Thank you very much, best of luck in the future and goodbye, this time for good!
Those three phrases just about sum up my varying reactions to the Sunday night news, not at all unexpected, that LeBron James will leave the Cavaliers — again — to sign a contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unlike 2010, when “The Decision” to go to Miami was handled so poorly, pompously and narcissistically, this move was handled quickly, professionally and, as much as possible when such an emotional matter for so many is involved, as painlessly as possible.
James agreed to an estimated four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers, while the Cavs, with whom he spent 11 of his first 15 seasons, could have given him five years at roughly $207 million. The agreement will become official Friday.
Some — even many — of you might feel differently, but this time I can’t really fault James for heading to the Lakers, who offered better young players, more roster flexibility and tons more salary cap space than the luxury tax-strapped Cavs, who are unlikely to make the playoffs — and almost certain to do nothing in them even if they are lucky enough to qualify — without him.
James is at least partly responsible for the Cavs’ current discombobulated roster state. I’ll get back to that a bit later, but not before first thanking him for finally delivering a championship to title-starved Cleveland.
In that sense, the 33-year-old kid from Akron made good on his promise, and for that the ever-shrinking professional sports fan that remains in me will be eternally grateful.
James also delivered three other Finals trips in his second stint with the Cavs, another in 2007 in his first-go round in Cleveland and thousands of highlights and memorable moments in his time here.
Those won’t be forgotten, at least by me, now that he will be playing in Los Angeles. Never, ever, ever. Nor will the class he displayed — for the vast majority of his career — in his years here.
I still remember the first time I interviewed James as a Cav. It was the summer of 2003. He was 18, I was an already-grumpy 42 and a meeting was arranged for the media at an upstairs court at Quicken Loans Arena.
It did not start promptly, an annoying professional trend I and many others would endure throughout James’ time with the Cavs. As media members are prone to do — and I am especially prone to do — I started moaning and complaining about wasting all this time waiting to talk to a kid just out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
When James finally arrived, he first talked to coach Paul Silas and then proceeded to hoist some free throws while Silas, never a good shooter, offered tips. Meanwhile, about 100 of us, with notebooks, tape recorders and/or cameras in hand, waited.
Then James finally joined us. And wowed us. He was so friendly, cooperative, seasoned, professional and insightful that even the most jaded among us quickly forgot the long wait.
I remember leaving The Q that day thinking, “This is going to be fun,” and it was. For seven years, then a four-year hiatus, then four more years when he returned, James was, quite simply, the best interview around when it came to professional sports in Cleveland, if not the entire country.
Punctuality remained a problem, of course, but the guy rarely disappointed. I didn’t always agree with what he said, but the guy definitely had — and still has — the “it” factor.
Not only that, he knew the game, he knew the league and he knew what was going on in the world. Best of all, he talked about all those things, fully aware there were many people who would have vastly disparate views.
None of this would have truly mattered if he weren’t just as good — if not better — on the court. Without him, Northeast Ohio still wouldn’t have a major pro sports title since the 1964 Browns. Heck, without him, the Cavs still wouldn’t have a Finals appearance, let alone five of them.
The best player of all time? Unlike many, I’ve never gone that far, and I still won’t. But I will say James is in the discussion, along with Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, whose repeated inability to beat the Boston Celtics must not exclude him from the conversation if James is to be included in it.
James’ career — I vowed to never again refer to him as “The King” or “The Chosen One” when he returned in 2014 — is not over by a long shot, so there’s a chance he may end up No. 1 on most everyone’s list by the time he retires.
But he’s now part of the Lakers, and though I wish him no personal ill will and the best of luck in pursuit of whatever it is he will be chasing in Los Angeles, here’s hoping the Cavs chapter of his professional basketball career is over.
The one way I would change this view is if LeBron Jr. got drafted by the Cavs in 2024 and James, who would be 39 when that season started and 40 when it ended, got to play one season with his son. That’s a long-shot, down-the-road, time-heals, feel-good story even my jaded self couldn’t pass up.
That aside, James already got his one do-over in these parts, and unless LeBron Jr. is somehow involved, he should never, ever get another. I don’t say this because James vowed to end his career with the Cavs in the essay he penned with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in 2014 — I truly believe he meant that at the time — but simply because there comes a time when all things, even when mostly good, must come to an end.
For better or worse, and it will certainly be for the worse when it comes to the Cavs’ immediate future, we are at that time.
James delivered one title in 11 years with the Cavs and has three overall in 15 seasons, one of which wouldn’t have happened if Ray Allen hadn’t saved the Heat in Game 6 in 2013 vs. San Antonio, another of which, in 2016 vs. Golden State, might not have occurred were it not for Draymond Green’s suspension and Kyrie Irving’s 3-pointer (as well as the James block that preceded it, of course).
We can play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game all day, but my point is that’s a far cry from the “not one, not two, not three, not four” titles James vowed to win with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in that still despicable introduction in Miami eight years ago.
And while eight straight and nine NBA Finals appearances overall are nothing to sneeze at — I’ve always strongly maintained that it’s better to get to the Finals and lose than to not reach them at all — James must take some responsibility for not winning more titles.
The 2007 sweep of the Cavs by vastly superior San Antonio, the 2015 loss to Golden State without Kevin Love and then Irving and the 2018 defeat to the Warriors can be excused, but let’s be brutally honest here (without even going into that mysterious, still unexplained elbow injury against Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals): James wasn’t always — or even often — the easiest player to build a team around, coach or even play with.
This was particularly true in his second stint with the Cavs, when the win-right-now mentality was driven by the series of short-term contracts James signed, forcing us to endure the past-their-prime careers of Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, James Jones, Richard Jefferson, Anderson Varejao, Jose Calderon and Kyle Korver, to name just a few.
On the floor, James was truly magnificent most of the time, except for the one or two times — almost every game — when he failed to make any attempt to get back on defense and the repeated times he dribbled the life out of the basketball while four teammates stood and watched.
The former didn’t go unnoticed by Cavs coaches, but what were they supposed to do, exactly? Yell at him or bench him and risk alienating him? Perhaps that would have worked, but James wielded so much power — and there are numerous people in the organization to blame for that — it probably only would have made matters worse.
As for the dribbling, particularly at the end of close games, or simply holding the ball in a spot while the shot clock ticked down, that resulted in a number of thrilling victories, but it also led to some losses that could have been avoided.
For all his on-court intelligence and basketball greatness and dominance, James never totally got this. Nor did he understand how annoying it got when he repeatedly yelled at teammates for blowing defensive assignments while doing the same thing himself.
If you’re going to hold others accountable, if you’re going to preach about the importance of basketball IQ, as James so often did in the 2018 postseason, you must first look at yourself, you must first make smart decisions of your own.
When you factor in things like that mysterious elbow injury and Game 5 performance vs. Boston in 2010, “The Decision” that followed it — even the attention-grabbing 2014 essay announcing his return to Cleveland and the showing up at the postgame news conference with a brace or soft cast on his right hand following the Warriors’ sweep this year — the look-at-me, narcissistic moments became taxing over time.
For me — and I think this will be the case for many others once the initial hurt wears off for a second time — none of that outweighs James’ true greatness on the court, the championship he brought to Northeast Ohio, the thousands of thrills he provided in 11 years with the Cavs and all the great things he’s done and continues to do off the court.
There does, however, come a time when you — or at least I — have to say thank you very much, good luck in the future and goodbye, this time for good!
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.
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