He may not have the gold trophy with the ball leaning on the rim, but LeBron James does have our attention. Isn’t it peculiar how we honored the Spurs and their five-game championship clinic for about two minutes, yet we’re now going to spend two weeks dissecting every imaginable destination — did someone say Milwaukee? — for the world’s greatest basketball player? This is what’s known as power, and right now, despite the presence of billionaire owners and brawny media networks and influential corporate partners, nothing is more powerful in the National Basketball Association than LeBron Inc.
Winning a championship quiets the critics. Having an entire league wrapped around your little finger feeds the ego — and allows you to flip the middle finger, too.
It’s humorous, if not embarrassing, to see the announcement of his opt-out sending so many grown men scurrying into action. I hope they realize James simply could be toying with them, that his lunch meeting with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could have been a strategy session designed to convince his teammates to remain financially flexible in their dealings with Pat Riley. In particular, the most important imminent card to be played in this fascinating poker game is whether Wade, who is finished as an elite player and looked feeble during the Heat’s concluding three-game crash in the Finals, will take significantly less money. If he decides not to opt-out and wants the $43 million owed him over the next two years, James will dash out of Miami quicker than a cocaine runner. If Wade and the Heat cut a deal where, say, he agrees to a piece of ownership someday, allowing Riley to pursue the pieces necessary to keep the team championship-competitive, then maybe James will stay.
Know this: LeBron isn’t playing for a team that doesn’t have at least a fair shot at an NBA title. As constituted, the Heat cannot win another NBA title. Trading up in the draft and taking point guard Shabazz Napier, a favorite of James, wasn’t a big enough thought. The Heat need a rebuild, and James’ idea, as planted recently by his agents, was a pairing with Carmelo Anthony. When Riley branded that possibility “a pipe dream,’’ he was assuming correctly that Anthony wouldn’t leave $50 million on the table to play in Miami when he can make $96 million and be positioned for an Eastern Conference title in Chicago. Short of Anthony, what the Heat need is an established point guard, such as free agent Kyle Lowry, and a big man, such as Kendrick Perkins, and a wing, such as Shawn Marion or Trevor Ariza. But landing such a trio, especially with financial restrictions, is much easier said than done.
The rest of the league is sensing that James, already established as a mercenary after his 2010 escape from Cleveland, is ready for another jump. That’s why activity is resembling a game of musical chairs. The Mavericks sent starters Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert in a six-player deal to the Knicks for a return that includes center Tyson Chandler, the player Dallas never should have let go after winning the championship three years ago. Mark Cuban made the deal to improve his chances of wooing James. As for the Knicks, Phil Jackson begins to create salary space and acquire team-oriented players in an effort to keep Anthony.
The Clippers say they’re prepared to chase James and create a superteam with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but this scenario might be halted by the Donald Sterling court proceedings, which likely won’t be finished before James’ decision in early July. The Lakers say they’re ready to recruit James and Anthony and create a superteam with Kobe Bryant, keeping in mind that an NBA game is played with only one basketball. The Rockets say they’re ready to recruit James and Anthony and create a super team with Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers want James back — even though the divorce was ugly and James still can’t stand owner Dan Gilbert — and management harbors a fantasy that LeBron will return home to play with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, which, speaking of pipe dreams, sounds absurd. Some teams will make a run at James, such as Chicago, and, if rebuffed, then will chase Anthony.
All of this has to be galling Riley. Last week, sounding like Tony Montana before his bullet-peppered body fell into the fountain, he challenged “the guts’’ of James and almost warned him not to leave the Heat. “I think everybody needs to get a grip. This stuff is hard. You’ve got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,’’ said Riley, in a strong-arm message clearly aimed at James and anyone else assuming the dethroned NBA champions are dead and gone. “You don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. This is four years now into this era, this team. Four (league) finals — it’s only been done three other times before — and two championships. From day one to the end, it was like a Broadway show. It sort of ran out of steam. And we need to retool. We don’t need to rebuild.’’
