LeBron James may have played his last game as a Cavalier, and it was a stinker. A triple-double stinker. He had 27 points (but on 38% shooting), 10 assists (but also 9 turnovers), and 19 rebounds. Not much to complain about with the 19 rebounds, but did anyone else notice he went out of his way to make even the most routine defensive boards with no Celtics around look like superhero grabs? James leapt over teammates who have obviously been trained to let him get the 50-50 ricochets, then he’d turn and sprint to half-court like he was playing capture the flag.
And that in itself illustrates the issue that many people suddenly have with James: he appears to be a lot more show than substance at times. It’s not like there weren’t signs all along. He slept below posters of himself while in high school. He hijacked KG’s pre-game white powder ritual and made sure everyone was watching him and only him while opponents were huddling up – you know, being a team. His well-known goal is to be a billionaire athlete; I’ve never read a quote by James concerning how many rings he’d like. He kept everyone in suspense for an entire year about the Slam Dunk competition he eventually skipped. You can bet he’ll drag out this summer’s free agency process for as many headlines as he can get.
So it’s officially the end of Year Seven of the most recent Next Jordan timeline, and again the Cavaliers have very little to show for James’ efforts. He won an MVP award for his individual play, but again Cleveland is out of contention sooner than they should be. Here’s a quick recap of Cleveland’s past seven years:
2003-04: James’ rookie season was a great success. The Cavs improved from 17 wins to 35, and James won the Rookie of the Year award by averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists per.
2004-05: James amps it up, putting up pers of 27, 7, and 7 as the Cavaliers improve to 42-40, losing a tie-breaker to the Nets for the final playoff spot in the East.
2005-06: With an ensemble cast that resembles Iverson’s Sixers in 2001, Cleveland finishes fourth in the East, losing to the top-seeded Pistons 4-3 in the second round. Down 2 games to 1 in that series, James has a not-so-hot remainder of the season, shooting 41% (40 for 97) and collecting 21 assists to 20 turnovers.
2006-07: King James finally arrives in the Finals with the help of conference-wide ineptitude. In possibly the worst showing ever by the Eastern Conference during their decade-long status as second-class NBA basketball, Cleveland is one of only two teams in the East to win 50 games (Cavs 50, Pistons 53). The 41-41 Wizards were the 6 seed, the West won the All-Star Game by a zillion and it wasn’t even that close, and the Spurs swept the Cavs in the Championships. In the final series, James shot 36% (32 for 90) and had at least 5 turnovers in each of the four games. James shot a measly 42% for the entire playoffs, including 28% from deep.
2007-08: James’ individual numbers in the regular-season continue to amaze (30-8-7), and the Cavs finish fourth in the East that is suddenly dominated by KG’s Celtics. After squeaking by the 43-39 Wizards in the first round, the Cavaliers put up a valiant fight against the eventual champs, going down 4-3 to Boston. James shoots a horrid 35% (55 for 155) for the series with several games that looked like his recent Game Five turd. James averaged 6 turnovers in their 4 losses.
2008-09: James wins his first MVP award as Cleveland surges to finish an NBA-best 66-16 with a really well-paid lineup that LeBron had some say in. The Cavs are surrounding him with talent he gives the OK to, and they sweep through to the Eastern Finals to face the third-seeded Magic. After James buries a dramatic Game Two triple at the buzzer to tie the series, he shoots 43% the rest of the way (43 for 101) as Orlando wins relatively easily in six.
2009-10: Again he’s the MVP, and again Cleveland sports the NBA’s top record with one of the highest paid squads. James wants Shaq. Done. James wants Antawn Jamison and gets him, even though it requires a trade-and-re-sign diss to 11-year company man Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Cavs get by the 41-41 Bulls in the First Round and then face the aging, up-and-down Celtics. Cleveland loses in 6 (and was the lesser team in Game One) with James shooting 37% (25 for 68) and turning it over 24 times versus 29 assists in the four losses. After his much talked-about Game Five crapfest, James tells reporters that he spoils fans with his great play and feels bad for himself.
