Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Return of The King

  When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to go to the Miami Heat four years ago I wrote about it and said how I thought it was a smart move for him professionally and that the Heat would win at least one championship with their ‘Big 3’ of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Those predictions were spot on. James was named Sports Illustrated 2012 Sportsmen of the Year and won two NBA MVP awards to go along with the Heat’s two NBA championships. While James was already a worldwide brand, the championship rings has made him even more marketable by conferring him with the status of a ‘winner’.

  In that same post I wrote four years ago, I also noted about the vitriolic response of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in which he claimed that James had quit on the team during the previous two years playoffs along with calling him a ‘deserter’ and his signing with the Heat a ‘cowardly betrayal’. Having shown such animosity and plantation owner mentality towards a player exercising his free agent rights I imagined that any top flight NBA free agent with a choice would never willingly sign with the Cavaliers as long as Gilbert owned the team and over the last four years the Cavaliers haven’t been able to attract any notable free agents although they have been very lucky to win the draft lottery three of the last four years and were able to resign Kyrie Irving, their #1 pick in the draft from 2011 and the 2014 All-Star Game MVP.

  I imagined wrong as James signed a two-year contract to rejoin the Cavaliers this week. Four years ago James’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Heat was announced in an hour long television special entitled ‘The Decision’ which was widely derided as self-serving, arrogant, and disrespectful of Cleveland. This year’s decision was announced as an essay published by Sports Illustrated which has been as widely lauded as the last decision was derided.

  How will James fare in his return to Cleveland? In his absence the team hasn’t come close to making the playoffs, even though all of their top draft picks over this abysmal period are contributing to the team except for last year’s #1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett. There is a new General Manager (David Griffin) and his first hire was to bring in a highly regarded European League coach David Blatt. Griffin and Blatt’s job description has changed from building a perennial loser to a perennial playoff team to winning a championship or at least getting to the NBA Finals. There is plenty of money to work with this year for Griffin to add another big name but next year Irving’s 90 million dollar extension kicks in and the Cavaliers will be in the position the Miami Heat were in the past few years of having to convince veteran players to play for less than their market value in the hopes of winning a championship.

  I can’t see James taking the Cavaliers to Cleveland’s first sports championship since 1948. Even though he is relatively young (he will turn 30 in December), James has been in the league for 11 years and played at least 75 of his team’s 82 games for all but one of those years. He has also played another 4 seasons worth of games competing in the playoffs and another season worth as a member of Team USA’s international competitions. He may only be 29 but I think he is an old 29.

  When LeBron’s former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade turned 30 he was still an effective player but had ceased to be an effective EVERY DAY player. He needed to take time off during the season, had nagging injuries, and wore down noticeably as the season wore on. This slowdown happens to most NBA players between the ages of 30 and 32. James’s decline won’t be nearly as noticeable as Wade’s because a) he has a good jump shot and will be able to make that more a part of his game as he ages (like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did) and b) he is a far better player than Wade and can decline and still be very close to the best player in the game. I think there is a window of two or three seasons at most where a team with LeBron James as its best player will be able to win a championship and I wouldn’t be placing my bet on the young talent in Cleveland maturing to the point where they will be a viable supporting cast. The Cavaliers are rumored to be trying to trade some of their young talent for Minnesota's All-Star forward Kevin Love which may change their championship prospects but I think Love is like the pastries at the Starbucks - looks good and costs a lot and after you buy it you wonder why you paid so much for it. In addition, as highly as David Blatt is regarded as a coach he has no NBA coaching experience and Griffin’s acumen as a General Manager has yet to be established.

  The one thing that gives me pause in my prediction of no championships for the Cavaliers is that LeBron James has proven himself to be exceptionally intelligent and driven. Thirty years ago, the New York Mets were changed from perennial doormats to championship contenders by the arrival of super talented teenagers Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. They were the toast of New York and could have had many times the endorsements of James but instead both ruined Hall of Fame careers with drugs and alcohol. James has consistently put himself in a position to be successful and capitalize on his successes. In his essay, James wrote all the right things about wanting to go back to Cleveland to being a championship to his home area of Northeast Ohio and to be an inspiration to the youth and it made me think how James doesn't get near enough credit as a role model. He hasn’t been involved in any drug problems like any number of players, there have been no gambling controversies like a Michael Jordan, love child controversies like a Shawn Kemp (among others), or DUI and wife beating issues like a Jason Kidd. Maybe he just has a great inner circle that keeps his private life very private but there is no reason to think he’s not just as his image projects him to be.

  In addition to having a sterling public image, James has proven to be a savvy businessman. For example, he reportedly made $30 million dollars when Apple bought the Beats Electronics company. Instead of taking an endorsement fee for promoting the Beats headphones, James took a small stake in the company instead and is reaping the rewards. He is well on his way to being a billionaire and I wonder if there is an inside deal in place for him to own a piece of the Cavaliers as consideration for his return. I think there just has to be something more involved for him to work for the owner who made such vile comments about him. Ostensibly, the reason James only signed a two year contract for 41 million dollars instead of the maximum four year deal is that the NBA will sign a new TV contract in two years and the salary cap will increase, allowing James to receive an even bigger contract. I think the secondary reason for the short term contract is so James can exert maximum leverage in the operation of the team and can get out of town if management becomes satisfied with their profits from ticket, luxury box, and merchandise sales to the extent that they decide not to jeopardize their bottom line by signing top talent of not wanting to pay the luxury tax to keep their young talent.

No comments: