Like it or not, LeBron James' 'Decision' is all part of the plan, and it's working


James_numberone.pngWhen word broke that LeBron James would be announcing his decision regarding the biggest free agency signing in NBA history in a one-hour special on ESPN, the criticism exploded the internet like Brazil going down in flames did to Twitter.

Everyone and their mother wants to point out LeBron’s ego, his unfathomable self-concept bent out of control. The word “ridiculous” has been used about a zillion times along with other nastier words. James is construed as being overly self-important by the same people who have posted thousands of stories over the last week about him. Believe me. I’m one of them.

And I’m here to tell you that James’ decision surely strikes of arrogance. And it strikes of super-ego and not in the Freudian sense. It reeks of a media culture gone overboard, having lost any sense of perspective or rationale, and it cries out a desperate need for attention from one of the most powerful men in sports.

I’m also here to tell you it’s genius. And that it’s exactly what LeBron James should do.

Recognize that the people who are saying they won’t watch this debacle, who are filled with outrage over James’ little dog and pony show? James doesn’t need them. Doesn’t care about them. They’re going to follow what he does anyway. He’s already got them. These are sports fans and media who are dialed into the NBA. They know enough about James to dislike the way he chews his nails on the sideline or his mannerisms in interviews.

You know how they know those things to dislike them? They watch him. All the time. They’re immersed in sports media. And so those people have nothing James is trying to reach. They are not his target with this. If they were, he’d simply release a statement or leak it to the most convenient reporter, many of whom are currently criticizing him but would beat their own mother with a roll of quarters in a sock to get word of what jersey James is rocking next season.

He’s got no use for us, because he already has us.

But you know what he does have use for? Everybody else.

James has often had the term “global icon” tied back to his business goals and branding image. It’s a strong term and one that has a lot tied to it. It’s difficult for a sports entity to reach that kind of level, especially in a day and age where things live and die in a matter of months (the Jonas Brothers were a really big deal two years ago; cower in fear Justin Bieber). Athletes have an even more difficult row to hoe. Most of the brand expansion opportunities are controlled by their team, by their league, by the networks that air the games they play in. They don’t have that much power on their own. But James and his team have recognized this moment and are using it as a launchpad that will directly put them on another level with the people that matter most. Casual sports fans.

Thursday night, in the middle of the NBA offseason when nothing is really going on in the actual sport, 90% of all sports bar televisions will be turned on LeBron James. In Kansas City, Missouri, a local bar called Lew’s is having a “LeBron James Watch Party.”

There is no NBA team in Kansas City. Nor in St. Louis, or anywhere close to nearby until you hit Oklahoma City.

That’s how much impact James’ event is having.

Try and imagine tomorrow night, as all across America, all across the world televisions are flipped to ‘LeBron James Presents: The LeBron James Show! Starring: LeBron James!” People who don’t even normally watch the NBA, who didn’t catch a lick of the Eastern Conference Semifinals will be seeing his face everywhere. Everyone will be betting on where he goes, talking about his personality, even discussing how ridiculous the event is, even as they keep watching. Boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, spouses, brothers, sisters, business associates of people that want to watch will all get caught up in it, even for the hour. He’s the most famous person in America tomorrow night. Think about that.

You know who doesn’t care if something is a complete circus? The ringmaster. Because he’s counting your hard-earned bills after you’re done staring at the Bearded Lady.

The show is being sponsored by Vitamin Water, McDonalds, and Nike. That’s the kind of push he’s getting. Yes, those are all James sponsors. But you don’t think Burger King, Red Bull, or Reebok wouldn’t have jumped through fire to get spots? He’s donating the proceeds to charity, which means that when it plays to the casual fan, it softens the blow. Sure, bloggers and pundits and NBA die-hards will retch at the spectacle, but the middle-class father of two, sitting at home flipping channels and watching after he heard a guy from work talk about it? It plays well with him.

And that’s what James is shooting for. It makes him more than just a basketball player. What he does matters. So much, that you and all your friends remember where you were when he announced who he was signing with. It’s too much. Of course it’s too much. You have to be too much in order to get penetration in the biggest niche market of all: everyone else.

You can be disgusted by it, you’re well within reason to. But also bear in mind that James’ pursuit is something more than what just being a great basketball player can do for him. He wants to have a business empire that extends beyond the fans that buy his jerseys and cheer for him at games. He wants a place in the cultural and business atmosphere that is rarefied and extremely difficult to reach. It takes an inordinate amount of planning, expense, and effort to execute.

Thursday night, Lebron James can put himself on the map in a way few athletes, few people, ever have. The world stops for him tomorrow night.  We can turn our cheek or up our nose or whatever we’d like but this isn’t about a handful of people, it’s about the world.

And right now, King James has it in the palm of his hand.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.