Two decisions separated by four years have produced diametrically opposed reactions. I was confused by the hate generated by LeBron James’s first decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, and I continue to be flummoxed by the love generated by James upon his return to northeast Ohio. Do all people really love Cleveland this much? In order to better understand the reaction to both decisions, I figured I’d try to break down points that lead to hype, hatred, and/or forgiveness.
1. LeBron James is the best player in basketball. James came into the league with a full steam of hype as the number one pick of an actually loaded draft (unlike, say, the 2014 version). He averaged 20.9 points as a rookie and just two years later provided 31.4 points (a career-high) on 48% from the field with 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists as a 21 year old. The Cavaliers made the NBA finals in his second year (where they were beaten by the Spurs), but failed to make it past the Eastern Conference finals before LeBron took his talents elsewhere. Despite tremendous play and four MVPs, James never seemed to reach the Jordan/Kobe levels of hype. He has been the best player in the NBA for awhile, but the decision caused people to overlook his talent and consider him a mercenary.
2. LeBron is from Ohio. When you think about it, it is pretty amazing that James ended up with the Cavaliers. The team had to absolutely tank in 2002-03. Let’s put it this way: when Ricky Davis is your leading scorer at 20.6 points (with 5.5 assists), then you are tanking. The team won just 17 games, but did come up with a gem of a second round pick in Carlos Boozer (who is still plugging away while first round pick Dajuan Wagner played in just 103 NBA games). While I understand why Cavalier fans would feel betrayed by James, I never really understood why other fans cared one way or another. I think it mainly has to do with the media being centered in Boston (a rival of LeBron’s Cavaliers) and New York (a suitor for James), so they also felt miffed by The Decision.
In the sports world, Cleveland is a sad sack town. Just as many people root for the Cubs who haven’t won a championship in anyone’s living memory, Cleveland is a perpetual underdog. If James had recruited Wade and Bosh to Cleveland to help him win, would the reaction been different? Sadly, the Cavaliers did not have the foresight to clear enough cap room with players like Antawn Jamison (who made $40 million from Cleveland from 2009 to 2012) on the books. Another thing I never understood is why people didn’t like it that LeBron was playing with his friends. Old schoolers like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley said that would never have done that, but they also never had the opportunity. I thought there was something nice about the players choosing their own destinies. Just as apparently everyone thinks it is nice that James has returned home (which was also his decision).
While I love to be a contrarian, I like the move for James. He really couldn’t have gone anywhere else. It does seem a bit odd that he hasn’t received my much heat (outside of Miami) for leaving his friends, who will soldier on without him. I like Chris Bosh’s fantasy prospects for the new season. If Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can learn to play without the ball (and there hasn’t been much evidence that either can), they should get plenty of open shots. LeBron should open the floor for Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins (if he stays in Cleveland) as well. I think the Cavaliers are the favorites in the East, even if they don’t corral Kevin Love.
I think most talk of legacy is empty air, but I wonder about LeBron’s legacy. Has there ever been a great player in a similar situation in which he returned to his first team to provide a championship? I can’t think of an example. If LeBron can’t bring a championship to Cleveland, will the closing years of his career be looked at in similar light to his first stint with the Cavaliers?