LeBron James’ second Cavaliers experience ultimate example of player power

8 Comments

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 has become infamous for its existence more than its content, which understates the extremeness of Gilbert’s words.

Gilbert called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” And then Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

This was not merely “five great years and one bad night,” as Gilbert tried to spin it. Gilbert defended The Letter as recently as 2014, and it stayed on the Cavs’ website until later that year. The owner reportedly even refused to say LeBron’s name in meetings for years after The Decision.

The significance of even just The Letter wasn’t lost on LeBron – the deeply personal attacks, the racist tones, the lingering effect. It seemed LeBron and Gilbert would never reconcile. Those close to LeBron advocated against it.

Yet, LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.

“How could LeBron play for that man again?” was a common response to the stunning move. But that outlook was misguided.

LeBron didn’t succumb to Gilbert. LeBron used the Cavaliers for four years. He demanded the world from Gilbert and got it. Now, with the Cavs depleted, LeBron is leaving for the Lakers.

LeBron’s four-year run in Cleveland proved his clout.

In order to return, LeBron demanded unconditional spending, and Gilbert obliged. The Cavaliers opened max cap space to sign LeBron in 2014 then paid the luxury tax the same season – overcoming a salary-cap system designed to limit such a rapid rise in payroll. The Cavs ranked second in team salary that year then first the next three, massive luxury-tax bills accompany.

Cleveland traded young players and draft picks for veterans like Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. When players like Smith and Tristan Thompson – who had other leverage but were also represented by LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul – hit free agency, they got lucrative new contracts. The Cavaliers put LeBron confidante Randy Mims on payroll as executive administrator of player programs and logistics.

Now, the Cavs face an ugly cap situation and already traded a top-10-protected future first-rounder. No. 8 pick Collin Sexton is a nice addition, but overall, this roster stinks sans LeBron and has narrow pathways to improvement.

While he was demanding the Cavaliers ransack themselves long-term, LeBron was getting everything he wanted short-term.

He completed a personally rewarding mission by winning the 2016 title, ending Cleveland’s championship drought. That legacy-altering title entrenched him deeper in the greatest-of-all-time discussion with Michael Jordan. LeBron’s conference-title streak reached eight seasons. He was even better positioned for his philanthropy. And, with those short-term contracts, he cleared the way for a smooth exit as soon as he was ready to depart.

Gilbert might have grumbled privately about the high costs, tangible and intangible, of employing LeBron. And LeBron made clear how little respect he held for the owner.

But Gilbert repeatedly obliged LeBron’s demands (and deserves more credit for doing so). After all, LeBron’s successes were mostly Gilbert’s and the Cavs’ successes, too. Gilbert owns the Cavaliers’ 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that championship belongs to all of Cleveland.

LeBron tinkered with exerting this type of leverage in Miami, grumbling on the way out the door about Heat owner Micky Arison’s thriftiness. But by then, it was too late to shape the Heat.

Gilbert felt the full brunt of LeBron’s power from the moment the superstar even considered returning – then thanked him for the experience when LeBron left.

Now, LeBron moves to the Lakers, who – like the Cavaliers in 2014 – have spent years acquiring young assets. Los Angeles has Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and all its future first-round picks. Soon, the Lakers will probably turn those pieces into veterans who can help LeBron win before his prime expires. The Cavs’ pathway to maintaining contender status, even with LeBron, wasn’t nearly as smooth.

As Cleveland provided genuine homecoming warmth and a platform to market that narrative, Los Angeles will serve as a stage for LeBron’s show-business endeavors. LeBron is playing where his interests are best-met, and teams are more than willing to help. It just happens to be the Lakers’ turn.

LeBron’s meltdown on the bench after regulation of Game 1 of the NBA Finals will play as the lasting image of his final season in Cleveland, but the lasting image of his departure came more than a month before he agreed to terms with the Lakers. The Cavaliers had just won another Eastern Conference title, and Gilbert was embracing his players as they passed. LeBron brushed by with a stunted handshake:

Eight years ago, Gilbert belittled LeBron. For the last four years, they truly partnered as no owner and player ever had.

It’s unlikely either admits to how badly they needed the other, but they each brought plenty to the table. Gilbert gave LeBron access to Cleveland, a city the superstar wanted to reclaim, and fronted the money to build the entire endeavor. LeBron provided generational basketball talent and publicity.

Together, they won a championship, claimed four conference titles and built on their prestige.

This is usually the domain of billionaire owners. They built the league for themselves to run it. The benefits Gilbert received over the last four years are completely normal.

LeBron reaping his share is unique and a testament to his awesomeness. He got nearly everything he could have asked for from the Cavaliers.

Now – in a reverse of teams that drop or trade stars when their time has run out – LeBron is wielding his power and keeping it moving.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

View this post on Instagram

@malcolmbrogdon @jusanderson1

A post shared by جيلين براون (@fchwpo) on

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.