In Quasi Defense Of LeBron James

Is choosing teammates worse than inheriting them?

I don’t want to be put in the position of defending LeBron James. As I’ve said, I’m not happy about his decision—it’s basically a sports tragedy. So while I generally agree with those criticizing him, I can’t help but notice some unfair attacks.

Most of these deal with claims about LeBron’s personality. Fans have a tendency to do this a lot: They project personality traits and character flaws onto athletes based on no real knowledge of the players as individuals. If a player strikes out in a key situation, he must be unable to handle pressure. If a basketball player misses the open man, he must be a selfish person. If a football player happens to be the quarterback of a team that loses, he must not be a motivated individual. In a few instances, there is some merit to this—sports would not be nearly as special if it didn’t give us insights into the human psyche.

Far more often, though, it is utter schlock. Most of the time these conclusions are based on such a thin sliver of something far more complex than one moment can show. Basically, a player may force a shot with an open teammate because he was selfish… or because he just didn’t see the player, or because he didn’t have an angle for the pass, or because the open player was having an off night. Drawing a conclusion from one simple fact is like dismissing someone’s entire personality because you don’t like his shirt.

Since LeBron’s Decision, though, there have been a lot of people drawing conclusions about LeBon’s intensity and his competitive spirit. True NBA greats are too intense to join forces with rivals. They would rather beat them. As Ian Thomsen wrote in Sports Illustrated:

“Think back to the NBA’s golden era when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were winning a combined 10 championships from 1979 to ’90. Would those three rivals ever have wanted to join forces? They were more interested in beating each other than in deferring to one another.”

Variations of this sentiment have been echoed by Bill Simmons, Rick Reilly, and the rest of ESPN talking heads: Michael Jordan wouldn’t have wanted to play with Charles Barkley, Bill Russell wouldn’t have wanted to play with Wilt, etc. LeBron James must not be a “killer” like those guys were. But if we apply even a tidbit of rationality to this line of thinking, we see that it doesn’t really hold water.

After all we don’t say that Magic Johnson would never have wanted to play with Kareem, or that Jordan would never have wanted to play with Pippen, or that Russell would never have wanted to play with Bob Cousy. We don’t say that, of course, because they did play with those guys. And it’s not like those sidekicks were NBA also-rans—they were legitimate stars in their own right, just like Wade and Bosh. But did Jordan demand Phil Jackson cut Pippen because he wanted to beat him? Even Jordan wasn’t that crazy.

The difference, of course, is that the stars we remember so fondly ended up with their great teammates through little more than dumb luck, while LeBron chose to join Wade. But this shouldn’t make such a difference. After all, if LeBron had lucked into the situation Magic Johnson did or been paired with two Hall of Famers in his second season like Larry Bird was, then he probably would never have left Cleveland. As it was, though, LeBron needed to seek great teammates elsewhere.

Even the idea that Wade and LeBron were rivals is more wishful thinking on the part of fans than anything else. After all, LeBron and Wade have never met in the playoffs, and only faced each other in the regular season 25 times over seven seasons. They’ve combined for one championship—one fewer than Kobe has since losing Shaq, and one fewer than Tim Duncan has since the two entered the league. In other words, it’s not like these two were the poles of the NBA that Magic and Bird were in their heyday.

Basically, joining forces with Wade and Bosh doesn’t necessarily mean LeBron lacks a “killer instinct” that great players have. He surely wants to beat Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose and Kevin Garnett and John Wall and Steve Nash and the rest of the stars of the NBA. The Decision is not about a lack of a killer instinct. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to be happy about LeBron’s Decision. There are plenty of reasons to hate it, but let’s just make sure we pick the right ones.

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40 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you, somebody gets it. It’s funny how people suddenly forgot the 7 years that he did give them, Lebron made that team relevant. They never recruited anymore good talent for him to play with so he had no reason to stay, no player can carry a whole team on there back without a little bit of help.

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on July 16, 2010 at 3:16 PM

      This is going to sound sarcastic, but the Cavs did recruit players such as Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, Mo Williams, Shaquille O’Neal, and Antawn Jamison to help James out–often based on LeBron’s counsel. The Summer 2010 deadline meant they couldn’t really build long-term and tried multiple short-term fixes that didn’t win them a title but did get them to the best record in the league twice.

      The biggest problems over the last several years were that 1. Boozer left unexpectedly; 2. The Cavs’ top draft picks pre-James were flops (like the DaJuan Wagners and the DeSagna Diops); and 3.
      James made them too good too fast, meaning they couldn’t build around him from the draft. Their only Top 15 pick since James? Luke Jackson. Contrast that with the Thunder, who got Durant and Jeff Green in the same Draft, then Russell Westbrook and James Harden the next two years; that’s four top-5 picks in 4 years, and at least three have panned out.

