The following was originally written on May 13th, 2010, shortly before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. Boston went on to win the series-clinching game 94-85.
Recent headlines have been dominated by the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff frustrations, and more specifically, on the heretofore unseen mediocre play by franchise linchpin LeBron James. Mainstream media outlets have offered numerous explanations, justifications, and critiques of James’ play, yet none have placed these interpretations within a broader historical context. Such context is necessary for both understanding current events and providing Cavaliers partisans with a plan for future action. After providing an ample historical backdrop, the author argues that, vis a vis this year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, LeBron James has manifestly failed to meet expectations that he himself built up. Cavaliers fans should thus abandon their previous Utopian Lebronian worldviews in lieu of what cold war strategist George Kennan would call realpolitik.
Research for this paper has been conducted primarily online. John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog is a worthy read for any Clevelander, and has significantly bolstered the author’s understanding of the team’s tactical stratagems. Brian Windhorst has followed LeBron James since his freshman year of high school; his blog on the website of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is thus essential for any individual striving to understand the motivations of James or the inner workings of the Cavs’ locker room. While the author has a tremendous amount of respect for fellow Plain Dealer sports writer Terry Pluto, his musings tend to be narrated box scores more than analysis, thus, his influence over this paper is absent.
While the author does not seek to make the oft stated yet absurd claim of being unbiased, sources from Cavs-neutral parties have been heavily consulted, and often, relied upon more than their Cleveland counterparts. ESPN’s John Hollinger is perhaps the most erudite NBA writer in the world, and excels at making complex mathematically-based arguments accessible to even novice statisticians. TrueHoop, also sponsored by ESPN, features a panoply of basketball scribes covering all 31 teams. It has been indispensable in providing the author’s often Cleveland-centric sports view more grounded in league-wide affairs. Finally, the author has regularly drawn upon the acrid humor of the blog Basketbawful to ground his sometimes inflated views of the Cavaliers.
One cannot accurately comprehend current goings on without fully realizing the depth and breadth of past Cleveland sports maladies. Clevelanders have experienced both prolonged, agonizing failures as well as sharp, acute disappointments.
Despite possessing teams in each of the “Big Three” professional sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA), Cleveland has not won a major sports title since the Browns took home the NFL Championship in 1964. The Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl (which was created in 1967), and following one of the more successful stretches for the team, then-owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore at the conclusion of the 1995/96 season. Since resurfacing in 1999, the Browns have never won their division and have only made the playoffs once (a Wild Card round loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers). Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise has fared even worse. The Indians’ last championship (1948) was won during the Truman administration; the team has only appeared in the World Series three additional times (1954, 1995, 1997). Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the team was annually considered one of the worst in baseball; a brief flirtation with contention from 1995-2001 removed the team from the league’s cellar but has seen only one playoff appearance (2007) since. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers experienced only one period of extended winning (1987-1993) before James’ arrival; even then, they served more as a doormat to Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams than as an actual championship contender.
When Cleveland has fielded competitive teams, they have ultimately faltered when it mattered most. Trailing 12-14 in a 1981 AFC divisional playoff game, the Browns called a pass play designated “Red Right 88”, despite needing only a field goal to win the game. The subsequent pass was intercepted, ruining what had been the team’s best chance at a Super Bowl in a relatively weak playoff field. In the 1987 AFC Championship, the Browns blew a late three point lead by allowing Broncos quarterback John Elway to march his team 97 yards down the field. “The Drive” would forever be enshrined in football and pop culture lore, even earning a cameo in the critically acclaimed 2010 film “Hot Tub Time Machine”. “The Drive” was a gash that the team would not recover from for over a decade; some scholars have argued it was the singular event that caused the franchise’s exodus to Baltimore. Nevertheless, the newest iteration of the team provided similarly awful performances in the rare circumstances which lent importance: after amassing a 33-21 lead with four minutes left in a 2002 Wild Card game, the Browns lost 36-33 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Abject failure, while consistent throughout the Indians history, was typified by two occurrences. The first was in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, in which Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez botched a routine ground ball in the bottom of the eleventh inning, ultimately allowing the Marlins to take the game and the series. The second occurred in a trio of 2007 American League Championship games. Armed with a 3-1 series lead, needing only one win, and with the top of their vaunted starting rotation due up, the Tribe lost three straight contests to the Boston Red Sox behind abysmal pitching performances. Finally, of all of the stinging gashes inflicted upon Cleveland teams, the goriest was delivered by a man who LeBron James has sought to emulate: Michael Jordan. The subject of Nike and Gatorade commercials, “The Shot” fell a talented 1989 Cavaliers squad with championship aspirations in one fatal moment.
