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Cleveland Cavaliers

A Promise Delivered

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat

Like a lot of folks, once I heard the rumors that LeBron James was going to announce his free agency decision on his website, I spent a lot of time refreshing LeBronJames.com just so that I could say that I saw the news first. Several times I questioned what I was doing, but I always figured that it wasn’t much worse than refreshing my Twitter feed incessantly.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary. LeBron ended up letting the world know he was returning to Cleveland with a tearjerker of an essay published with the help of Sports Illustrated, and the people that went as far as to strip code from his website for any clues on his decision ended up being disappointed. I still enjoyed the anticipation of a surprise, though, and I became particularly interested in something that was prominently displayed on the site: LeBron’s I PROMISE bands.

The more and more I looked at them and after I read about their purpose, I began to think about LeBron and the premise of promises and I started to believe that coming home was his plan all along. I started to think that LeBron made a promise to himself the day that he left Cleveland – or, perhaps, once he fully realized the impact his departure had – that he would come back to the city and redeem himself for ripping out its collective heart and stomping on it back in 2010.

LeBron had to leave Cleveland back then. I think even Cavaliers fans would admit that now. James had proven himself as one of the greatest athletes and talents the game had ever seen during his seven years in Cleveland, but the team simply couldn’t provide him with the supporting cast that he needed to vault himself into the legendary company that he sits in today.

Nobody can describe what his time with the Heat meant to LeBron more better can than he did. He said going off to Miami for four years was to him as college is to regular kids, which, of course, LeBron never had a chance to experience as the most hyped high school athlete of all-time. It’s such a symmetrical and spot on analogy.

LeBron choosing the Heat was literally the first time he was ever able to get away from home, and with the move came the ability to decompress and evolve without the pressure that comes along with momma’s cooking. I think most people would agree that the pressure to succeed in school and to bring home A’s was infinitely higher in high school than it was in college because our parents were always on top of us. But even if our GPAs were lower in college, I wouldn’t doubt that’s where we learned more, because the focus wasn’t on books or standardized tests, the focus was on finding ourselves.

And that’s what LeBron did in Miami. He’s matured so much since he went down there. The turning point for James was after those 2011 Finals, when he finally collapsed under the immense and unprecedented pressure that was weighing down on his broad shoulders. Right after the decisive game of that series, he used the NBA’s press pedestal to proclaim his superiority over the blue collar folks, or the kind of people that define the city of Cleveland.

But then he went into hibernation for the summer. He stayed away from everybody and even off the court for a while. Then he got to work on his game and he emerged the following season as a humbled man and a more complete basketball beast. He steamrolled through the Thunder in the Finals, smashing the only player in the league left standing as a peer, and rode a Ray Allen miracle shot to a second title before the dominant, legendary and respectable Spurs got revenge this season.

And now he’s back. He had to leave because he needed to win – and he did. Now he’s returned with a chance to bring a title back to the city of Cleveland, something that would make far more than a legendary basketball player. To win a championship in the most downtrodden sports city in America, just a half-hour away from where he grew up, would make him one of the most iconic sports figures of all-time. Whatever is a step beyond giving someone a key to the city, that’s what LeBron is going to get. They may elect him mayor of the city off write-in votes alone.

LeBron has known this all along. He would have stayed in Cleveland and had four more cracks at delivering a championship to the city over the past few years if he could have, but as one of the smartest men in sports, LeBron was all too aware that the Cavs weren’t equipped for a championship, and he knew that he couldn’t risk four prime seasons betting on the Cavs getting him better second and third options than Mo Williams and over the hill Antawn Jamison.

He couldn’t have handled the way he left better, for sure, but if his return didn’t atone for that TV special in and of itself, the essay he wrote about what the city means to him should end all of the bad blood. My mom starting choking up after reading the first few lines of that letter; my mom is a die hard San Antonio Spurs fan from Corpus Christi, Texas. I asked her why it made her cry. “It’s just the things he says,” she replied, not quite sure how to put it into words.

But that’s exactly what LeBron did in that letter. He succinctly summarized everything he has been thinking for the past four years without holding anything back. The way he speaks about the area, saying that “our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time” in regards to winning it all, how he says that he wants to raise his kids in the same place that he was raised, there’s an obvious bond there that was never truly broken no matter how much The Decision hurt both sides.