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      • Posted by John S on July 16, 2010 at 5:42 PM

        Yeah, it does sound sarcastic when the first guy you mention in order to praise a GM is Larry Hughes. And while you’re right that the Cavs TRIED to get players around James, they did a pretty lousy job, as your list of players shows. Donyell Marshall and a washed up Shaq don’t really compare to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin McHale. It’s true that the Cavs suffered a lot from bad luck and near-treachery (the whole Boozer thing is the biggest What If? in this scenario), but I don’t think you can just give them a mulligan on 7 years of bad moves. Yes their draft picks weren’t as good as the Thunder’s, but that’s not an excuse for drafting poorly. They took Luke Jackson ahead of Al Jefferson and Jameer Nelson. In 2006 they took Shannon Brown ahead of Jordan Farmar. They added Ben Wallace, Shaq, and Antawn Jamison all about a year after they were washed up. At a certain point, LeBron has to take control of his own destiny and find his own great teammates.

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        • Posted by Aurie on July 18, 2010 at 9:23 PM

          Could’ve said this better myself. I’m sorry, but the owner is the one who has to bear the responsibility at the end of the day for not retaining and building a great product (i.e. in this case, a team built to win a championship). If you remove Lebron from the equation, what would the best case scenario be for the team as constructed? I’m not smart enough to extrapolate the exact record of a Lebron-less Cleveland team over the past…say 3 years…but let’s be real here…The best they could do with no injuries is probably an 8th seed in a weak Eastern conference and I’m being severely optimistic. With that said, the structure of the Cavs was severely flawed since the NBA Finals run, and the ultimate responsibility for making the right changes to build a sustainable & quality championship team starts and ends with the owner of the franchise. That’s why he has so much autonomy and unfortunately for him, Lebron didn’t believe in him anymore.

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  2. Well, we’re quasi over it – http://www.breakupwithlebron.com. North Coast Muse @ http://sally1029.wordpress.com

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  3. how do you put pictures on your blog

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  4. Great post! Thank you for illustrating how easy it is for fan (short for fanATICS) to quickly and hastily over-generalize one particular instance into an attribute (or lack thereof). I think it’s quite clear that LeBron was acting in the best interest of LeBron (or so he thought): playing with two other elite athletes (among the other great athletes that will play for the Heat this year).
    I think it’s interesting to note that many of the pundits thought that it was going to JUST be the ‘three’ stars and a bunch of nobody’s. It seems now that the Heat will have a very strong veteran presence. 🙂

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

    Reply

  5. Wonderful post. I’ve turned off the TV because I’m sick of seeing LeBron’s decision being torn apart from all angles. I would have loved to seen him win a championship with the Cavs, but it is what it is. Getting to see him play with Wade and Bosh is a pretty exciting idea.

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  6. And 1. I agree.

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  7. […] In Quasi Defense Of LeBron James […]

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  8. Posted by robertdaylin on July 16, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Very good post. This post alone convinced me to follow your blog add it to my blogroll on my page. Not only did you hit a nerve that most of the media missed with “The Decision”, but you also write well…which is a quality missing with many sports writers. Great job…and you have a new follower.

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  9. Good read 🙂

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  10. I think the idea that LBJ made the Cavs relevant is the key to the whole thing. Everyone acts as if this is some great betrayal of the city and its people. They should be grateful he gave them seven exciting years. And if anyone was betrayed, it was LeBron. Everyone acts like this summer somehow snuck up on the Cavs. If the Knicks can somehow manage to figure out a way to be prepared for this summer and even the Heat can do it in such a short time span, why couldn’t the Cavs. I don’t think ownership ever really felt inclined to keep him and wanted to make sure they could scapegoat him when he left.

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  11. There is and was only ONE KING of NBA basketball and that was BERNARD King. I bet any amount LeBron would not even be able to check him. Lebron is robotic and has none of the grace of Julius “The Doctor”, David Thompson, Connie Hawkins, Jordan or even Larry Bird. ‘Nuff said.

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  12. Lebron spent most of his life perfecting his talent. If the owner’s weren’t willing to what is necessary to win and to win consistently then it’s “Mr.” James’ business to go anywhere else he damn well pleases. I had hoped him and some others had chose the Charlotte Bobcats. Then we would really hear and see some nasty words and thoughts coming out of the mouths and pens of many.

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  13. Great post.I’m agree whit you.

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  14. Nice post

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  15. he must be a selfish person. If a football player happens to be the quarterback of a team that loses, he must not be a motivated individual. In a few instances, there is some merit to this—sports would not be nearly as special if it didn’t give us insights into the human psyche.

    Reply

  16. Posted by Ryan Anderson on July 17, 2010 at 5:33 AM

    Miami baby!

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  17. I love this post.Thank you.

