Four years ago, when LeBron James made “The Decision” on primetime TV, he not only upended the balance of power in the entire NBA but also made himself the most reviled player in pro basketball. While he had every right to switch teams, the grandiose manner in which he did so annoyed fans everywhere. Except in Miami, of course. His second decision, three weeks ago, once again sent shock ways through the entire NBA but was the polar opposite of the earlier one and will go a long way towards rehabbing his image. It took me completely by surprise…
When the San Antonio Spurs demolished the Miami Heat last month, I thought that LeBron would stay with Miami while the Heat rebuilt around him and I said so in an earlier post. My reasoning was that teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, the Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets would have to trade away too much of their core to create the cap space to sign LeBron and what was left of their roster would not be enough to challenge for the NBA championship. I also had thought of Miami’s Big Three as being closer than they actually were; I never thought that LeBron would cut loose from Wade and Bosh. And , finally, I thought that LeBron had burnt his bridges so completely that I never considered he might return to the Cavaliers. My bad.
I have to admit this decision of LeBron’s is a master stroke. It gives him everything that he wants : a max contract, a return to his roots and, most importantly, a core of young stars that is better than anything he had to work with in Miami and is almost certain to help him to win more championships in the years to come. In Miami, DWade was a shadow of himself and Chris Bosh was never a dominant player. Even though they both restructured their contracts, it did not afford Miami the cap space needed to give LeBron the supporting cast he needed. The Heat had holes at both guard spots and at center and it would have been impossible to fill them satisfactorily. On the other hand, the Cavaliers roster is filled with young, talented players who will only get better and are already superior to anything that LeBron had at Miami. There are no less than four recent first round picks ( Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett) and three of them ( Irving, Bennett and Wiggins) were #1 overall picks. Of them all, only Bennett has failed to live up to his promise. Irving is already one of the best at his position , Thompson and Waiters are solid players and Wiggins could be the trade bait to pry Kevin Love loose from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Love is a rebounding machine and gives LeBron the defensive stud that the Heat lacked. The Cavaliers roster also includes Dwight Powell centers Brendan Haywood and Anderson Varajeo and two promising rookies , second rounders Dwight Powell ( a 6-10 PF from Stanford) and Joe Harris ( a 6-6 SG from Virginia) It is still too early to anoint the Cavaliers as the favorites for the championship because there are sure to be several trades as the other contenders try to beef up their rosters but the Cavaliers are certainly up there. Working with young teammates at Cleveland also frees LeBron from the weight of the expectations that he labored under in Miami. His own fault for talking about six, maybe seven, championships when he teamed up with Bosh and Wade.
Almost as important as the upgraded roster is the PR bonanza that LeBron is reaping. In one fell swoop, he has gone from being a traitor to the returning hero who will help bring a championship to Cleveland, a city that has been without one for half a century. I think this is very important to LeBron because he must have chafed at being painted a villain though he did not show it publicly. Jettisoning his #6 Jersey and reclaiming his old # 23 is yet another signal that his Miami days are behind him and that he has cast his lot with the Cavs.
Nor will he be taking a significant hit financially. He might have gotten a few more millions at Miami but he will more than make up for it in the coming years. There is an opt out clause in his contract which will enable him to re-up two years from now when the NBA’s ESPN deal kicks in and the cap will be significantly higher. Not that it matters that much.His endorsement deals dwarf his salary.
Finally, the low-key manner in which he announced his decision to return to Cleveland was very shrewd. Either he has matured and learnt from past mistakes or he has some very good advisors. Maybe both. It will be interesting to see what the other teams do to counter the budding powerhouse in Cleveland.