For all of the questions about LeBron’s loyalty from four years ago, this move proves that he’s always held a special place in his heart for the Cavaliers, not only because he had to get past that hurtful attack by Dan Gilbert, but because he’s passed up greener pastures for rolling hills of Ohio. Without a doubt, Cleveland gives LeBron a great shot at winning championships (mostly because they have LeBron), probably at better odds than the Heat would have. But there were other situations out there that made more sense if his sole purpose was to rack up as many rings as possible to aid his chase the ghost of Michael Jordan. Instead, he’s prioritized getting just one more in the city of Cleveland, showing a touch of humanity that Jordan could never uncover.

That’s why I think LeBron had promised himself this day would come, the day that he returned home for a chance to earn the crown that he was bestowed upon him back when he was a lanky teenager at St. Vincent–St. Mary. Read here for the latest reviews. I think he promised himself that he would return for redemption and forgiveness. I think he promised himself that he would give the final leg of his prime and the fleeting years of his career back to the city that made him who he is. I think he promised himself that he would set an example for his kids about values, maturity and the importance of home while raising them in his backyard.

I think he promised himself that he would make Cleveland proud to call him their own again.

How J.J. Hickson Changed The Landscape Of The NBA

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Dec 7, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Denver Nuggets forward JJ Hickson (7) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Nuggets defeated the Sixers 103-92. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not a huge cinema fan. Most of the movies that I like have Will Ferrell in them and I rarely fork out $10 to go see it in theaters.  A couple of nights ago I watched Adjustment Bureau, which was chosen because I love watching movies that include at least three shots of Matt Damon walking on a crowded city street. If there was an Academy Award category for something that specific, Matt Damon would have five of them.

Anyways, the premise of the movie is that there is some higher up power that has control of fate and what things are supposed to happen. To avoid giving you a synopsis I’ll just say that the “hook” in the movie is that these special agents travel through doors that take them to other places in the world, creating ripple effects. This got me to thinking about how much one event can effect another. In life, these decisions seem to be obvious. If you buy something, you will lose money. And it goes on from there.

In sports, ripple effects can be very subtle and they can be earth shattering. Chris Paul may decide to drive to his left rather than his right in the first quarter which may lead him into Andrew Bogut, who is a stronger help defender when moving to his right. Later on in the game, Paul may go left and catch the defense off guard because they were expecting him to go left again and he may end up at the basket for an easy lay-up. These little things happen hundreds of times a game but we don’t pick up on 90% of them.1

And then there are the larger ripple effects, usually created by management, that can leave long lasting effects on a franchise. Where would the Blazers be today had they taken MJ over Sam Bowie in 1984? How many championships would the Chicago Bulls have today had Michael Jordan not taken a break to play baseball? What if the Orlando Magic didn’t give Rashard Lewis a six-year contract worth more than $110 million in 2007 before trading him for Gilbert Arenas, who will be 30 next season, is no longer effective and has three years and $62,423,766 left on his contract?

One of the most recent seismic shifts in the NBA landscape involved the Cleveland Cavaliers but it wasn’t as simple as LeBron wanting to go play with his friends down in Miami.2 For two straight seasons, Danny Ferry entertained the idea of acquiring the Amare Stoudemire from the Phoenix Suns. In 2009, he ended up acquiring a Phoenix big man, but instead of getting Amare, Ferry traded for Shaquille O’Neal. Despite the whole “Witness Protection” campaign, he didn’t end up working out. The following year, the Cavs once again contacted the Suns about bringing Stoudemire to Cleveland. Cleveland was more motivated to make the deal this time around as they were just months away from LeBron being a free agent.

The Cavs came close to acquiring Amare, but there was a hold up in the final stages of negotiations: Cleveland didn’t want to part with J.J. Hickson in a deal for Stoudemire. At the time, this was a questionable move. Hickson had shown some potential and even had good chemistry with LeBron, but still, they had a good shot to get one of the 15 best players in the game. That said, it wasn’t necessarily egregious.

But then the post-season came. As we all know, the Cavs season would be abruptly ended by the Boston Celtics in the second round and LeBron James would leave for Miami a couple months. James’ own performance against Boston was the center of attention after the series and because it seemed like James quit during the last two games of the series, all of the blame was placed on him. LeBron does deserve a good amount of grief for the way he went out on his team but something that often gets ignored by fans was Cleveland’s refusal to trade Hickson.

