A LeBron James Hater Responds to the Decision 2.0
You probably know this by now, but LeBron James is going back to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers next year. You probably read it in some glowing article about how he is “coming home” and not just “making a decision about basketball.” The overwhelming consensus among sportswriters who have a financial interest in building up his personal legend is that LeBron James is some kind of Christlike sports figure, resurrecting his once-dead persona in Cleveland and retuning to saviordom after four years of doubt. At the very worst, he’s the prodigal son of Cleveland, living fat in South Beach until he got the Ring Monkey off his back and leaving after the kind of soul searching that only a rare basketball genius can have. You’ve probably read that this is the exact opposite of what he did four years ago.
Whatever the hyperbolic source, the coverage seems to agree that LeBron is instantly redeemed by returning to Cleveland after four years in Miami. Being on the team is a priceless gift he has given the city. The eternally holy presence of LeBron James is descending from the Mount to return to Cleveland and forgive them of their sins committed against him in his absence. What incredibly loyalty! Moving forward, he is selflessly bearing the cross of 50 years of losses.
I’ll cool it with the religious stuff (although Grantland’s God Loves Cleveland headline suggests some otherworldly involvement), but I’m serious about the point of it all. Are we supposed to believe that he’s doing a favor for Cleveland? Are we supposed to buy that this two-year deal (with an option for him to leave after one) is some kind of benevolent blessing? Or that signing free agents is more valuable than actually winning championships, instead of the reverse?
Sure, LeBron is the big prize of this offseason’s free agency period, but I can’t remember ever seeing this much hype built up about a free agency contract ever. Carmelo isn’t pledging allegiance to New York by going back to the Knicks. Dwyane Wade won’t be cementing himself as a lifelong Heat player if he goes back to Miami after opting out of his deal a few weeks ago. He’s not doing them a favor, he’s taking money to play basketball for them, just like every other free agency contract ever.
We heard the same phrase to describe LeBron throughout the playoffs and again this offseason, he is “the greatest player on the planet.” His free agency is a bigger deal than anyone else’s. That’s a really bold thing to say, “the greatest player on the planet.” ESPN loves to preach it, even though all of their NBA MVP voters picked Kevin Durant this season. Actually 119 of the 125 voters did. That’s 95%. Surely the greatest player on the planet would have done better than 5%. Surely he would have won the NBA championship last year. Surely the greatest player on the planet could not have missed out on both of those achievements.
The truth is that sports media have intentionally exaggerated the importance of this signing. It doesn’t guarantee anything actual, just offseason clicks. It is not an end, it’s the means. He signed with a team, he didn’t win them anything yet. In fact, this might be the first time in history when it was considered a huge noteworthy record-book-writing success for a team to win a free agent. And foolish old me thought it was supposed to be players winning things for a team.
What we’re supposed to believe was that four years ago, when James decided to leave Cleveland, he was just some immature kid who wanted to sign a max deal and play for a team that was so full of talent that they could contend for a championship. Had he been more developed, he might have just stayed in Cleveland where the sentimental value of his playing would be the highest. He gave some of his best years and the team couldn’t put the right players in position to support him enough to win a championship. It was the team’s responsibility to win him a championship, not the other way around. They had made trades to bring in players to help him. They had missed out on adding talented players in the draft because they kept winning. They had traded future assets to focus on a win-now approach and after the winning window had closed, they were left with nothing more than James.
So he went to Miami, a team that was doing something similar — trading away loads of future assets to put together a win-now team — just a few years later. He jumped from one team’s championship window into another team’s championship window.
While the Decision 2.0 didn’t involve the mistake of an hourlong television event (actually, I’ll join the crowd in cheering the letter written via Sports Illustrated), it involved exactly the same logic as the 2010 free agency choice. LeBron was on a team that had given up its future development for a shot at a title in the present. Miami won a couple years and then got embarrassed in the NBA Finals and it showed everyone just how flawed they were right now. The Heat had traded a ton of draft picks and filled its roster with veterans who were great for the present, but drastically reduce the ability of young players to grow into valuable contributors. The championship window, while not closed by any means, wasn’t staying open for the length of another long contract.
Meanwhile, back in Cleveland, the roster now features a 22-year-old All-Star starter at point guard (the All-Star Game MVP, for what it’s worth), the last two first overall draft picks (one of them the most-hyped rookie player in quite some time), two first-round picks in next year’s NBA Draft and something he never had in Miami: cap room. Better yet, they still play in the East, where the road to the NBA Finals is laughably easier than the West.
Boy, it sure seems like things have turned around for the Cavs. With or without James, their foundation is young, talented and for the time being, cheap. With him, that title window is open again.
So why are we making such a big deal out of the most recent Decision? LeBron isn’t some magnanimous, loyal giver who is granting a hopeless city a shot at a title. He is a basketball player making a basketball decision about chasing another title.
He’s making exactly the same choice he made in 2010. This isn’t the opposite of what he did in 2010, it’s exactly the same, it’s just that the franchises are reversed. Everyone can see one team’s window closing, so he’s jumping ship to another team with a window that’s opening.
Miami can’t be surprised. The media can’t be surprised. He wrote the book on this kind of departure in 2010. He doesn’t care about the people he’s been playing with or who has been good to him before, he cares about what team will be the best to him in the upcoming years. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s the entire point of free agency. But it’s an angle to the story that isn’t being told.
Speaking of an angle that isn’t being told, he signed a one-year deal with Cleveland. Technically, two with his option to leave after one. He is so dedicated to that team and that city that he’s willing to sign his name in ink to play there for the absolute minimum amount of time possible.
I understand that the TV deal coming in two years is going to change the cap situation, and the smart basketball move is to position yourself to rake in that additional money. But wouldn’t that point to a two-year deal with no player option? Or a three- or four-year deal with an option after two?
He’s not donating his time to charity like the other stories would have you believe, he’s making a ton of money playing for a team with the right pieces in place already. He’s not making a sentimental decision, he’s making decisions based on basketball. The contract proves it.
He’s not more grown-up than he was four years ago, he’s making exactly the same choice to abandon a sinking ship and join a team with a shot at a title for the length of his contract.
The story isn’t that he’s going home to chase a championship with his hometown team because he’s such a gosh darn loyal guy. The story is that he (and surely a wagonful of bad fans) is jumping to another team that has a just-opening title window.
That’s what free agency is about. He’s not a bad guy for taking a huge contract to go chase a championship, that’s what every free agent wants. LeBron’s no better or worse than anyone else in the history of free agency. Sure, that’s his hometown and it’s a nice coincidence, but that’s all it is.
He’s a basketball player signing a basketball contract to make basketball money playing basketball. Nothing more.