The city itself was once viewed as an indestructible industrial powerhouse supplemented by world class law practices and hospitals. This reality was shattered by the mid-1990s. Manufacturing jobs went overseas as a result of an increasingly globalized economy, leaving once bustling automobile factories and parts warehouses vacant. Massive urban squalor followed, as Cleveland entered an almost permanent recession that was totally unaffected by the dot com and housing booms. At a time when residents needed the distraction of professional sports as solace, even this escape became a further reminder of their misery.
RISE TO POWER
It was against this dreadful history that King James began his ascendancy to the pulpit of NBA superstardom. At age 18, James arrived in Cleveland not as the missing piece but as the only piece. One could have hardly faulted him for wilting under such immense pressure and with so little, save his own abilities, at his disposal. Yet LeBron James thrived as few ever have in the NBA. In the face of enormous expectations, LeBron shattered them all. Oddsmakers and pundits seemingly could not set the bar high enough for James in terms of individual accolades.
In the 2005/2006 season, the Cavaliers returned to the playoffs on the broad shoulders of James, who posted an otherworldly 28.17 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) on his way to becoming the youngest player ever named to the All-NBA first team. He then led a starting five rounded out by Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to a first round victory over Washington and a near upset of the vaunted Detroit Pistons. The following year, James again led the Cavaliers against Detroit, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. Stellar play from their devoted superstar kept the Cavs competitive in the series; when things looked grim in Game 5, James responded by scoring his team’s final 25 points en-route to a 109-107 victory.
Similar performances followed his Herculean Game 5 as a now familiar pattern emerged. LeBron carried the scoring and playmaking load for most games. When his teammates were unable to provide even peripheral contributions, James doggedly dominated games by himself, or, as was the case in the 2007 NBA Finals, nearly collapsed attempting to do so. He was the ultimate rarity in professional sports: the team’s most talented player and hardest worker. When the punditry asked James about his glaring lack of help, he was quick to point out his own shortcomings. He could have hit one more shot, made another pass, chased down another loose ball…this was always LeBron’s mantra. Reporters needn’t point out that the Cavs starting point guard was perhaps the worst in the league, or that shooting guard Larry Hughes was playoff kryptonite. These facts were as innate to basketball fans as the Pythagorean theorem is to an architect. In a hard working city that was down on its luck, here was a man fully entitled to make excuses and abrogate responsibility. Instead, he publicly protected his teammates’ reputations and privately worked harder to improve every minor blemish in his game.
As LeBron honed his jump shot, Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry navigated through the league’s salary cap as best he could; by the start of the 2009/2010 season, he had finally managed to assemble a team around James that a plurality of experts felt would win the NBA title. Gone were the mercurial Hughes and talentless Snow; in was a cadre of grizzled veterans (Shaquille O’Neal, Antawn Jamison) and athletic perimeter players (Mo Williams, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Delonte West) capable of carrying the scoring load and spelling James on defense. The crushing disappointment of the 2009 conference finals was not forgotten; James assured fans that this would only further the team’s collective sense of urgency. (Ironically, it was his unwillingness to re-sign with Cleveland that both created this urgency and collection of veterans while simultaneously disallowing organic growth, and thus a true second superstar to accompany him.)
LeBron kept his word during a 61 win regular season and a near first round sweep of the Bulls. As the playoffs started, James made it evident to all that the laxity of years past would be no more. Joviality during the pregame warm-up routine was replaced with stoical seriousness. James refused to give his usual lengthy postgame interviews; any quotes that did emerge concerned themselves with one singular goal: a championship. Basketball scholars felt that things were going perfectly to plan for Cleveland, especially given Los Angeles’ first round struggles against Oklahoma City.
IT’S THE EFFORT, STUPID
Historians will long debate the time line of thoughts and events leading to Game 2 of the Cavaliers’ series against the Boston Celtics. What the author feels they will not debate is one fact: that LeBron James mentally vacated Cleveland before officially opting out of his contract.
On the night of May 11th, 2010, the world witnessed a first: LeBron James gave less than his best effort in a playoff basketball game.
Basketball intelligentsia have long realized that, even among the most talented players and controlled, results are often discordant with performance. Napoleon once said, “I do not want a good general. I want a lucky one.” The statement was a testament to how little humans control in warfare, and it remains true for basketball and the bulk of human affairs as well. Just as Napoleon’s crack troops could lose at Waterloo, so too could James and the Cavs lose to the Celtics because of an unyielding rim. In spite of what Knicks fans may believe, Clevelanders are wise enough to realize this fundamental law. Had LeBron James’ poor performance been the result of bad luck, or even well-intentioned failure, the city would have embraced him, for this was the tragic hero that they could have identified with. Cleveland, for all of its shortcomings, is also well aware of what it means to fail amid torrid effort. While the city had placed great expectations on LeBron, it also had an undying affinity for him.