In one of Danny Ferry’s final moves as the general manager of the Cavs, he said no to the Suns in a trade that would have brought Amare to Cleveland and instead opted to trade for Antawn Jamison instead. The ripple effects of these two decisions are obvious. Not only would adding Amare given Cleveland a significantly better chance of beating the Boston Celtics and eventually the Magic and Lakers as well, Jamison’s awful contract (he made $13,358,905 and is on the books for $15,076,715 this season) prevented the Cavaliers from making any serious offers to players like Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or even Amare. And if you don’t think that matters, remember that Wade and Bosh played for $14,200,000 and $14,500,000 respectively last season. The only other contract traded to the Wizards was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who had an expiring contract anyways, so without Jamison’s contract on the books Cleveland could have offered Bosh or Wade or Amare or even Carlos Boozer a sizable contract to entice one of them as well as LeBron to Cleveland.

But Cleveland didn’t have that cap room during the summer and Miami did, allowing them to form a superteam with James, Wade and Bosh. This left Cleveland with a team that had no star players or even a pretty good one3 and Jamison ended up being the new leader of the team. Despite his decent average of 18 points per game he took 16 shots a night to get there, made only 43% of his shots from the field, averaged his fewest amount of rebounds since the 2002-2003 season when he was with Dallas, posted the lowest PER of his career since his first two years in the league and played some of the worst defense that you will ever see.

Even with Jamison’s poor performance, the deal could be salvaged on one condition: if J.J. Hickson had developed into the superstar that the Cavs expected or wanted him to be. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Hickson did have a career year numbers wise but part of that was playing the most minutes per game of his career while playing on a team that needed anyone that could score to take shots. Hickson averaged 13.8 points per game but also took 12 shots a night and saw his field goal percentage drop from 55% in 2009-2010 to 46% in 10-11. Despite the feeling that Hickson was expanding his offensive game, he continued to struggle with all shots outside of three feet and scored just .833 and .919 points per possession on post-ups and pick and rolls respectively, both of which are categorized as “average” by Synergy.

Average would be a good  term to describe Hickson. He isn’t awful but he is clearly not much more than a rotation big man. A year after Cleveland’s general manager Danny Ferry refused to trade Hickson to acquire Amare Stoudemire, new GM Chris Grant traded him for Omri Casspi. The trade opened up a spot for rookie Tristan Thompson but it also closed the door on the LeBron era in Cleveland. Hickson could have been the piece that kept James in Cleveland for a long while had he been dealt for Stouremire. Instead, he was a player the Cavs believed had enormous potential that ended up being traded for an average player just months after the Cavs chose him over Amare. If only Dan Gilbert could put a nice fidora on, walk through his front door and make that deal in retrospect. Can you imagine the world today without a Comic Sans meme?

Oh, and with LeBron still in Cleveland?


Footnotes

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1. Unless, of course, the decisions creating the ripple effects were made by Russell Westbrook. In that case, everyone and their mother will be voicing their concerns about his play on some online forum within an hour.

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2. Though it seems like LeBron is much closer to LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, at least based on their activities this summer. While Dwyane Wade has been off in other countries attending fashion shows and Chris Bosh has been getting married and having his honeymoon with his family on an ostrich farm, James has been in the spotlight playing in more than a few summer league circuits with Paul and Anthony (and Kevin Durant).

(Return)

3. You can make an argument for Anderson Varejao as a pretty good player simply because he’s one of the games best and most underrated defensive players. That said, in order for him to reach his maximum potential, he needs to be the anchor of a defense that is at least average and the Cavs were not that last season. To top it all off, Vareajao only played 31 games last season anyways.

The LeBron James Paradox

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CLEVELAND - MARCH 5:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on March 5, 2010 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Cavaliers won 99-92.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

When it comes to defending LeBron James for not being able to win an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the argument was always that he never had sufficient help around him to properly combat the likes of the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. Big Z was only on the team because of what he meant to the Cavs franchise, mid-season acquisition Antawn Jamison didn’t fit in at all with the team and Mo Williams was only an “all-star” because Chris Bosh was hurt and the Cavs had the most wins in the league at the break.

Thus, LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach was not exactly shocking. The Cavs tried their best to get one of the all-star free agents to come to Cleveland but they failed and Miami was the most enticing locale for James given Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s decisions to sign with the Heat. Of course, even though LeBron signing in Miami meant he would finally have help, help in the form of an NBA champion and top five player in Dwyane Wade and another all-star in Chris Bosh was too much for fans to give James a pass for leaving Cleveland.

Had he teamed up with humble youngster Derrick Rose in Chicago, the backlash of his decision never would have reached astronomical proportions. But because Wade already has a title and got James to come to his city, James was killed for giving up on the idea of winning as “the man” and will undoubtedly be followed by the “couldn’t win without Wade” tag just as Kobe carried the “couldn’t win without Shaq” tag prior to 2009.

I won’t kill LeBron for going to Miami if he thought that’s where he had the best chance to win a title. I actually kind of admire the fact that James disregarded the fact that any title he wins would likely be diminished so he could win one. Even if he has Wade on his team and wins a title, he still won a title and you can’t take that away from him (unless he trades his ring for tattoos – Ohio kids are notorious for that). When James accepted the fact that he needed Wade to win by signing with Miami, he humbled himself and proved to many that he was OK with not being “the man” so long as he got to taste victory.

But as these playoffs have gone on, it seems to me that James didn’t just give up a part of his legacy this summer, he also sold a part of himself to contend for a title. Everyone understood that neither Wade or James would produce the same numbers that they did when they were on separate seasons but what has happened this post-season goes far beyond how many possessions James and Wade have given up. If you’ve watched the Finals, and there’s little chance you haven’t, you’ll notice that Dwyane Wade has played no differently than he did during the regular season, or 2009 or in the 2006 Finals. He attacks the basket, he settles for jumpers and he goes all out on defense for 48 minutes.

But LeBron James has completely changed in the Finals. He’s not attacking the basket, he’s getting beat on defense, he’s giving the ball up in crunchtime and its not just to the open man – he’s openly deferring to Dwyane Wade. LeBron’s still settling for jumpers but he’s lost all touch on his jumper. Despite the poor reputation he seems to have amongst casual fans for his jumpshooting, he’s been one of the league’s better shooters from the mid-range. He’s not Dirk or anything, but given the degree of difficulty on his shot attempts, he’s been a solid shooter for several years.

LeBron has seemingly bought into the idea that the Heat are Dwyane Wade’s team and that he’s supposed to let Wade do all of the dirty work while only chipping in a few times throughout the game. When Wade went out with an injury, suddenly, James was attacking the basket and on consecutive possessions he was either scoring at the rim or creating wide open looks for his teammates as the defense collapsed. But then Wade came back in and James was back to roaming the perimeter and giving the ball up as soon as he touched it.

For whatever reason, when Wade is on the floor with him, James refuses to take over games. You can point to the Boston and Chicago series and how well James closed those games out but if you go back and watch those games, the big shots James was hitting were jumpers. He wasn’t getting to the lane and aggressively attacking, he was shooting jumpers, some of which were spot-up shots rather than pull-up attempts.

What’s funny to me is that James left Cleveland because he wanted to win championships and having Wade at his side increased the odds of that happening significantly. But now that the Heat are in the Finals, things have basically unfolded as if James never came to Miami as Wade has had to play hero ball the entire series in the fourth quarter. James has completely changed as a player. He’s not trying to attack, he’s not trying to make the big play and he’s not trying to put his stamp on the game.

LeBron left Cleveland because he didn’t have enough help, because he needed better teammates. But because LeBron has stopped being himself, it is entirely possible that playing along a great player like Wade is the worst thing to happen to LeBron James.

When LeBron was a Cav, he was unquestionably the game’s greatest talent, its best player and its most polarizing persona. When LeBron was a Cav, he was a monster and he produced numbers that nobody has put up since Jordan. When LeBron was a Cav, he was one of the game’s two best closers – in fact, I can’t remember LeBron flat out failing in crucial situations over the course of his Cleveland career (other than games five and six against Boston last year, of course).

When LeBron was a Cav, he would constantly put together some of the most ridiculous runs of scoring, passing and defending that we’ve ever seen. Its easy to forget now that he’s left town, but remember when LeBron scored 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007? Or when he averaged 39/8/8 against the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009? Or when he scored 16 points in two minutes against the Bucks with four ridiculous three-pointers? Or when he scored 18 points in the final three and half minutes of the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz to erase a nine-point deficit before Sundiata Gaines stole the thunder?

