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It's not that I object to Cleveland management, fans, and journalists being dicks about it. One of the glories of sports is that its abstraction from real life allows us to be the childish assholes most of us are inside without any particular repercussions, and I prefer it to the bloodless professionalism that usually emanates from athletes and front offices. But not really having a dog in this fight, I feel like I can make a defense of James while respecting the earned anger of Cleveland fans.
First, as a friend put it: "He did give them two contracts' worth of time to make a winning team." And they didn't. They actually did a pretty bad job of it. Despite having the most broadly talented player in basketball, and despite putting together teams that were effective during the relatively meaningless NBA regular season, over seven years James was never paired with a single undeniably effective teammate, much less two or three or four. Which is to say not only did James never have his Pippen, he never had his Paxson or Kerr or Grant either. As Joe Posnanski (a Cleveland native) points out, the James era ended not last night, but during the Eastern Conference finals, when it was clear James was burned out.
Then Cleveland's first big offseason move was to go after Tom Izzo to replace Mike Brown. Izzo is a great college coach, but even great college coaches are a risk at the professional level.
One thing I will say in limited defense of Cleveland: James may be harder to fit into a team than perhaps people assume. What kind of complementary pieces does he need? Has anyone actually figured this out yet? He can play almost every position, save for a pure center or power forward, but... he doesn't really have a natural position, either. His peers—Kobe, Wade, Duncan, Jordan—are all naturals at their given positions, which makes the logistics of assembling teams around them conceptually simpler. It's trickier, I think, than it seems from his talent alone.
So outside of the somewhat abstract concept of loyalty towards a metropolitan region, I can fully understand why James left Cleveland. Which meant he had three other options, all of which are interesting for the reasons I find sports interesting.
1. Chicago. I felt, and I wasn't alone, that Chicago offered a great chance for James to win right away. A good young nucleus, a promising new coach with playoff experience and a background in superstar-wrangling, and ego temptation in the Jordan legacy. And he didn't take it.
2. New York. Well, I wouldn't want to work with Dolan, either. Not a particularly appealing nucleus, but the ultimate ego trip, and arguably the best city for his brand.
Which leaves us with ...
3. Miami. And the one aspect of the decision that no one wants to defend for reasons I can't really understand. It seems clear now that James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh absolutely wanted to play together, and they mutually chose the most agreeable situation for all three of them.
In other words, he turned down the situation that would make him look the best and would guarantee the most money (Cleveland), the situation that would arguably lead to him winning the soonest (Chicago), and the situation that would arguably lead to the most money and fame (New York)... for his friends and co-workers.
People are hanging fire on James for not being what they wanted him to be—the next, or even the evolutionary Michael Jordan—with a vehemence that surprises me.
Michael Rosenberg: "I guess that's all LeBron is: A complementary player with superstar talent. We should have figured this out before: He got that giant CHOSEN 1 tattoo on his back and calls himself King James because he is desperate for reassurance."
Joe Posnanski, the most reasonable man in sports journalism: "And when backed into a corner, he had to ask himself the question: Was he good enough to win a championship with an uncertain cast in Cleveland? Was he able to build a team? My suspicion is: He just wasn’t sure. Michael Jordan was a great player and a killer on the court. Kobe Bryant is a great player and a killer on the court. LeBron James … is a great player."
Adrian Wojnarowski: "New York would’ve been hard, and maybe Cleveland would’ve been the hardest. With those state tax laws in Florida, he isn’t taking less money with the Heat. He’s just taking less risk and less burden in his championship chase."
Well, shit: he tried. He tried for seven years to be that player, and failed, though it wasn't necessarily all his fault. Now maybe he's deciding to be the player he is, rather than the player everyone wants him to be. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that.