It never ends with LeBron James.
To be fair, LeBron could prevent some of the fires of controversy and soap-operatic drama from burning at the edges of his daily NBA life. He could have refrained from unfollowing the Cavs; he could have not socialized with Dwyane Wade last Saturday in Miami; he could do a million other little things to not raise fresh questions about his motivations and his mindset. All true. All universally acknowledged.
However, with all of that having been said, the historical permanence of “The Decision” in 2010 — no matter how much LeBron has grown as a person since then (short answer: A LOT), and no matter how much LeBron’s return to Cleveland might have repaired its damage — still lingers over the NBA’s foremost active icon.
When LeBron left to join D-Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he planted seeds of intrigue which are still firmly embedded in dark, rich NBA soil. Two superb NBA writers, Howard Beck of Bleacher Report and Ken Berger of CBS Sports, have combed through that nutrient-rich soil to produce these compelling and thoughtfully-crafted commentaries (albeit with a click-baity headline for Berger’s article — NOTE: writers often, if not always, aren’t responsible for their headlines; editors know they need to do what drives pageviews, and that’s simply part of the industry in which writers work).
Here’s Beck’s article, which you should read first:
Repost: On LeBron and Carmelo — friends and rivals, forever connected, for better or worse. https://t.co/1EzZ33OvYV
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) March 23, 2016
Then, Ken Berger:
— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) March 25, 2016
In both pieces, one can find a direct yet intricate portrayal of the complexities of NBA life. The details are extremely complicated, but the fundamental tension point behind them is simple enough to grasp: comfort versus aspiration.
What NBA situation makes LeBron James personally and professionally satisfied? The move to Miami was about championships and professional satisfaction, but with a friendship (D-Wade) that created enough personal space to make the journey uplifting and not soulless.
The move to Cleveland wasn’t free of championship-level ambitions, and moreover, when both the 2015 and 2016 NBA seasons began, there was zero question that the Cavs were the favorite to make the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference, a team with as good a chance of winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy as any other in the league. Yet, as much as LeBron certainly pursued more professional satisfactions in Cleveland, the move to Ohio — his roots — was undeniably a homecoming.
It’s important to understand: Even if LeBron might have laid it on a bit too thick about coming back home to Ohio — such would undeniably be the case if he bolts Cleveland a second time — one can still say that his move to Cleveland pursued that particular goal. The relevant nuance: Winning a title in Cleveland is what was always going to make the homecoming special, valuable and lasting.
Did we say NBA life is complicated?
LeBron’s journey has been nothing if not complicated at every turn.
Let’s therefore cut through all this doom-and-gloom talk about him, the Cavs, and everything going straight to hell by intervening with this simple statement:
It’s all the Golden State Warriors’ fault. It’s all their damn fault.
That’s it. Period. Fin. There’s nothing more which needs to be explained here.
If the Warriors hadn’t dramatically raised the bar for the Spurs, the Cavs, and all other NBA teams, most of the turmoil and media-fed hysterics about LeBron — about the Cleveland return crashing and burning, about the Cavs being a total mess, and other related narrative threads — would not exist.
I’m going to write this again in a few weeks when the playoffs begin, but I’m going to say it now so that you get used to reading, processing and internalizing it:
The Cavaliers are not a mess. They’re not in trouble. They haven’t gone horribly wrong. They’re not failures…
… unless or until they’re knocked out before the NBA Finals, be it by Toronto or any other Eastern Conference team.
If the Cavaliers make the NBA Finals, only to be outclassed by the Warriors, their season — like LeBron’s return — will not have produced the world title Clevelanders so urgently long for. Yet, it will not be a failure.
There can be no shame, no sense of professional embarrassment — nothing which should make grown men toss and turn at night with troubled hearts and disturbed souls — if one loses to an all-time great team in a world championship series.
The result will have been one stage short of what LeBron and everyone in Cleveland wants… but it’s simply Bron’s (and the Cavs’) very bad luck that the Warriors and Stephen Curry have redefined professional basketball to the extent they have.
Howard Beck and Ken Berger have done great work — they’re shedding light, not heat, on the seemingly-annual late-March feeding frenzy which always seems to envelop LeBron James. Yet, from a more distant big-picture vantage point, it’s utterly depressing to see that just one year after the Cavs entered the playoffs with questions about David Blatt and the level of leadership on the team, the national press corps seems intent on stirring up the pot and projecting a doom-and-panic situation in Cleveland… when it doesn’t (yet) exist.
If the Cavs are in danger of falling short of the NBA Finals, then we can seriously discuss notions of “how it all went wrong” in Cleveland.
Until then, you can enjoy this breathless annual exercise with LeBron and the manufactured chaos which swirls around him.
I’ll be over here waiting for the playoffs, expecting no opponent to stand in the way of LeBron and a SIXTH CONSECUTIVE Eastern Conference championship.
What’s gone wrong in Cleveland? Nothing. The Golden State Warriors simply continue to distort any and all expectations of what’s reasonable for LeBron James — and everyone else in the NBA — to achieve in the present moment.