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  18. I agree with these comments if cleveland wanted lebron to stay they seven offseasons to put some pieces around him

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  19. I agree. Let it and him GO!!

    evelyngarone.com

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  20. Good Post! Quite through, it’s somehow one of the flaws of our society today. We tend to find faults on celebrities, specialty if somehow they have disappointed you.

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  21. Posted by redd on July 17, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    ahhh Lebron – these videos in the Lebron James Frequency say it all – http://www.frequency.com/topic/lebron-james/17371

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  22. I totally agree, although i don’t live in the States we do get a fair amount of sports coverage down under. And to be honest and fair I think the real problem was how he broke the news, not the breaking of the news. Th public are so fickle that in most cases they can’t decide whether they want their celebrities or sports personalities to be arrogant or modest or a showman or a workman.

    So at the slightest sign of deviation by these people we as a sports mad public jump all over them for really just being who they are. Funnily enough as a public we have no idea who or what that is because chances are we have never met the person in question.

    It’s like that Ricky Nelson Garden Party – “Can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself”

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  23. Lebron is just a classic American narcissist.

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  24. Great article here, I was thoroughly captivated by it! However, I do have to disagree because for one thing I do think Lebron has all those character flaws because they have been shown throughout his career but people have just started to notice them now. The fact that Lebron quit on his team is never a good sign for a player. I don’t think you would ever see Kobe or Jordan do that to their team. Also, you think you could check out my post on this cuz I just think Cleveland fans overreacted to this whole ordeal. http://chrisross91.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/suck-it-up-cleveland/

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    • Um, Jordan DID quit. I call his 2nd and 3rd “retirements” quitting. And did you not hear all the complaining Kobe was doing about shaq? He might as WELL have quit his team, causing all that dissention!

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  25. Man! If I could share this article on my FB page I would! I have a few of my friends just trashing LeBron right now, and I could find no better argument other than “He’s entitled to pick any team he chooses! He gave them 7 years of never being late to practice and excellent playing!”

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m copying your article and giving you credit; is that okay?

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  26. Great post.It’s cool.

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  27. Posted by doc on July 18, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    Nice post, John. This is sports today folks and really since the Curt Flood free agent court decision over 40 years ago. The part about the LeBron thing that irks me was “The Decision”. Please, it was just a decision, and it made both LeBron and ESPN look bad and boring.

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  28. Posted by candyfunsmith on July 18, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    Very nice post.

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  29. True, true. People judge players very quickly sometimes partly because after following their careers, their fans assume they actually know the players and are upset when players do something they disagree with. The claim that James is lacking competitive spirit is completely unfounded. As you say, though, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with his decision…

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  30. I agree with your analysis on the charachter portion. However, it was how he handled the situation that got to me. It all began in the playoffs when LeBron just quit playing in the last two games, and then sat at the post-game press conference and acted like the los couldn’t possibly have been his fault. I think that really got people to startscratching their heads in wonder of what the heck was going on. The as the free agency circus began, LeBron made mistake after mistake in handling the situation. His biggest mistake was allowing his highschool buddies to make one of his biggest business/career decisions of his life. The people he listens to are college drop outs with no real experience other than what experience the tell themselves that they have. Had he listened to someone with half a brain he could have transitioned to Miami with much less fire than he did. He should never have had that ESPN special to glorify his decision. He should have been able to foree that holding that special and deciding to leave was going to cause a storm. He should have just let the Cleveland organization know of his decision, and leave gracefully. Basically what really makes me mad is not that he left the organization…after all, he satisfied his contractual obligations to Cleveland, but it was the roller coaster ride he put the fans through. Especially now that its coming out that this talent coup was planned for possibily as long as two years. For him to go on live tv and lie to the world claiming he decided that moring was so frusterating. I’ve never been a LeBron fan, so seeing him leave didn’t really bother me, but the way in which he did it, was what hurt so many people.

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  31. great post,…

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  32. There wouldn’t be so much Lebron drama had he handled the situation in a mature manner.

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  33. […] I’ve said before, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have never met in the playoffs. They didn’t play against each other […]

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  34. Posted by darryl johnson on February 16, 2011 at 5:03 AM

    Just wondering how they didn’t build a team around him when the last two years in a row they finished with the NBA’s best record. I don’t care what people try to say or use by this year and their record for example because obviuosly with him there they were able to beat some of the top teams two years in a row. Truth be told they couldn’t get ovet the hump and instead of figuring out how to beat the celtics with what he had he would rather join with people he considered of higher caliber to beat he celtics. Would any of the other names mentioned have done that well i guess that’s obviuos because they didn’t. And for the record Lebroin never got Cleaveland to the finals their shooting guard at the time carried them their then was put on the bench the next year to never be heard from again. Don’t believe me look it up.

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  35. […] it took place while Tim expressed disappointment in LeBron’s view of championships. John wondered why everyone claimed James was being selfish and then told some of his most well-known critics to shut their mouths. Finally, he took on the […]

    Reply

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