all of his fame and fortune, LeBron James’s story is the story of most of us. It’s the story of anyone who has ever ventured out of a comfort zone and been forced to traverse the pitfalls and triumphs of life. And what normally happens to us after we have that experience? We become better, more complete people, which is exactly what’s happened to LeBron James.
Now, all warm-fuzzies aside, make no mistake about it: basketball played a role in LeBron’s decision. Cleveland has an up-and-coming superstar in Kyrie Irving, they have an excellent chance of being able to swing a sign and trade that will land them Kevin Love, and they have spoken to several of LeBron’s favorite role players about joining the team.
On the flipside, Miami is crumbling. Dwyane Wade’s knees are shot, he and Chris Bosh make way too much money, and Pat Riley’s grand scheme to prevent LeBron from leaving included Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. A move like that may have boosted the confidence of 2010 LeBron, but it certainly didn’t with 2014 LeBron.
Why not? Because LeBron learned what a winner looks like in Miami. More importantly, he learned what it takes to be a winner, something he never would have learned in Cleveland, a town where there are nearly as many unicorns as there are championship trophies. He learned how to exist in a strange land where the press didn’t always love you because they covered your high school games and you were the only star in town. He learned in his first year in Miami how hard winning a championship can be, after watching a team with only one true superstar rise up and throat-punch a team bedazzled with superstars. Moreover, he learned how to lead a team that actually had other superstars on it.
It is one thing to be a leader when you’re sharing the floor with Sasha Pavlovic and Ira Newble. A player like LeBron is a leader by default on that train wreck. No, what makes you a real leader is when you can lead other great players, like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, which is something that LeBron really didn’t learn until the middle games of Miami’s Eastern Conference playoff series against Boston in 2011, after Wade had to pull him aside and tell him it was his team. From that moment on LeBron became like the machines from Skynet, self-aware and annihilating everything in sight.
And that’s the next greatest thing he brings to Cleveland, beyond his raw talent. The championship knowledge and discipline he gained, plus the ability to lead and martial a young group of stars who, much like him in 2010, have no idea the kind of toll winning it all truly takes.
What chances do that young, core group of players have of winning a championship next year even with LeBron? Short answer: Really, really good ones. Within minutes of LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland, the Vegas site Bovada.lv made the Cavaliers the favorite to win it all by giving them 4-to-1 odds–ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, who are at 5 to 1.
I suspect these odds reflect two different dynamics. Number one, obviously, the best player in the world just came back to Cleveland. But, there’s something else at play here as well, which is that this is not likely to be the only move the Cavs make. Conspicuously absent from LeBron’s letter announcing his decision, was any mention of the first overall pick of the Cavaliers, Andrew Wiggins. Some would say don’t read into that. I would say read a lot into that. It makes all the sense in the world that if Minnesota were to part with Kevin Love via sign-and-trade, that one of the things they would ask for in return would be the best overall talent in the NBA Draft.
Would LeBron and the Cavs be better off with Wiggins and LeBron? Maybe, but the question should be would they be better off with Wiggins and LeBron, or would they be better off with Kevin Love and LeBron? Posed thusly, the answer should be pretty obvious: they would be better off with Love.
Wiggins has all the potential in the world. But, even Wiggins’s optimists weren’t optimistic that he would have a huge impact year one, whereas Love is a proven NBA player who will benefit greatly from having James–one of the greatest passers in league history–drawing defenders away from him.
In short, Wiggins might a goner. But, as a team, getting Love in return is something you can’t pass up on.
Bigger questions surround new Cavs coach David Blatt, who just may be the luckiest man alive. Blatt has never coached in the U.S. at any level–not high school, not college, and certainly not the pros (even at the assistant level). He has just been gifted the greatest player in the entire world. So, if you’re planning on playing Powerball anytime soon, you might want to ask Blatt what numbers he likes.
Now, Blatt is no novice. He’s been a head coach for 22 years in Europe and Israel. LeBron’s personal knowledge of Blatt probably stems from his international play, where Blatt coached the Russian team in 2008 and 2012. But, even here there’s a Cleveland connection. Romeo Travis, who was a teammate of LeBron’s for three years at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, also played against Blatt’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team for the Israeli Cup in 2011.
With all the home-cooking that went into this decision for LeBron it’s probably naïve to think he wouldn’t have picked up the phone and called his old teammate for a scouting report on Blatt, and probably more naïve, or even dumb to think that LeBron would have made this move if Travis had told him Blatt was a bum.
But, it’s impossible to know what Blatt will be year one as a head coach. What we do know is that LeBron has one of the highest basketball IQs of any player out there, and he believes this guy is okay. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be making this move. What we also know is that LeBron has taken some pretty middling and mediocre coaches to 50+ win seasons before. I’m not saying there won’t be an NBA learning curve for Blatt, and I’m not trying to minimize the need for great coaching at the championship level. But, if the Cavs surround LeBron with the right talent they’ll win, plain and simple.
Whether, they can win it all immediately though, remains to be seen. If Carmelo Anthony goes to the Bulls and Derrick Rose is able to stay healthy, those two, along with Joakim Noah, would serve as a powerful roadblock to the Cavs. If Melo stays in New York, then the Bulls are still formidable, but not nearly as potent. The Pacers are almost assured to lose Lance Stephenson, who was a huge part of their offense. Plus, they’re reportedly discouraged enough with Roy Hibbert to look at trading him, and all this to say nothing of the serious mental toughness issues that plague that team.
So, much of what happens in the East depends on what Melo does. But it’s safe to say the Cavs will contend immediately.
The thing the Cavs have to get to work on is their front court. The 2013 first overall pick Anthony Bennett was in completely over his head and terrible in his first year. Reports are that he’s in better shape and working harder this offseason, which is encouraging. But, Cleveland needs him to show-up and show-out sooner rather than later. Anderson Varejao, the only legit big man on the roster in terms of length, is a one-man MASH unit. This year, he had a knee contusion, blood clot, and a shoulder sprain; and this was during one of his more healthy seasons! In fact, Varejao has played in fewer than half of Cleveland’s games since LeBron left four years ago.
Adding Kevin Love to the mix will help the front court a lot. But, Varejao cannot be relied upon to stay healthy. So, Cleveland needs Anthony Bennett to step-up big time.
So, the moral of the story is the Cavs aren’t perfect. Really good! But not perfect. Some writers have said that LeBron is leaving Miami for the unknown. Miami’s downfall was apparent to all who watched and paid attention to that team last year. Cleveland may be an unknown, but its youth, upside, and promise are a lot more enticing than Miami’s.
But whatever I, or any other pundit/analyst/talking head says, the point is that LeBron saw all of Cleveland’s promise, and saw all of its warts as well, and still decided to come home, thereby passing up on other realistic opportunities to join up with proven stars like Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and others, in places like Houston or Phoenix. LeBron of 2010 might have jumped at that opportunity. But not the LeBron of 2014.
The first “Decision” was about joining other proven stars to form a super team. This choice was about joining potential rising stars to see what they might become, a night-and-day difference from the choice he made four years ago. This wasn’t a choice LeBron made because he was sitting at home watching Tom Penn break down salary cap exemptions, or because he saw George Karl draw up hypothetical plays where Kyrie Irving lobs 30-foot passes for hypothetical alley-oops. Although I’m sure he has thought about that too, it was a choice he made because it was what his heart told him to do.