Tuesday, June 25, 2013
LeBron Made the Wrong Decision
Two years ago, when the Miami Heat reached their first NBA Finals with LeBron James, I wrote that James and the Heat were winning the wrong way. I still believe that, but I also suspect now that LeBron made the wrong decision for his own legacy.
Throughout sports history, there have been popular and unpopular dynasties. The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, with Magic Johnson, were widely beloved. The Lakers dynasty of the late '90s and early 2000s, with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, was widely resented. Most fans liked Joe Montana's 49ers and Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers. Most fans hate the Yankees. Boston Celtics dynasties are usually popular, while Dallas Cowboy dynasties are always hated. Fans loved the John Elway/Terrell Davis Broncos, and quickly grew to loathe the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots.
I might guess that the Miami Heat are the most universally despised dynasty in the history of North American sports. Obviously the Heat have their fans: there are people who have cheered for that team long before LeBron's arrival, and a few "fans" will always attach themselves to whoever's the best. The Heat are the best right now. But while the Yankees or Cowboys have inspired fierce animosity from most fans, they've always drawn huge numbers of supporters, too. In some circles, a Yankees cap will always be a sign of coolness, and when Dallas finally gets good again, you'll start seeing a lot blue stars, too.
The Heat don't have that kind of base; the Yankees and Cowboys are iconic franchises, and Miami is not. Furthermore, there's The Decision. Most fans hated the spectacle, many felt offended by the presentation, and even ESPN executives admit that it was handled badly. The Decision caused many fans to detest LeBron James. The hubris of an hour-long special to announce a free agent signing, the arrogance of "take my talents to South Beach," and the transparent choice of an engineered contender alienated a huge percentage of sports fans. Some have forgiven him, a few still need more time, and many never will.
Negative reaction to The Decision was almost universal. ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer acknowledged that many fans saw the production as "an affront to humility, loyalty, moderation ... a celebration of greed, ego and excess." One of his successors, Kelly McBride, noted the one-year anniversary of The Decision, remembering it as "one of the most viewed, and one of the most hated, moments of ESPN television ... it will forever remain in the minds of fans a target of deserving scorn." Even ESPYs host Seth Meyers asked, "Did it really need to be an hour? Somebody time me. 'Miami.' How long did that take?"
But that's not really where LeBron went wrong. People root against him now, but he's got two rings, a lot more than two endorsement deals, and he's pretty clearly the best basketball player on the planet. Fifty years from now, no one will care about The Decision. But some fans will still notice the context for LeBron's championships. Even if few recall the words he used — "As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, as much as I loved home, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself against [the Celtics] ... this opportunity was once in a lifetime" — they'll see that James went seven years without winning a championship, then joined a team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
I'm surprised people don't make a bigger deal out of that quote, actually: "I wanted to stay in Cleveland, but I didn't think we could beat the Celtics." We're supposed to celebrate that as greatness? I'm not good enough to carry this team to an Eastern Conference title. I need help. Contrast that with Michael Jordan: "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team' ... I was trying to beat those guys."
In Jordan's first five seasons, the Bulls went 205-205. Rather than bolting Chicago for a better team, Jordan made himself better and improved as a team player. James showed his drive to succeed by ... going somewhere it would be easier to succeed. Rather than lifting his teammates to victory, James looked for a team that could win right away. Winning championships is seen as the ultimate achievement because it means a player helped his team, played at a high level and made the guys around him better. We don't celebrate a guy just for being in the right place at the right time.
LeBron James is the best player in the world right now. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are pretty close, but I think most objective fans would agree that James is at the top. But for someone who's obviously obsessed with his legacy, I wonder if LeBron made the right choice. If he had stayed in Cleveland, or just chased the highest offer, and eventually won the same number of championships as Larry Bird (three), every one of those rings would represent a colossal triumph. In Miami, don't they both feel a little cheap so far? If LeBron wins six championships, same as M.J., will anyone view those accomplishments as equal?
I would argue that the answer is no. Maybe that will seem foolish eight years from now, but as it stands, I think fans see Jordan as the architect of greatness, and James merely as the instrument. He's the best player on the best team, but you don't get that sense about LeBron that you did about Michael — that there was just no way he would let his team lose, that he could do anything necessary to win. There have been hundreds of pages written on whether James has killer instinct, and I've always seen that as silly and unfair. But when James is discussed among the greatest players of all time — and he's already in that discussion — I doubt he'll be viewed as lifting the Heat the same way Jordan lifted the Bulls, or Bill Russell the Celtics, or even Tim Duncan the Spurs.
LeBron is the greatest player in the world, and he's performed at a high level in clutch situations. But when he chose Miami, when he admitted that he didn't think he could win a championship without help from players like Wade and Bosh, James may have forever taken himself out of that conversation with guys like Jordan and Duncan. Jordan's image, his perception among the public, was a player who could do anything necessary to win. James implicitly disavowed that quality in himself when he picked his Dream Team in Miami. I'm not good enough, he said. I can't lead the Cavaliers to a championship. If I want championship rings, I need to go somewhere it's going to be easier.
That's always going to be part of his legacy, and we'll never know if LeBron really was good enough to put a lesser team on his shoulders. I wonder if it's a Decision he'll regret some day.