Posnanski: LeBron James proves he’s a true Clevelander

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There was something about LeBron-to-South-Beach that is hard, perhaps impossible, to explain to people who are not from Cleveland. I suppose there are things about glitz that cannot be explained to people not from Los Angeles, things about cheesesteaks that cannot be explained to people not from Philadelphia, things about barbecue that will only make sense to Kansas Citians, things about motion and action that do not quite translate to non-New Yorkers.

See, many people thought that Clevelanders were unreasonable after James left for Miami. In a way, we were. The jokes about it — “Who wouldn’t leave Cleveland for Miami?” and “Did they expect LeBron to serve a life sentence?” and the like — were not funny, but I could understand why people made them. Cleveland doesn’t have a beach. Cleveland doesn’t have sun. Cleveland doesn’t have so many stars’ homes that they sell maps. Heck, they call the region the “Rust Belt.” Nobody missed the point. The videos of burning jerseys played on a loop and did not help the Cleveland image. The inane spurned love letter written in Comic Sans by owner Dan Gilbert didn’t help either. 

Many people around the country despised LeBron for the WAY he left Cleveland — with that soulless television infomercial — but the act of leaving Cleveland, well, who could blame him, right? He had a chance to play with two superstars on the beach or stay in Cleveland with a dysfunctional team that had never won a thing. This is a choice? He had played seven years for Cleveland, and now he wanted something new … and many thought Clevelanders were unreasonable for lashing out at him.

Like I say, in a way we were. But there’s that something else, something that’s hard to explain if you are not from Cleveland.

It has been 50 years since Cleveland has won a championship in any sport. You probably know that. The last one was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. The city’s population was close to 900,000, Cleveland was one of the 10 biggest cities in America and Jim Brown, the greatest athlete in America, ran the football for the Browns. 

And then it all went wrong, all of it, the river caught fire, and factories began layoffs, and people began to flee, and the city defaulted, and neighborhoods started dying. More people fled. Jim Brown retired in his prime, the Cleveland Indians threatened to leave every other year, the Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien was so incompetent the NBA itself was forced to veto his bizarre trades. More people fled. Winters seemed to get colder. The snowdrifts seemed to climb higher and they looked like rust. Potholes seemed to get bigger. John Elway drove. Ernest Byner fumbled. Art Modell yanked out the city’s heart. More people fled.

Almost a half million people have left the city of Cleveland over the last 50 years, most of us because we really didn’t have a choice. There were no jobs. There was no future. My dad followed work down Interstate 77 to Charlotte back in the early 1980s. When we got there, it seemed like every other person we met was from Cleveland.

How LeBron’s return will affect the economy in Cleveland

Then we all left a part of ourselves in Cleveland. There is something about the city that gets inside you and never lets go, something about what it feels like the first day you can see grass poking through the snow after a long winter, something about Cleveland blue skies, something about the way the streets intersect and the many accents you cross, something about the way the restaurants and bars are given first names like “Eddie’s” and “Corky and Lenny’s,” something about the sports mix of hope and gloom that swirls like gin and tonic.

When LeBron James came along, we thought he understood that. He grew up in Akron, which is really Cleveland — Akron, Canton, Wooster, Warren, Elyria, even Youngstown, they’re all Cleveland in a sense. Everything about James coming to the Cavaliers was miraculous in the first place. Here was this basketball Mozart from Northeast Ohio, and he came out just when the Cavaliers needed a savior, and the team hit the lottery. It was so, utterly unCleveland. 

He was probably one of the top three players in the NBA by his second year. In his fourth year, James dragged and pulled and yanked a scruffy team with a 7-foot-3 outside shooter and a frenetic Brazilian all the way to the NBA Finals. There, predictably, they were swatted down in four straight by the no-nonsense San Antonio Spurs. The Cavaliers promised to get LeBron some help, and for the most part they did not. They brought in a steady parade of old guys like Shaq and young guys that didn’t take. James was good enough to make the team a championship favorite. Even he, though, was not good enough to take them there.

All along, though, we thought he was one of us. A Clevelander. A Northern Ohio guy. That was our connection. Sure, he offered a few clues that maybe he resented the Cleveland connection. He wore a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game, said he’d been a Yankees fan all his life. A Yankees fan? Kid from Akron? He lashed out at the fans who he thought expected too much of him. In his last playoff series for the Cavs, he seemed beaten down by those expectations … and he stopped. 

But in the end, underneath it all, we still thought he understood what it is to be a Clevelander, what it is to have watched the city wilt and try to fight back, what it is to endure all the sports heartbreaks and still hope for better days. When he went on his free agency tour, we thought it was all well and good but surely he would come back home. The guy was one of us.

Then he left — no, he didn’t just leave, he left in the most publicly humiliating way. It hit us between the eyes. When outsiders make their lame Cleveland jokes, it doesn’t matter. They know it’s a cliché. They cannot see underneath. But James? Well, it turns out he didn’t understand at all. THAT was at the heart of Cleveland’s pain, I think. He wasn’t one of us.

So … what happened on Friday? Well, four years, can change a man … especially the four years LeBron James had. At first, it was clear, he could not even understand the feelings swirling around him. He resented those feelings. He lashed out. How many titles would they win in Miami? Not five. Not six. He played with an edge. He took the Heat to the championship in Year 1, and he froze up. The taunting cheers renewed his anger. 

The second year he made SURE the Heat won the championship — this included a 45-point, 15-rebound game in Boston with the season on the line that was as extraordinary as anything I’ve ever seen in sports. People wanted him to be a cold-hearted crusher like Jordan or Kobe? Well, OK, he could do that. The third year, the Heat won the championship again. And LeBron, again, was irrefutable and undeniable. 

Gradually, it seemed like James began to see the world a little bit differently. He expressed regret for the way he left Cleveland. He smirked when thinking about the LeBron who had talked about winning all those championships. He talked more openly and clearly about what mattered to him in life. He married his high school sweetheart. He accepted responsibility as a role model.

Friday, he did the most surprising and remarkable thing of all: He announced he was going back to Cleveland. In a beautiful article he wrote with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, he admitted that he was a different man four years ago, when he made the Decision.

“But then you think about the other side,” he wrote, speaking of the Cleveland reaction. “What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?”

I’m guessing, of course, but I don’t think LeBron four years ago would have been able to form that thought. That’s not a knock. He was 25 years old, and he’d lived his whole life in one place, and he’d had overwhelming success. The unalterable truth about perspective is that it only comes after you’ve experienced enough to gain it.

Of course I’m happy he’s coming back to Cleveland. I’m happy because he instantly makes the Cavaliers a serious playoff contender in the weak Eastern Conference and good things can and should build from there. I’m happy because my hometown gets a win, something Cleveland doesn’t get enough of. I’m happy because NBA fans — not just Cleveland fans — are in love with this story; I received countless texts and emails from people saying, essentially: “I love LeBron James now.”

I’m happy because as a sportswriter this is an incredible story, perhaps even unprecedented, a superstar at the height of his game coming back home to try and win a championship for a city that hasn’t had one in a half century. There will probably be movies about it. This says so much about the man LeBron James has become that he could see the opportunity in Cleveland for him to do something singular. This sentence in his essay speaks to how LeBron thinks now:

“My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

It is almost enough to make a Clevelander cry.

But more than anything, I’m happy because James is happy. “The more time passed,” he wrote, “the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.” People will talk about hard feelings and who forgave who, they will talk about Miami’s missteps that might have caused this, they will form theories about it all. But maybe, just maybe, it came down to this. LeBron James is from Northeast Ohio. And he is one of us.

Aggrey Sam on significance of LeBron’s return to Cleveland


Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.