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Wait Till Last Year

By Bob Liss

Bob Liss finished this report on LeBron James’s role in last season’s NBA playoffs a few days before James announced he was “going home” to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season. Liss takes in the news in his postscript to this piece.

Just a year ago, with the Miami Heat joyfully repeating as NBA champions, LeBron James regained the respect of many of those who disdained him after “The Decision”: his 2010 televised desertion of hometown Cleveland.

LeBron had put considerable distance between himself and whomever was regarded as the second best basketball player in the world, but I argued in these pages (“Ain’ Time Yet: Colliding Eras in LeBron’s Stormy Reign”[1]) James and the Heat still had a lot to prove; their ultimate triumph had depended entirely on San Antonio’s Spurs making wildly uncharacteristic errors (by their revered Head Coach, Greg Popovich, and their beloved star of 16 years, Tim Duncan). The vaunted Heat had, truth be told, backed into their second championship.

By glaring contrast, the Spurs’ decisive five-game victory in this year’s 2014 NBA Finals represents a thoroughly unsullied and indeed remarkable triumph of intelligence, determination, character, and will, as well as team play. It was the culmination of a year-long struggle to erase the memory of Duncan’s missed 90% probability hook shot that was almost a lay-up, which, had it dropped, would have tied Game Seven in the last minute.

For the Spurs as a team, Duncan’s error was but icing on their bitter-tasting cake. Game Six had been theirs to take, but for egregious foul-shooting and rebounding in the last minute, which permitted Miami to escape into overtime (thanks to Ray Allen’s desperation three-pointer—a shot so difficult the brilliant Allen would be lucky to make it three times out of ten).

Even Coach Popovich had contributed to the sudden dysfunction by not having Duncan in the game at a time when a defensive rebound would have clinched matters.

As was widely publicized all year, that miss stuck in Duncan’s mind. There was only one way it could be erased: exactly the way the Spurs played it out.

The other take-away from last season, the playoffs in particular, was that Duncan, now 38, was not only not finished, but still capable of all-star level dominance. (Duncan was selected, at 37, to the NBA’s first all-star team.) Perhaps it was not yet fully LeBron’s league, even though he was unquestionably its greatest individual player. An unheralded Tim Duncan Era was over-lapping the festivities attendant to the coronation of a new King. This Duncan-Popovich ascendancy touches three decades, and spans sixteen years, beginning with the first of their five titles in 1999. Duncan is widely recognized as the greatest power forward of all time, and he would rank pretty high among centers as well. Jerry West, who is not given to wild superlatives, recently called Popovich the best coach he’s ever seen.

How good was this Spurs team, and what kind of argument do they make for the notion of a Duncan Era? Each of the Spurs’ wins was by a margin of 15-20 points, with the fifth game score of 104-87 reflecting that dominance. They had the league’s best regular season record (62-20), winning eight more games than Miami. Their team-work and ball movement recalled the New York Knicks’ championship team of 1969-70 and 1972-73, as well as Bill Walton’s and Jack Ramsey’s Portland Trailblazers of 1976-77. In recent decades, only Larry Brown’s 2003-04 Detroit Pistons have come at all close.

Sports commentators tend to invoke character to explain feel-good outcomes in sports, but character alone did not create the phenomenal skill set that 22 year old Kawhi Leonard unveiled during the playoffs. The Spurs’ victory also testified to how good players may become within a system (Popovich’s) that allows them positive freedom to cultivate unique offensive gifts (though defense is the Spurs' common denominator). Very good players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili became great ones in San Antonio. Parker and Ginobili were two of the team’s eight foreign-born players whose myriad languages and playing styles added color and flavor to this remarkable squad.

James was more gracious in defeat than he had been in response to previous disappointments, but where did this year’s loss leave him, other than in San Antonio’s dust? We can’t blame him. Or can we? Better yet, must we? He had little help, but, still, it “Ain’ Time Yet.” He still has a ways to go before the talk of supplanting Jordan is based on more than physical dominance and awesome talent.

The critical question about LeBron seems to be whether he can raise the level of his game to dominate play when domination is needed. If not, can he really challenge the legacies of Michael Jordan, Earvin Johnson, and Bill Russell? It’s not just about winning more championships. He must prove he’s the focal point of his team by taking over games at key times. He wasn’t always at the center of the action during Miami’s second championship run. This year, of course, he could not carry his team-mates past the blazing hot Spurs.

Oddly, for someone of his stature, he seems to guide himself by taking a game’s temperature, not by setting the thermostat.

Fortunes and reputations fluctuate wildly: three years ago, against the Dallas Mavericks, James “disappeared” so ignominiously that venom directed at him by his former fans after he abandoned Cleveland appeared half-justified. Then, he won his first title in a feel-good series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, seeming to usher in a new era that would be defined by the mutually admiring superstar rivals: James and Durant.

