But LeBron still left the Heat for the Cavaliers.
After four straight trips to the NBA Finals, which included two championships, LeBron assessed the situation and determined he preferred Cleveland. That surprised many of us, including Pat Riley.
The Heat president, who coached the Showtime Lakers, elaborated on his reasons for being caught off guard. They have as much to do with LeBron as his former teammates.
“That’s the most surprising thing for me, is how those…” Riley said, voice rising. “Generational teams stay together. The players stay together. They know what they have. They see what they’ve won. They see that there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment here, and they don’t want to leave that. You may never get it again.
“That was almost shocking to me that the players would allow that to happen. And I’m not just saying LeBron. I mean, the players, themselves, would allow them to get to a state where a guy would want to go home or whatever it is.
“So maybe I’m dealing with a contemporary attitude today of, ‘Well, I got four years here, and I think I’ll go up there for whatever reason I went.’ You know, the whole ‘home’ thing, I understand that. But what he had here, and what he had developed here, and what he could have developed over the next five or six years here, with the same team, could have been historic. And usually teams from inside…”
“It would be like Magic and Kareem and [James] Worthy, they weren’t going to go anywhere,” Riley said. “They had come at a time when there were free agents. They weren’t going to go. You think Magic was going to leave Kareem? You think Kareem was going to leave Magic? You think Worthy was going to leave either one of those guys, or [Byron] Scott or [Michael] Cooper? No, they knew they had a chance to win every year. And this team had a chance every year. So that was shocking to me that it happened. Now, could we have done more? Could they have done more?”
I salute Riley for this: He doesn’t come across as complaining. He – especially in the large context of Skolnick’s fantastic feature on the Heat president – seems to be just noting the differences between generations. Riley has always taken the high road with LeBron’s exit.
To a degree, I think this shift is due to an increased friendliness between teams. LeBron can join the Cavaliers – his hometown team, a team closer to a championship – and remain friends with his former Miami teammates. Some of LeBron’s relationships with those Heat players predate their NBA days, something less likely to happen years ago. These are friendships enhanced by sharing an NBA team, but not formed wholly from that.
So, yes, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper stayed together. LeBron left the Heat.
But that doesn’t make one way right and the other wrong. It’s just different.