LeBron James is the greatest athletic spectacle in the world today. Unfortunately for him, that has placed his game in the crosshairs of overanalysis and debate since he was drafted in 2003.
For much of his career, he has exceeded expectations--averaging 20-5-5 as a rookie, winning 50+ games in his third season, reaching the NBA Finals as a 22-year-old.
Now, at 25 years old, LeBron can no longer exceed expectations. The literal world is expected of him. He spent the first five years of his career carrying misfits and experimental additions as far as he possibly could. Now he leads a veteran bunch that, while the best teammates he's had, offers him absolutely no future, to even see where his place in history will be by 30.
In my opinion, other than this guy, and LeBron's own desire to become a global icon superseding his ambitions in NBA achievements, the major culprit in LeBron's failure to win a championship--last year, this year, and any year in the future--has been Cleveland's perpetual "WIN NOW" mentality.
No one seemed to notice, but every two years or so in LeBron's seven-year career, his team goes through a complete makeover. The only teammates he's seen survive more than one of such makeovers are Big Z and Anderson Varejao. Everyone else on the team has been there for four years or less (and it would be two years or less if we weren't accomodating Boobie Gibson, the 12th man!). Everyone.
Do you know what that means? After 3 seasons in Seattle/OKC, Kevin Durant has as many teammates that have three years of chemistry with him (Jeff Green, Nick Collison) as LeBron does. And what's worse? All the talent on LeBron's team is 27 and older, while Durant's starting 5 featured two 21-year-olds, a 23-year-old, a 25-year-old, and at times a 20-year-old center.
The Thunder plan to patiently build a champion, in a mold I have never seen so intentionally attempted--of the '90s-era Bulls. Rather than trading picks away and surrounding Durant with an older team that could win 50 games that year, they surrounded him with hard-working, high character, talent. Right now, in only year 3 of the experiment that has gone so well, the Thunder are legitimately 1 or 2 pieces from contending for a championship...for the next decade. Meanwhile, LeBron was able to accumulate the best record in the league the past two seasons, but with a team that lacks talent, chemistry, and any sort of future.
So now, as we are potentially a nightfall from witnessing a series-closing loss in Boston, I can't help but wonder a few things about the Cavs decision-making. Of course, Year 1 of the Shaquille O'Neal era (can we call it an era if we know it's only gonna last a season?) seems to continue this same disastrous train of thought for LeBron's career.
What if the Thunder plan had been used over the past 7 years of LeBron's career? What if in 2004 they'd drafted Al Jefferson or Josh/JR Smith instead of Luke Jackson, the shooter you MAYBE draft 29th when you're a playoff team, but not 10th when you aren't?
What if Sasha Pavlovic wasn't worth their 2005 first round pick in 2004? What if they'd kept that 13th pick? What if LeBron had been running with Danny Granger for the last 6 years?
What if Jiri Welsch wasn't worth their 2007 first round pick in 2005? What if they'd just waited and gotten the player chosen with that pick, Rudy Fernandez? Or two picks later, Aaron Brooks?
What if they hadn't cut Kelenna Azubuike in 2005? They traded FOR Sasha Pavlovic, and CUT Azubuike.
What if the time spent experimenting on backcourts with Lucious Harris, Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Jeff McInnis, Devin Brown, and Mateen Cleaves was used to develop some young guards, maybe with size or speed, to play with LeBron? Heck, what if they'd given Shannon Brown a friggin chance after they drafted him in 2006?!
Let's not even start on the frontcourt that included Zendon Hamilton, Lorenzen Wright, Jake Tsakalidis, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, Jahidi White, Jerome Moiso, and the incomparably old Scott Williams!
Of course hindsight is 20/20. Of course it is. But the fact is...you're playing with house money. You've got the most gifted athlete, possibly in the world today. He's playing for his home crowd. He doesn't have any logical reasons to abandon your team. He's 18, 19, 20 years old. What's the problem with being at least a bit patient?
Why not find some top-notch scouts, look for talented young players, see what works with LeBron, and go with it? THE STANDS WILL STILL BE FULL. As we saw with Oklahoma City this season, a team that works hard and has young legs is enough to remain competitive every night. Maybe their mistake was in judging all young players based on Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, and choosing to abandon athleticism and talent for the more predictable maturity and experience.
As for LeBron's killer instinct, I think there has been a great degree of overreaction. LeBron plays hard every night he suits up, which at this point is more than 90 times in the past 7 months. He's done this for the last seven years, so unfortunately, I think he knows better than we do when his team has it, and when they don't. I think he's a guy who sees that his team doesn't have it. He knows what it takes, he's hit the brick wall of the Spurs and Celtics before, so he knows what a champion looks like. Last year he averaged 39-8-8 and was eliminated from the East Finals. This year he's injured, plus his old team got a year older. I don't know that he believes in this team.
Does that translate into him leaving next season? Quite frankly, I don't think there are any clues to be read into at this point. Either he will leave or he won't. What I do think, though, is...he'd be crazy not to at least take a look at New Jersey and Chicago. We know about Noah and Rose for the Bulls, but with the Nets, they've got a billionaire owner (remember: "Global Icon?"), a major market, a new stadium, a top-3 pick in the draft (John Wall?), a stud center, a boatload of young talent, a solid amount of cap space, and possibly Devin Harris as trade bait.
His alternative is to let his career remain in the hands of Coach Mike Brown and his panicked rotations and Danny Ferry, who hasn't met a washed-up veteran he wouldn't sign. And Cleveland...we've already seen how hard that is to sell, it's a lot more this... than this.
Good luck, LeBron. Go ahead, put in your 39-8-8 again so that everyone else can be happy...as you go home way too early for yet another year in your career.