How weakly Durant performed in the playoffs! How uncommanding a presence he was, for an MVP—an honor he deserved for his regular season, but diminished by his very ordinary playoff performance. Yet this year, the Spurs’ dizzying passing and shooting made James seem nearly as pedestrian as Durant.

The last two years have re-opened the question of whether it’s simply LeBron’s league. The trend is toward teams that wed trios of superstars, but only San Antonio’s Big Three has been home-grown, and Popovich appears to have groomed Kawhi Leonard to take over when Ginobili inevitably falters.

What else does James need to do to add to his two championship rings? Stay the course? Find new team-mates? Return to Cleveland? Join San Antonio?

True greatness finds its own answers. Ask Michael or Magic; or better yet, Bill Russell.


Well, folks, we just got answers from the man himself!

In a graceful and forthright letter entitled “I’m Coming Home,” published in Sports Illustrated, LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers—and Northeast Ohio, the place he wanted us all to know that he had laughed, jumped, and cried as a child. After a four year glitz stint in Miami—a time that James analogized to going away to college (he skipped that earlier)—James cleared the decks, wiping away bad memories of the hype and emotional obliviousness that suffused his original announcement he was leaving his hometown to “take his talents to South Beach.”

LeBron’s move to join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh produced four trips to the NBA Finals in four years, and two championships, somewhat short of the spectacular numbers the then-immature James hinted at when he gleefully cut—nay, trashed—his Ohio roots.

But now LeBron is coming back to Cleveland. In so doing, he may distance himself from Michael Jordan by embracing the tradition of socially conscious black stars upheld by Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Many were stunned by LeBron’s choice, but Straight-Shooter Savant Dave Zirin predicted this would happen in 2013[2], based on his belief that LeBron’s deepest ambition was to become a folk hero: James, in Zirin’s view, could only achieve this goal by coming home to Cleveland.

Becoming a folk hero probably isn’t beyond LeBron’s horizon of possibility. It's become a truism to say he lifts all boats, makes everyone on his team better. Kyrie Irving can't wait, and the real possibility of getting Kevin Love alongside him could make the Cavs a championship contender faster than current predictions might suggest. The very modesty of such expectations further emphasize the difference between the alienating Decision four years ago and the current redemptive announcement so beautifully delivered last week. Very few commentators have offered cynical takes on the image-enhancing aspect of James’s announcement.[3]

Cynics about the NBA may be on the run. First there was Durant’s moving Mother's Day speech in accepting the regular-season MVP trophy, followed by the collective brilliance of San Antonio’s team-first triumph, and now LeBron’s return home. Is it beamish to think LeBron picked up on the examples of local heroes like Durant and Popovich? He certainly seems to have amped up their moral momentum.

LeBron’s move placed free agency pursuit into higher gear; many dominoes began to fall; pieces edged into their new configurations, as salary caps and the new Miami Heat ethic of taking less than the maximum contract shaped the chase for superstars.

James, Wade, and Bosh created their Heat juggernaut by taking less than the maximum salary to play together, but after James signed his “maximum contract” in Cleveland, Bosh followed suit with Miami ($118 million for five years; James gets only $84 million for four years back in Cleveland).

Wade may now be a liability for Miami. Like A’mare Stoudamire in New York, where Carmelo Anthony’s return for upwards of $120 million for five years will hamstring Knickerbocker payroll and hopes of contending for at least one year.

Yes, James has impact, sends ripples through the system every time he re-positions himself, as he does quite brilliantly, however large a gaff “The Decision” was. In assessing the extent of his impact, I would add that he seems to have brought out the best from the media as well.

The July 12, 2014 New York Times minimalist front sports page[4] brilliantly highlighted the significance of James’ announcement. ESPN pundit Bill Simmons, on his way to dubbing James both a genius (like Michael Jordan) and an artist (he should have mentioned Oscar Robertson here) was at his best in summarizing the difference between 2010 and now:

In the summer of 2010, LeBron handled everything wrong. He knows that now. We turned him into a wrestling heel, pushed him to a dark place, affected his personality, planted seeds of doubt that blossomed like a black rose during the 2011 Finals. It took LeBron nearly 15 months to recover from the damage, both mentally and physically, and when he did, he captured two straight MVPs and his first two NBA titles.

But he never forgot what happened, and deep down, he probably always wanted to atone. When the time arrived this summer, he flipped the script on us. This wasn’t a 24-7, over-planned reality show like the one in 2010. He said nothing. He hinted at nothing. During the first week of July, his agent took every meeting. During the second week, LeBron stayed in Las Vegas and made everyone come to him. He announced his decision, then flew to Brazil for the World Cup.

Odysseus in the jet plane age. Just another stop on the hero’s journey home.


1 Firstofthemonth.org/archives/2013/08.

2 Dave Zirin, Edge of Sports, March 25, 2013

3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his July 12, 2014 opinion piece for Time sounded a note of skepticism, invoking Thomas Wolfe about the impossibility of ever really being able to return home.

4 Reminiscent of the nearly all black New Yorker cover after 9/11.

From July, 2014

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