LeBron James as a Cavalier was always in attack mode, he was always ready to seize the moment in the fourth quarter, he always had a swagger about him and he was always the best player on the floor. Mo Williams knew that LeBron was going to make the decision that decided the game and acted accordingly. Mike Brown didn’t even think twice about what to call – it was always a one-four clear out for LeBron.

Now that James is in Miami, we’ve seen both he and Wade struggle to close games all regular season long and, after a string of made jumpers in the previous two rounds, those issues are back, only that James isn’t even attempting the majority of the big shots anymore. Spoelstra has no go to sets and teammates no longer know that LeBron is going to decide the game. LeBron can decide the games, but he’s no longer allowing himself to. Instead, he’s letting Wade make the big plays and take the big shots, and he lives with the results, even if its loads of criticism for his low fourth quarter scoring.

When LeBron chose Miami, he did so because he was finally going to be surrounded with good teammates, but as it turns out, having good teammates may prevent us from seeing the best LeBron James that there is. Having good teammates has not brought out the best in James, its brought out the worst version of him that we’ve ever seen, at least in these Finals. LeBron James left Cleveland and went to Miami to win championships, but in the process, he’s morphed into a lesser version the two-time MVP that constantly took over games when he was a Cavalier.

LeBron may end up successful in his pursuit of a title as soon as next Tuesday, but even if James piles up titles over the next few seasons, I don’t think we’ll ever see the same LeBron that suited up for the Cavs. I know it was expected that Wade, James and even Bosh would see a reduction in numbers and touches when they all joined together in Miami, but in James’ case, he’s put up (slightly) worse numbers while playing a totally different game.

Perhaps I’m just selfish because I’m finally realizing that I’ll never see LeBron do anything like this again, but I am starting to wonder whether or not James winning titles in Miami, even if he wins three or four, while clearly deferring to Wade in the fourth quarter is better for his legacy than staying in Cleveland and never winning would have been. If LeBron wins three or four titles with the Heat will being Wade’s equal, then of course it was the right move. But if he does that with Wade indisputably being “the man”, wouldn’t he have been better off not pairing himself with a superstar and staying in Cleveland, where he could have easily won somewhere near six or seven MVP awards?

Obviously James did not have a great supporting cast in Cleveland, but he was so good that, with Williams showing up in the playoffs, the development of J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao and the addition of one solid bench scorer (think Delonte West but not Delonte West because, well, you know), he could have taken that team to the Finals at least once or twice over the next few years while also piling up MVP awards. I mean, if Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu don’t hit some incredible fourth quarter shots in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009 (while Mo Williams disappeared), and whatever caused LeBron to quit last season didn’t happen, there’s a chance that James could have taken the Cavs to the Finals twice over the past two seasons.

Instead, the Magic did hit incredible shots and LeBron was sorely effected by off-the-court issues, and LeBron was forced to decide where to playout his prime years. He chose Miami because he thought Wade would give him the help he needed to win a title. I’ll admit that James could come out and dominate games six and seven and regain that mojo that he had in Cleveland and everything I said above would be nonsense. But right now, the fact that James left Cleveland to play with better teammates may have gotten him to the Finals for the first time in four years, but its also caused him to turn into a different player. Instead of seeing Cavalier LeBron on a different scale, we’ve seen a new LeBron James and frankly, this is not a player I enjoy watching.

When the Heat were formed this summer, despite all of the hate and venom spewed towards them, I think everyone would agree that they couldn’t wait to watch James, Wade and Bosh all on the same team. But now that its happened, even though the Heat have been involved in some of the most entertaining Finals series in recent memory, I still think that watching LeBron James take over that game against Detroit in 2007 or close out his opposition night after night as a Cavalier was better than anything we’ve seen out of him this season.

Perhaps moving to Miami will pay off in the long run for LeBron James in the form of championships – and hey, that’s why he went there – but right now, LeBron James is not as good of a player that he was in Cleveland. He has the ability to be the same guy, but with Dwyane Wade on his team, he refuses to embrace that role. Again, he has ample time and opportunities to change that, to start taking over games once again like he did in Cleveland. But as of today, James is a changed player, and even if he wins a title next week, I still think he’d be better of as a Cav, throwing up triple-doubles every other night, taking over games with ease, playing with the mindset that he is the best player in the world, racking up MVP award after MVP award and playing some of the best basketball we have ever seen.

Boy, I really do miss #23. And I’m not talking about Jordan, either.

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