We all remember it. In one of the quickest moves of his career, LeBron James went from being one of the most popular NBA players to being one of the most loathed when he broke up with Cleveland via television and held a garish, dry-iced South Beach celebration before the Miami Heat had played a single game.
“The Decision” was a vile example of millennial narcissism, and you sensed that LeBron the human being regretted it as it unfolded live on ESPN. But the greater disappointment was that LeBron the athlete had revealed himself to be a star who wasn’t really up to the task of carrying a franchise on his back.
Yes, we all had recognized that his supporting cast in Cleveland wasn’t good enough to win it all, but did any fans expect LeBron to pair up with another superstar scorer (Dwyane Wade) and a third-wheel with All-Star pedigree (Chris Bosh) to feel confident about his chances?
We thought he’d go to the Bulls, who had a brilliant young point guard by the name of Derrick Rose, a deep bench of hard-nosed players, a terrific coach who’d helped the Celtics beat LeBron in several postseasons, and, of course, the huge void that been in Chicago since Michael Jordan had drifted off into to a career in business and mismanaging NBA teams.
And there was talk of the Knicks, a team that needed to rebuild around a superstar and could offer LeBron the world in the Big Apple.
Nope. LeBron didn’t want any of that. He wanted to play with his friends and he wanted success to come overnight. And he was willing to leave tens of millions of dollars on the table back in depressed, rusty, hero-craving Cleveland to have things the Burger King way—his way, right away—in the sexier, fair-weather, show-up-in-2nd-quarter sunshine of South Beach.
It was disappointing and grotesque, but it almost worked. In the 2011 playoffs, the Heat trounced the Sixers, Celtics, and Bulls (4-1 in each series) and got out to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals in the very first season of what they’d half-jokingly suggested would be a dynastic run of eight championships. But then they lost their mojo, their momentum, and the series. To most of America’s glee, the deeper and authentically-constructed Dallas Mavericks—the real team—ended up with the trophy, and the contrived, cocky Heat were relegated to the loser’s press conference table, where they admitted they weren’t quite ready to be crowned kings.
Okay. But they’ll probably win it in the their second year. It’s gotta work at some point. LeBron and Wade are too good, and superstars win championships. Sooner or later, these guys will just get it done. That’s what many of us thought. We thought that LeBron and Wade had it in them to be killers, to be Jordan-like or Kobe-like when their team needed a cold-blooded assassin or, better yet, two cold-blooded assassins. We thought they would will themselves to victory as Jordan did in the famous flu game now memorialized in a Gatorade commercial.
But have we seen that? Is that who LeBron James and Dwyane Wade really are?
Maybe that isn’t the right question. Maybe we should be wondering if either of them can effectively be The Man when the other guy is also on the court. Some of this may be about LeBron and Wade having redundant styles—slashing, exploding to the hoop, hitting jumpers, and drilling the occasional three—that complement each other in the regular season but trip each other up in the grind of 4th-quarter half-court playoff offense. Is that why LeBron scored just one measly field goal in the last eight minutes of the game, while Wade heated up? Maybe it’s not about having too many stars on the court; it’s about having too many stars at the 2 and 3 positions and nobody at the 4 or 5. You need more than one star to win it all, but you also need size. Kobe had Shaquille O’Neal and then Pau Gasol. And D-Wade borrowed Shaq to get his one and only ring in Miami. The Rockets had Hakeem Olajuwon. The Spurs had (and still have) Tim Duncan. Boston has Kevin Garnett. Maybe we’re being too hard on LeBron and Wade—who are not, after all, general managers—and not hard enough on Pat Riley, who somehow underestimated the value of having a center.
And yet we still have to address the fact that LeBron says things like this: “We played good enough to give ourselves a chance to win.” You can almost hear LeBron’s massive shoulders shrug in resignation—or apathy—as he tries to sell this weak sauce to the public. These things he says are things that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson wouldn’t think, let alone offer as some kind of defense of failure. He’s as talented as those guys were, but he doesn’t some to care about winning—to live and die for it—the way they did. It’s as if he and the “good job, good effort” kid really are cut from the same cloth. If all he wants to do is play well and take his team pretty far, well, good for him. Maybe he’s just not that into this.
Actually, I have no doubt that LeBron James will win multiple championships, whether he lacks the Jordan gene or not. If it doesn’t work this year—and I don’t think the Heat stand a chance tomorrow night—someone will put the right pieces around him sooner or later. (Rumors are already swirling about Dwyane Wade being traded for Dwight Howard.) What pleases me about LeBron’s failure so far in Miami is that it affirms the concept of the team—best exemplified by the Celtics right now—and it affirms the idea that the NBA’s stars are not yet so omnipotent that they can collude their way to championships. It ought to take some skill to build a contender, and it ought to take heart for a contender to win.
Meanwhile, it ought to take a good coach, too, and right now Erik Spoelstra looks and sounds like a guy who needs about ten more years of practice before he can even command the attention and respect of his players. Doc Rivers is taking him to the cleaners.