Friday, May 14, 2010

How Cleveland Failed LeBron

Okay, so I like LeBron.

And today, I have to sit and listen to a million people tell me how he's a bum, how he's got crappy intangibles, how he's not Michael Jordan. That commentary would be bearable if it were based in anything other than idiocy, but it won't be.

I watched a lot of the Celtics series. Partly because I like LeBron, partly because I'm one of the few people I know who watches a lot of pro basketball, mostly because I wanted to see what would happen. And I saw what I expected to see for most of the series: Despite some moments of brilliance, the best player on the floor could not singlehandedly outplay the next best five.

"But it's basketball!" cry Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti, "In basketball, one player can win all by himself. MICHAEL JORDAN!!!!11@!!Q!!!"

Which, is, of course, wrong. It's like when morons in baseball blamed Alex Rodriguez for losing, when the problem was that the Yankees' pitching staff sucked. Kobe won squat until he got Gasol and Bynum. Jordan never won without Pip and his squad of sidekicks. Garnett never won until he got Pierce and Allen. You can do this forever, and it holds up (with the possible exception of Tim Duncan, though he still had a team crafted to play around him and an all-time great coach).

On the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Spurs, Hawks and arguably Suns, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison would be the fifth or sixth best players on the floor. All season, I've been watching and hoping that the hype the Cavs brass was selling was justified, and it's not. And if I can see that from TV, LeBron saw it in every game he played. In Game Five, it finally became too much, and I think LeBron looked around and realized this was what he was going to get if he stayed in Cleveland. So he became discouraged. Kobe did this against the Suns a few years ago, back when he was failing to win the championship every year, and the various commentators were ripping him daily. Of course, now that he got better teammates, he's a champion, and no one remembers that. When Kobe became disengaged, there was a summer of drama, followed by reconciliation and the promise of better players for him by the owner. LeBron's owner ripped his star player's effort, and while it might not have been inaccurate, it also wasn't bright.

The problem isn't that LeBron didn't care. Well, it's obviously a problem that he got discouraged. But the reason he was discouraged is that he's played for seven years with guys like Donyell Marshall and Eric Snow and Boobie Gibson. Those are all nice players in their own way, and guys like that need to be on a championship team, but they can't be cornerstones. That is a result of the owner's effort, not LeBron's. Doing that results in losses to good teams, regardless of effort. Last night, in the words of one of the reporters at the game, "They played hard, they just didn't play well."

Last night, as I watched Cleveland try to mount a comeback, I saw LeBron jump over a double-team and pass it to a wide-open Ghost Shaq under the basket. Shaq missed the layup. Then, I saw LeBron come down the court, run down the sideline, and pass it to the lane where he expected someone to be as the defense collapsed on him. There was no one there, and it was his 9th turnover. I know there are some "analysts" who lack the capacity to see what is not there as a real problem, but those two missed baskets were not the fault of a star who didn't inspire Anderson Varejao to become Moses Malone. They were the result of an owner who did not see the need for a reliable player in the middle.

What's particularly frustrating about this is that I've seen it happen before. Allen Iverson was dedicated to Philadelphia, and stayed there for his whole healthy career. In his prime, he was the most unguardable guy in the league. And the Sixers brass decided, hey, we've got a great player, why spend some money for another? So the best player Iverson ever played with was the reanimated body of Dikembe Mutumbo. He got them to the NBA finals with Eric Snow as the second scoring option, and to this day there are idiots who say he wasn't a "winner."

As Pirates fans, we at FTC know what bad management looks like. We know it can take the form of disinterest, of penny-pinching, or of throwing big money at Derek Bell. But one of the worst forms is acting like good luck (via a draft pick) should be enough to entitle you to a championship. Cleveland bills itself as a notoriously unluckly city, sports-wise. Well, the Cavs are not. It got a once-in-a-generation talent via the draft, and had him for seven years. It's the luckiest fucking place on Earth. But it surrounded that talent with B and C players and spent lots of time trying to guilt-trip him into staying in a minor media market, when all the owner had to do was make one of the trades or signings that Orlando, Boston, LA or Dallas has made in the past year. Instead, we'll now hear lots of whining as he prepares to leave for a city that might someday give him the talent to win championships.

BOLD PREDICTION: In the next five years, LeBron will win a title somewhere else, and no one will remember any of the bitching they did about him in Cleveland.

Oh, and could we stop treating Michael Jordan like he's the holy grail of sportsmanship? The guy is an inveterate gambler and philander who retired three times, was a crappy executive, and never took a stand on anything that could cost him money. Yes, he was a good shooting guard at both ends of the floor, but he never won anything without a massive supporting cast and the best big-talent coach in history. There are those of us more impressed by the accomplishments of Magic Johnson, who made everyone around him better, or Charles Barkley, who played a big man's position at two inches shorter than the Shoe Man. If you want to say that the current star you don't like is "no [insert name here]" to convince us that sports was better years ago, let's just use Bill Russell.

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