Last summer’s low-key “decision” to come back to Cleveland was much less shocking than LeBron James’ first decision. Roster limitations as a result of aging and the salary cap held back the dynasty potential of the Miami Heat, and many around James felt he regretted the way he left his hometown team in 2010 and wanted to make amends with the region where he spent the first 25 years of his life. Also helping his decision to come home was the contractual flexibility the Cavaliers gave him along with a voice in their front office decisions.
In a vacuum, none of LeBron’s decisions are particularly bad or confusing. His move to Miami was an opportunity to experience something new while having the chance to play, and win championships, with his friends. The decision to return to Cleveland was supported by the regret he felt for leaving and people being sympathetic to a player wanting to return home again. However, as we look back at these decisions, it is obvious LeBron is chasing championships, displaying a concerning anxiety about his career and legacy that have obviously influenced his decisions throughout his NBA career.
The move to Miami was not shocking in itself, but his decision to announce his move on a primetime ESPN special was the first big sign that LeBron’s decision-making may be short-sighted and that the support system surrounding him was merely a collection of yes-men using their friend and business partner as a promotional vehicle who needs to focus on being a “global icon” as much as being a great basketball player. LeBron left a Cavs team that won 61 games and won the Eastern Conference in spite of injuries, but he felt they never did enough to surround him with players even though he was only 25 at the time and Michael Jordan did not reach his first finals until he was 28. He has admitted he regrets “The Decision,” and it did raise several million for the Boys and Girls Club, but he continued to make similar choices after The Decision.
His first three years in Miami were not without controversy. It was obvious early in his first season in Miami that it would take some time to build chemistry and find balance with his new teammates, especially Dwyane Wade, who was the alpha dog on the team before LeBron arrived and already had won two championships with the Heat. They ended up losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, leading to questions about LeBron’s ability in pressure situations after his third Finals loss in a row. He worked on his post-game that offseason, and in their second year together LeBron, Wade, and Chris Bosh finally found a balance, winning the first of back-to-back championships. Issues arose again in the fourth year as the team’s core entered their contract years. Rumors began to arise related to LeBron returning to Cleveland, and the Heat fell to second place in the East due to injuries and the tension relating to the contracts and futures of Wade, Bosh, and especially LeBron and lost in the Finals to the veteran San Antonio Spurs.
LeBron showed signs of maturity by announcing his move back to Cleveland in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated, but his decision was helped by the fact that the Cavs’ incredible luck allowed them to get the top pick three times in four years, providing the assets and talent that typically leads to long term success in sports. However, Cleveland, in their LeBron euphoric daze, decided to give him a say in the front office decisions of the team which could very well limit their success in the same way short-sighted transactions limited the potential of his past teams in Cleveland and Miami. Encouraging the signing of veterans like Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion makes sense on the surface but it ultimately reduces the opportunity to bring in young players who may improve and fill their roles better than players in the mid-30s; however, the other big move the Cavs made this summer may be the thing that hurts the Cavalier’s long term opportunity to dominate the league. For someone playing NBA 2K15, trading for Kevin Love may seem like a no-brainer, a top rebounder and reliable three-point shooter from the post for a rookie and perceived underachiever, but considering the players they had before the trade, they may have been better off without Love. They were already solid inside with Tristan Thompson and (the now injured) Anderson Varejao and as the season goes on, and we see Matthew Dellavedova playing at the end of games, it is obvious the Cavs could have used Andrew Wiggins this year as a role player as he grew into a star under LeBron.
Fortunately for the Cavs, the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder handed them a life jacket when they made a three-way deal sending the mediocre Dion Waiters to the Thunder for the mercurial J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and, for some reason, a first-round pick next year from the Thunder. They not only got two players better than Waiters who can play perimeter defense, but they get back the first round pick they used to get Love, which they quickly turned around to overpay the Denver Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov. Allowing LeBron and public opinion dictate their moves is limiting the Cavs the same way they were limited during LeBron’s first tenure and the way the Lakers have been the last few years as Kobe Bryant has aged. These short-term moves look good on paper, and might help out now, but they are hurting the long-term prospects of a dynasty by trading away draft picks and young players for overpriced veterans. It is often hard for players to step back and see the big picture, especially as it relates to personnel. Although these latest trades were not done at the suggestion of LeBron, he was still consulted about his willingness to play with Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov while the team ignored the long term prospects of the franchise…again.
One of the things that allowed players like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan to win so many championships was the fact that these Hall of Famers did not chase them from team to team, but they allowed consistency and chemistry to build over time. They endured down years knowing that injuries and transitions happen and that it takes a long time to build solid chemistry on a basketball team. As much as it helps having the best player on the court, championships are won by teams and these teams are rarely formed instantaneously, it takes time and practice to construct familiarity on a basketball team in the top league in the world. James does not seem to have this level of patience, and the Cavs are reacting by trying to acquire proven talent to surround their star as rumors begin to swirl that he is thinking of bailing again and eventually earn the right to offer the first $200 million contract in NBA history. As LeBron turns 30, there is no doubt he will go down as one of the greatest individual players in NBA history, but in a few decades when we look back at his career we may be wondering whether LeBron’s lack of foresight cost him several championships during his reign as the top player in the world.