Then Riley, sounding more pompous and wounded than inspirational in tone, opined that too much was being made of three consecutive losses to the Spurs — three of the ugliest losses in NBA Finals history, by the way, a lll of which radically changed the way smart people view the Heat and their future.“We have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success,” Riley said. “Don’t think we’re not going to get beat again, so just get a grip, everybody. That’s my message. It’s my message to the players, also.”
You can criticize James for certain faults, as I have. A lack of guts is not one of his flaws. Though the move looked cowardly in some ways, it did take guts to leave Cleveland, down the road from his hometown, and absorb relentless criticism when he transferred his “talents to South Beach.’’ And Riley is fooling himself if he thinks James, recalling the summer of 2010, won’t find the first door and run again if he has a much better chance elsewhere of winning rings.
At one point during his 55-minute bleeder, Riley spoke of downing fine scotch — Jonny Walker Blue — with his wife, Chris, while listening to James Ingram’s ancient “Just Once’’ after the Heat were eliminated. He sounded kind of weird, like his world of trophy and renown was over at 69. All in all, it sounded like an ass-backwards shot at an executive version of the Jerry Maguire speech. “I’m an Irish guy who believes in big dreams,” Riley said. “I’m optimistic. Until that’s proven different, I just have a level of optimism that there isn’t a better place for players to be than Miami. I didn’t come down here 19 years ago for a quick trip to South Beach and a sun tan. I don’t think they did either. … The important thing is, we want all three to come back.’’
James knows he will be judged in history by the number of rings he wins. Right now, he’s stuck on two and, approaching 30, needs to be in a place where he can produce multiple championships in the next five years. Miami is not that place, but Los Angeles might be — with the Steve Ballmer Clippers, that is. James is tight with coach Doc Rivers and close with Paul, but there are concerns about whether Paul’s role is too large for James’ tastes. Ballmer wouldn’t hesitate paying the luxury tax for a salary-bloated, star-loaded roster if he paid $2 billion for the team, but Sterling — criticized harshly by James after his racist rant went public — must be completely out of the way before James would agree to play there. Even if Rivers refuses to include Griffin in a Miami deal, as reported, the Clippers have numerous pieces to entice Riley in a sign-and-trade scenario — big man DeAndre Jordan and scorer Jamal Crawford. It’s no secret LeBron is becoming an entertainment mogul, so why wouldn’t he want to be in Hollywood? Yes, he and his family have ties to Miami. But they had closer ties to northeast Ohio, if you recall.
It’s amazing how James can have such a dominant hold on the American sports consciousness. Not that LeBron didn’t chip his legacy during the Finals, leaving his career at another murky crossroads. Never would you hear the words he uttered before Game 5 from Earvin Johnson or Bill Russell. Never would you hear them from Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Bryant, any of the titans. Never would you hear them from Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, any of the five-time NBA champion Spurs. Nor would you hear them from any of the acclaimed competitors in all sports.
Who, on the eve of an elimination game, attempts to rationalize failure before it happens by injecting an “I-have-a-great-life’’ philosophical twist as a way of bracing for impending criticism? That is no way to inspire a team from despair, no way to answer two crushing home losses, no way to achieve all-time renown with a stunning, unprecedented comeback from a 1-3 hole in the Finals. I happen to admire James, as I’ve said repeatedly, for leading an upstanding life in the ways that count and never tarnishing his image off the court. I also respect him for winning two championships — a tidal wave that included a succession of epic James moments — and somehow living up to “The Chosen One’’ hype on the court. But I cannot accept what he said that weekend.
And you cannot put James on any basketball Mount Rushmore — the phrase he bit on when asked a few months ago — when he trots away from pressure as he did near the end of a Finals debacle that pretty much ends his “not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …’’ declaration of would-be championships in Miami.
