LeBron James is a grown man who wants to choose his place of employment. He understands that no NBA team can legally pay him what he is truly worth on a year-to-year basis; he values winning above all; and he wants to ensure that he is surrounded by enough talent to allow him to play deep into June every year, and compete at the championship level.
He also understands that this is a team game, and that even the greatest need help. A lot of help. Another All-Star, maybe two, and a reliable cast of role players. There are five to a side in basketball, nearly a hundred possessions in a game, and lots of shots to divvy up.
LeBron James wants to divvy these things up with the best, as his championship contemporaries from the past – from Kobe to Shaq to Duncan to Jordan to Magic to Bird to Kareem to Dr. J and Moses – did. Why this is an anathema to people is beyond me.
James opted out of his 2014-15 contract on Tuesday, making him an unrestricted free agent for the second time in his career. The last time he had such freedom, James and his handlers made the incredibly stupid move of cobbling together a television event called "The Decision," which left me personally with the same sort of self-loathing for having to watch it that I’m sure struggling TV editors feel when they have to piece together scenes for a Kardashian-run reality show. It was a miserable experience just sitting through the thing, and it took James years to recover from that major misstep.
Along the way, though, he made the best possible basketball move. He joined what were arguably, at the time, the best shooting guard and power forward in the game and moved away from a lacking Cleveland Cavaliers team to move to Miami. As a result of that basketball decision, James was able to run his way to four Finals appearances, and two championship rings.
The Heat are not in the same camp as the 2010-era Cleveland Cavaliers, but the team was dragging as it worked deep into June for the fourth consecutive year. James is still staring at a major hole in the team’s middle, a point guard situation that necessitated a change in the starting lineup on the team’s very last game of the season, and the flip side of Dwyane Wade’s brilliant career. Wade’s ability to spell James between LeBron’s bursts of scoring was nonexistent in the Finals; he’s been fighting knee problems for over a decade, and while he should still make an All-Star team next season, Dwyane Wade’s greatest hits were all written several years ago.
James isn’t cruel, but he knows this. And he knows how tough it will be, for a team still trying to work its way around the luxury tax and the basketball (to say nothing of financial) penalties it creates, to put together the same cast of role players that James was allowed to dish the ball to in 2012 and 2013, on his way to those consecutive titles. He’s not lying when he says he’d prefer to stay in Miami, it’s a gorgeous place to live and it’s never easy to uproot a family no matter how many millions can ease the transition, but LeBron isn’t dumb.
He’s also afforded the same rights we all are, to pick amongst employers that want to pay for our services. To turn up our nose at LeBron James choosing to wear yet another NBA uniform, and I apologize for being haughty, is borderline un-American. And you don’t want to be some kind of damned Bolshevik, do ya?
Bill Russell was traded to a team with Bob Cousy already on board, in the same draft that gifted his Celtics Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. Jerry West joined a team with Elgin Baylor on it. Wilt Chamberlain was traded twice and even tried to switch leagues toward the end of his career. An obscenely lucky amount of cap maneuvering and outright theft helped place Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish on the same team. Magic Johnson was drafted to a team that already featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he retired from that team (the second time) just months before it acquired Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, players that were originally members of the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets, respectively. Tim Duncan has always had a fabulous supporting cast.
The outlier here is Michael Jordan, who had to wait for years for the All-Stars (four in total, at various times either with or without MJ, in Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, and Dennis Rodman) to find their roles around him. And even before his father’s tragic murder in 1993, Jordan was outwardly talking about an early retirement while dragging his legs to three straight Finals appearances.
James has now done four in a row, and he’s tired. And he needs help. And it seems odd that some basketball fans would prefer him to play things out like Allen Iverson, who has but one NBA Finals game win to his credit, and an overtime squeaker at that.
He’s not less of a man, or with less of a legacy, for wanting to go work with other All-Stars. It’s damn hard to win an NBA title, and you need the sort of help that his championship predecessors have had in place – working with the same helpers that James wants to establish, without any criticism that I can recall.
Nothing is guaranteed. The Clippers may not materialize, the Rockets may not work out, Chicago might be a pipe dream, and the weather is real nice in Miami. If you ask Las Vegas, the Heat are still considered to be the odds-on favorite to take the 2015 title. And for good reason.
If the best reason decides to take his talents somewhere else, though, he’d be doing it for less money and for solely basketball reasons. Why this would leave him prone to criticism is something I’ll never understand.
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