What incensed Cavs fans was not the result of Game 2 (or Game 5), it was the blatant lack of effort and concern displayed. As previous sections touched on, LeBron had previously been the emotional leader of the team. It was known that as long as James was in the game, he would give all of the blood, toil, sweat, and tears that he could. One cannot ascribe blame, as ESPN’s Chad Ford has, to Clevelanders for becoming upset when the leader in whom so much was invested failed to even try. Based on James’ previous history and recent promises, they would be ignorant to react any other way.
One other credible theory has been proposed by Hollinger: LeBron’s elbow is more seriously injured than previously thought. Hollinger uses James’ lack of shooting touch (1-11 on outside shots in Game 5, of which almost every one was short of the hoop) and aggressiveness as proof for his hypothesis. Furthermore, if LeBron was seriously hurt, it is logical to assume that he and the organization would do everything possible to mask the injury, so as to prevent teams from attacking him.
The author’s counter to the injury argument is twofold. First, lack of shooting touch can be explained by lack of effort; that James fell short on most jumpers makes sense given that he was falling away from almost every shot he took. If a player as knowledgeable as James was truly hurt and still trying hard, it is fair to assume him capable of making a simple adjustment, such as stepping into shots to provide the range that is otherwise lost because of his ailing elbow. (Logically, this does not preclude the possibility that he is hurt, but it does prove that he is not expending a reasonable amount of effort.) Secondly, the injury does nothing to explain James’ melancholy demeanor on and off the court, unless he claims to have a sprained larynx as well. As any observer of LeBron’s recent egotistical, excuse-laden postgame sermons can tell, it is safe to assume that his vocal chords are all too functional.
ROADMAP FOR THE FUTURE
Cavaliers fans may be want to display their justifiable frustration with James. If they truly care for their own self-interest, they will not do so. Instead, the author urges Cavs fans to practice the doctrine of realpolitik, in which one formulates action plans solely to advance their own interests, leaving by the wayside purported moral obligations or emotional misgivings. Such a Machiavellian mantra is not always ideal; indeed, selflessness that is antithetical to realpolitik often serves to advance the interests of humanity as a whole. Given current circumstances, however, Machiavelli must trump morals.
The first step of enacting realpolitik is formulating an honest worldview, to see things as they are rather than what we wish them to be. Clevelanders want this recent episode to be an aberration. It is probably not. However, Cleveland is still dependent on LeBron to win a title. In the (however unlikely) case that James is still considering re-signing with the Cavs, fans must avoid booing him and the team, as this likely lessens said odds. Jeering LeBron might feel good, but such venting, even if the emotionally honest decision, is not the self-interested one. Additionally, in the case that James does leave, booing a superstar will only make an already unattractive city less so for potential free agents. The narrative must be controlled by Cleveland: the disinterested superstar who betrays his adoring fans, not the hardworking phenom who, after one bad series, is castigated by “fairweather” followers. Years down the road, Cavs fans should be a selling point, not a blemish, in the team’s sales pitch to a prospective star.
The second step is preparing oneself for James’ inevitable departure. Deniers of this possibility are setting themselves up for significant disappointment; this may, in turn, lead to permanent disinterest in professional basketball. It is instead better for Cleveland sports fans to face their fears and picture Quicken Loans Arena without number 23. One can imagine certain joys associated with a James-less team (even if James’ presence is much, much preferred): watching contests without worrying if teammates are angering LeBron, being able to grow a team organically through the draft, as Oklahoma City has with Durant, Westbrook, and Green rather than patching together overpaid free agents.
It is evident that LeBron James no longer wishes to be a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. When this decision was made is anyone’s guess, but the author finds recent events too compelling to believe any other hypothesis. In truth, while LeBron has expended much effort in certain games, his nihilistic demeanor has remained a constant throughout the series. This is not the messianic superstar who was at one time ready to save Cleveland; this is a man who has already planned his departure.
Presidential scholar Michael Genovese once likened the American presidency to having to constantly choose from a menu in which the choices are bad, worse, and worst. Due largely to LeBron James’ reprehensible lack of effort, Clevelanders now find themselves in a similar situation, albeit with far less gravitas. The author hopes that the Mistake By the Lake emerges unscathed; reality is likely to be different.