Instead of Rushmore, try rushing to conclusions less and realizing this: LeBron is the greatest player in the game, here and now, and is every bit the “class act’’ as a human being that the victorious and unusually emotional Gregg Popovich said. But as a competitor, James belongs in no all-time pantheon. He quit on his former team, the Cavaliers, in his final postseason series against Boston in 2010. He and his agents organized an exodus to Miami, with Bosh, so he could try to create the so-called best basketball dynasty money and palm trees could buy. The Heat lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals in part because LeBron faded in certain major moments, and now, when his team needed fighting words upon returning to San Antonio, James came up with this:
“I’m in a good place in my life. It’s basketball. I understand it’s the media and the sport is the greatest sport in the world. I love it. It’s done so many great things for me, but it’s just basketball. It’s just basketball.
“Two championships helps that. It helps it, for sure. But understanding what’s important and understanding what’s not important allows me to kind of just live in the moment.’’
It’s just basketball? Really, just basketball? When LeBron succeeds, he says “the man upstairs won’t let me lose,’’ but when he loses, it’s “just basketball.’’ Do you see some spin-control b.s. in all of this?
Translation: Not by any fault of his, the team around James no longer was capable of competing against the Spurs, who mauled the Heat and exacted revenge in a five-game slaughter. He wanted it known, with subtlety, that he could live with the result — his favorite recent phrase — because his teammates weren’t up to par. But this is not something he should have acknowledged publicly before Game 5, and his stance struck a chord among those of us who’ve endured the premature push to put James in conversations with Jordan and the great players ever. Again, the Heat deteriorated suddenly in a week’s span, with Wade looking old and feeble, Bosh looking soft and defeated and pretty much everyone but James looking two steps slow and not belonging on the court with a Spurs team that meshed the elements of chemistry, character, old-school discipline, redemption and team play about as beautifully as we’ve seen in 21st-century sport. Yet by dipping into real-life perspective, James ran away from the issue at hand.
“We went to four straight finals in four years. You know, we’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish,’’ James said. “We lost one, won two, lost another. We’ll take 50 percent in four years for championships any day. Obviously, you want to win all of them. That is the nature of the game. You win some, you lose some. You have to come back the next year and be better as an individual and as a team. I know me and D-Wade and C.B. are not proud of the way we played. Everybody is going through their own emotions right now. For me, I understand the position I’ve been able to put myself and this team in. My head stays high, stays positive. But everyone is different.’’
Translation: Don’t blame me.
James and his wife a comfortable in Miami and own a juice bar near their home. Their sons are in elementary school. Still, he knows his career is being judged in large part by the number of championships he wins. He may pretend not to care, but, Lord knows, he does. And he realizes this franchise, despite Riley’s desire to have “a generational team’’ that will contend for years, is at a crossroads and may not be in position to win championships for a while.
What should he do? I’d go to L.A. and either join the Clippers or take over the Lakers as Kobe fades off. Can he do that in Miami without cap flexibility? Wade and Bosh can’t help him with his history lesson. With all due respect, they’ve served their usefulness. He needs freedom, a new kingdom.
“It’s been a hell of a ride, these four years,’’ Wade said. “When we decided to play together, we didn’t say, `OK, let’s try this for four years.’ We said let’s just play together and see what happens. We’d love to be 4 for 4. It just wasn’t in the cards.’’
Do not make the mistake of thinking I’m ripping James for another Finals defeat. He averaged 28.2 points a game, returned from The Cramp Game with a marvelous Game 2 and shut up the social media creeps. As the overmatched coach, Erik Spoelstra, conceded at the podium of the Spurs, “They played exquisite basketball this series and in particular these last three games, and they are the better team. There’s no other way to say it.’’
It’s just that I heard a concession speech from the man 24 hours before failure was official. When LeBron James decides “it’s just basketball,’’ then I’m going to decide it’s just Mount Rushmore and leave him off until further notice. My guess is, it’s more than basketball, much more.
Right now, it’s about power within the industry. Which, in the end, might be more intoxicating than a championship parade.