The kid from Akron, Ohio — just 39 miles outside of Cleveland — left his hometown team in the dust, announcing he would join the Miami Heat via the live and much-maligned ESPN special The Decision.
James was destroyed on social media and by most NBA fans for the manner in which he embarrassed the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland. He deserved it. It was an immature, look-at-me act carried out by an immature, look-at-me 25-year-old LeBron James.
But the decision itself — to leave Cleveland for a better situation in Miami — was nearly impossible to objectively criticize.
Over the course of eight long years, general manager Danny Ferry failed to ever surround James with a formidable supporting cast. (My apologies go out to Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the 38-year old, slowing-down Shaquille O’Neal — you weren’t quite enough.)
So, James chose to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two stars whom he knew could serve as his own Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
What James did not know, however, was that just four years after The Decision and just four years after his “not one, not two, not three…” spiel at the Big Three’s coronation party (another heavily mocked and condemned incident), he would be experiencing 2010 all over again.
James, today, is again without a supporting cast. Dwyane Wade is no longer DWYANE WADE, is no longer Flash. He couldn’t physically keep up throughout the NBA Finals. He was worn out, even after playing only 58 regular season games. Chris Bosh, following an inconsistent postseason that culminated with a 14 points per game NBA Finals, is teetering away from star status.
Some might go as far as to argue that the 2013-14 Miami Heat were even worse than James’ Cavaliers teams.
As was pointed out by Deadspin earlier this week, Miami’s seven best players (excluding LeBron) had a combined Game Score (a statistic created by John Hollinger derived from his Player Efficiency Rating) of just 36.6 in the 2014 Finals, worse than the 42.2 combined Game Score of Cleveland’s seven best players (again excluding LeBron) during the 2007 Finals.
After appearing evenly matched with the Spurs through Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, the Heat were shot off the court in three straight losses — even with James averaging 27 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and shooting 56 percent from the field in those three games.
Like he did in 2010 after the Cavs’ Game 6 Conference Semis loss to the Celtics in Boston, James walked off San Antonio’s court after Sunday’s Game 5 unsure of his future. His long, hard pause when asked during his postgame press conference if he could envision leaving Miami was the only evidence I needed. James is far from certain that he will be wearing a Heat uniform next season and beyond.
He knows that this summer will likely come down to The Decision, Part II.
With one year left on his contract, James has three options: He can opt-out and become a free agent, he can sign an extension with the Heat, or he can opt-in and become a free agent next summer.
The last of those three options — opting-in, playing one more season with the Heat and delaying his free agency until July 2015 — is arguably the most lucrative.
The Knicks and the Heat will each have more cap space next summer, while James would get another year to assess the situation in Cleveland with the Cavaliers, who could prove to be more of an attractive destination after they add the 2014 No. 1 overall pick to an already-talented roster.
But, at age 29, James isn’t at a stage of his career where he can afford to waste a season. Play for this Heat team next year and he would be doing just that: wasting a season. Unless Miami can seriously retool its roster this offseason, the Heat aren’t winning the 2015 NBA Finals, with or without LeBron James. The best teams in the West — not only the Spurs, but also the Clippers and Thunder — are too strong and are only getting better.
That’s why I, for one, feel that LeBron’s decision to either stay in South Beach or to leave South Beach should ultimately boil down to one thing: Carmelo Anthony’s own free agency decision.
Anthony — another player who can opt-out of the final year of his contract (in his case, with the Knicks) and become a free agent this summer — is reportedly leaning towards leaving New York. Several other media reports have indicated that Anthony and James would like to play with each other, while Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported last week that the Heat will pursue signing Anthony in free agency.
If Bosh, Wade, and LeBron all opt-out this summer (Bosh and Wade, like ‘Melo and LeBron, have opt-out clauses) and re-sign with Miami while each taking decent-sized pay cuts, the Heat would generate the cap space needed to bring in Anthony.
‘Melo is exactly what Miami needs. The Heat struggled mightily during the 2014 Finals to find offense outside of LeBron. Anthony, arguably the league’s purest scorer, will change that.
I’ll be the first to admit it: Anthony will never win a title as the number one option. He doesn’t do enough to make his teammates better, he often has lapses defensively, and he lacks leadership intangibles.
But, team up ‘Melo and LeBron, and I believe the Heat will have one of the greatest duos in NBA history.
Anthony can score in a number of ways, but he’s especially lethal on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Last season on catch-and-shoot field goals (defined on NBA.com as “any jump shot outside of 10 feet where a player possessed the ball for 2 seconds or less and took no dribbles), he shot 46.3 percent — good for third-best among players who scored at least 6.0 points per game on catch-and-shoot field goals. Just for some perspective, that mark was significantly better than his 40.3 percent shooting on pull-up field goals (“any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting”).
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better potential Robin than Carmelo to LeBron’s Batman. LeBron, even as a former scoring champion, is a pass-first offensive player. He would thrive at finding Anthony in his sweet spots, and Anthony would thrive at feeding off of LeBron’s point guard tendencies.
All of this means nothing, however, if the Heat don’t sign Anthony. And, at this point, it’s still a long shot — not only will it require a lot of unselfishness from Miami’s Big Three and a lot of shrewdness on the part of Pat Riley, but it will also require Phil Jackson and Daryl Morey (the Rockets’ general manager) both striking out on Anthony.
So, what if the Heat don’t get Anthony? Then what for LeBron?
I have a simple solution: Get out.
Yes, out of Miami and, yes, he should do it this offseason.
LeBron, even after losing the 2014 Finals, still has a legitimate chance to catch Michael Jordan and become the greatest player of all time. He has more league MVPs than Jordan did at age 29 and has the same number of championships and Finals MVPs that Jordan had at age 29. I don’t doubt that LeBron can win four or five more titles and four or five more Finals MVPs and thus surpass Jordan, but like every superstar ever, he’s going to need at least some help — help that he won’t get in Miami if Carmelo is elsewhere.
Sure, the pundits will point out that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan each won all of their championships without bouncing around the league, but those same pundits will fail to mention that those three were each drafted into perfect organizations and were given the perfect teammates and the perfect head coach. LeBron doesn’t have those luxuries.
LeBron can’t worry about what his critics say or what his critics will say. He needs to do what’s best for himself and for his career, not what’s best for his image.
Maybe that means rejoining the Cavaliers this summer and making amends with the city of Cleveland by chasing championships with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, and eventually either Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid.
Or maybe it means signing with the Houston Rockets and creating a new Big Three, this time with Dwight Howard and James Harden — two fellow All-Stars whom I believe James would dominate the Western Conference with.
Or perhaps it means taking his talents to Hollywood and joining the Clippers, where he could play with Blake Griffin and his close friend Chris Paul and where he could play for Doc Rivers. The Clippers don’t currently have enough cap space to sign LeBron, but as Bill Simmons detailed on Twitter this week, they could create cap space by trading DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, and Jared Dudley.
All three of those potential landing spots (and perhaps a few others) would almost certainly give LeBron a better chance to win than he would have in a Carmelo Anthony-less Miami. But don’t tell that to Pat Riley.
On Thursday, Riley dared his Heat players to “have the guts” to not run from Miami. It seemed as if he were speaking directly to LeBron.
Well, LeBron, here’s another dare: I dare you to “have the guts” to shove aside Riley’s comments. Ignore them. Instead, “have the guts” to put yourself in the best possible situation moving forward.
And unless Carmelo Anthony-to-the-Heat is in the works, that situation will no longer be in Miami.