Speculating on LeBron James’ future, after the jump …
He’s now officially further into his career than MJ without a title; Jordan’s first was won in his seventh season, and it should be noted that the first half of his career coincided with the league’s peak era of talent (Magic, Bird, Hakeem, Charles, Patrick, Karl, Moses, Isiah, Stockton, McHale, the Admiral, etc.). There’s no question James is the best singular talent in the league, but a lot of people are starting to think he spends a little too much time focusing on his image instead of on his team.
For instance, he’s a marketing machine, appears in a zillion ads, and he makes sure we know that he hangs out with Warren Buffet and his billions (not Bill Russell and his 11 rings). He literally has his own marketing firm that is trying to woo John Wall, someone whose personalized “dances” and highlight exploits far outweigh his actual production or his team’s post-season accomplishments. He willingly put out a line of shoes called the “Rumor Pack” that plays off everyone guessing where he’ll land next year.
I already mentioned the pre-game white powder routine, but there’s also the team’s choreographed poses and dances that often show up during games, as if they were so far above everyone they had time to practice being funny. James makes a huge scene to the refs whenever he gets called for a foul, even though they’re few and far between, and some of his more annoying teammates (e.g. Mo Williams) have starting following suit. And don’t get me started on James dribbling out the shot clock 15 times a game before throwing up some off-balanced junk; it sure doesn’t make for good teamwork or a decent shot – but it keeps everyone’s eyes on him for the majority of the 24 seconds and if it hits, it’s a buzzer-beater.
There’s little question in my mind that James gives a team the best chance of “winning” the regular season, but there seems to be something missing once it’s the playoffs. It’s reminiscent of Wilt Chamberlain whose squads finished with the conference’s top record seven times during his career (and second another four times), but he won only two titles. He was all theatrics, spoke more about accruing money than pennants, and his post-season stats and team accomplishments never seemed to match what he did when it wasn’t on the line. Both were their generation’s never-seen-before-or-since athletic freaks who owned the part of the season that wins you MVP awards, which was good enough for advertising glory.
As many people are pointing out after the fact, LeBron doesn’t have the talent around him that he needs to win a title. This is interesting for a few reasons. First, the Cavaliers finished with the NBA’s best record the past two seasons. Second, James is the star and the captain; it’s on him to carry the team during tough times. One guy can’t do it all, but hanging onto the ball for late-in-the-clock jumpers and chucking lots of no-look flip passes in the half-court is a prime recipe to make a career 48% shooter and 2.1-1 assist-turnover player come up short over and over.
Last and certainly not least, James is OK-ing the incoming talent, giving his input and generally getting what he wants. There’s a reason guys like Houston’s Daryl Morey and San Antonio’s R.C. Buford—not young players—are GM’s; they realize that stockpiling a bunch of short guards will cause problems if you face a team with taller 3-point shooters like Orlando. They realize that Jamison will not assimilate with a team’s offense as quickly as his poor defense will hurt them on the other end. This is like the Lakers’ fall after the Shaq trade; maybe Kobe shouldn’t have insisted he’d leave if their best player wasn’t shipped. Consequently, Bryant spent the next few years complaining about the lack of talent around him.
So now it’s LeBron Sweepstakes time, and every team with cap space will be making their best pitch for James come July 1. Where he chooses to go will show a lot about what drives him. If he stays in Cleveland, it probably means he’s willing to follow through on what he’s helped plan and design for the Cavaliers, hoping he can complete what his backseat GM-ing started. The Bulls and the Nets (yes, the Nets) have money and the best collection of Robin-to-his-Batman talent if he’s really serious about winning a ring some day. Plus they’re decent markets (NJ heads to Brooklyn soon). And if he signs with New York, consider it a confirmation that LeBron only cares about one thing: marketing himself to the max. The Knicks have nothing in the cupboard and no real direction. Any free agent signing with them certainly isn’t trying to win titles.
A hypothetical question occurred to me a few months ago when I was reading about the upcoming free agency period. If LeBron had the choice, would he rather a) win zero titles in his career but earn his desired billion dollars and become as synonymous with Nike as Jordan, or b) win five titles but only earn $100 million and never achieve global icon status? So far, his career has pointed to option a. Here’s hoping this summer proves otherwise.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.
LeBron James photos courtesy of Icon SMI