Will Game 6 determine if LeBron leaves the Cavs?


May 13

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It’s been a miserable second round of the NBA playoffs, with three of the four series being sweeps. However, that should at least finally prove the NBA isn’t manipulating the games for ratings and TV and seventh games.

But the one series that is left may be about to produce one of the most significant games of the last decade.

That’s Thursday in Boston when the Cavaliers, the NBA’s winningest team the last two seasons, try to avoid playoff elimination, trailing 3-2. But that’s just part of the story, as the Cleveland future of star LeBron James perhaps depends on the result, as well as the competitive landscape of the NBA given James’ free agency.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had declared this season “all in” last fall, and even Gilbert, reminiscent of the Mavericks meltdown in the 2006 Finals, came out after Tuesday’s devastating home loss and demanded more from the team.

That game sent shockwaves around the NBA, given the confusing apparent disinterest exhibited by James, and left the league buzzing Wednesday about what could produce such a cavalier effort from James in such a crucial situation.

It raised doubts of James’ place in basketball history in this instant analysis world just a few weeks after getting his second straight MVP award when he was being called maybe the greatest player ever to play the game.

If the Cavs win Thursday, James could return to that accolade. This is not an era for perspective.

But coaches, GMs and former players I talked with since agreed all the great ones have had bad games, but you’d never have seen that lack of intensity from Jordan or Bird or Magic.

Kobe, well, we have seen some of that, like the 2006 seventh game with the Suns when he didn’t do much. The difference was he was immediately accused of purposely sabotaging the game. Ludicrous, but Kobe never commanded the media worship James does.

One longtime league guy said perhaps James got some sort of painkilling shot or drugs for his possibly injured elbow—most I talked with thought he was overacting about that—and the side effects dulled him.

The rest of the team must have shared them, then, as the Cavs bench, usually like a South Beach nightclub, was virtually comatose all game.

There were theories that James realized his teammates weren’t good enough and lost interest, bad matchups as Antawn Jamison isn’t good against Kevin Garnett and Mo Williams against anyone in the playoffs, and that late season vacation by James when the team began losing down the stretch and never quite recovered a rhythm even though they beat the Bulls in five, albeit, unimpressively.

There were reports in Cleveland of discord internally, that Shaq—big surprise—was upset with his minutes and players were upset with inconsistent rotations. And where the heck is J.J. Hickson? Though Shaq had 21 points, it was perhaps a sign that in his biggest game they lost by 30. The Cavs continue to play away from their strengths as a fast team and got caught up in a half court game, at which they are inferior to the Celtics.

Bad coaching? They always are to blame, and Mike Brown is being universally damned, by national media and in Cleveland. Hey, the Bulls want a successful, veteran coach. It looks like Brown is about to be available after consecutive 60-plus win seasons. Atlanta’s Mike Woodson should follow after averaging 50 wins the last two seasons.

How come no one’s upset they haven’t gotten votes of confidence?

There’s also this feeling I’ve long had about James.

He’s not Jordan, but not because of some talent difference.

James is a point guard in a point power forward’s body. James always has been commended for being a willing passer unlike guys like Jordan and Kobe. But I think that’s because he’s more inclined to be the facilitator.

Critics are questioning him since Game 5 because he didn’t take over. But the fact remains he never really has had that kind of mentality. He’s had big games at big times, like that double overtime classic against Detroit in 2007, and he’s hit big shots to win games, like in last year’s playoffs. But he’s also often given up the last shot when doubled, the right play but not the one the great players ever make.

Though it won’t happen, it’s why I’ve always thought James could play with Kobe. Like in the 2008 Olympics, LeBron seemed happiest and effective when he was making plays, rebounding, playing an all around game.

He had to become the big time scorer because his team didn’t have one, sort of like David Robinson. I always felt Robinson would be Bill Russell, but bigger. But the Spurs didn’t have the luxury to allow him to be a defensive specialist, which Russell could be with a loaded Celts team. Another reason why Chamberlain was better, but that’s for another day. So Robinson had to be a scorer, but didn’t win until he became more a defensive specialist alongside Tim Duncan.

I wonder if that’s what LeBron needs as well. Playing with Kobe. Playing with Wade.

Though scoring is how you get the attention.

LeBron likes attention; I don’t believe winning championships is quite as important, certainly not as important as it was to the previous generation, guys like Magic and Bird and Jordan.

Like some have termed it, LeBron is more concerned with being LeBron, Inc.

It’s also why in thinking about the possibilities of LeBron leaving Cleveland if the Cavs lose, I can see the Nets as No. 1 because of the new zillionaire owner.

I never heard LeBron talk as much about championships, like Kobe, as being the first billionaire player, a team owner, entrepreneur.

Many have said around the NBA this season if LeBron leaves he’d be viewed as a quitter and it would ruin his reputation, so he won’t. It’s one reason the conventional wisdom has been he’d stay.  He could stay even if the Cavs lose in this round. That’s one reason many believe John Calipari has been sniffing around–not to take LeBron somewhere like Chicago, but to become the Cavs’ coach.

You can be sure to keep James they’d throw Brown overboard in a second.

He has not been allowed to coach much, anyway. It’s no secret around the NBA LeBron directs everything in Cleveland and no one tells him what to do. It’s why he could choose to re-up.

Actually, his life has been much about few saying no to him.

He was raised by his mother in a nomadic sort of existence and pretty much dictated his team in high school. He’s had his group of friends from his school run his businesses. Heck, the Cavs built a practice facility near his home.

Could he live like that in the New York corporate existence of Comcast and James Dolan?  Of all the obvious destinations, the Bulls would seem to afford James the best chance of winning, other than the more complicated possibility of going to the Lakers. And James seemed to leave some hints with intimate knowledge of the Bulls roster and high praise for Derrick Rose. Heck, he didn’t even seem mad at Noah. And he sure had fun that weekend in Chicago. The Bulls would make logical sense. You hate to apply logic to pro athletes. Or, at least, our logic.

Is it winning LeBron seeks? Or is there more to him?

There’s that problem of playing in Newark for two years with the Nets. And they were almost the worst team ever with Lopez and Devin Harris. How good could they become? But LeBron could live in New York City, a helicopter ride away, and this new billionaire owner has made clear he’ll spend. I’ve heard he offered Krzyzewski $20 million a year. Could Phil be seduced? He loves New York and that would be the big market trifecta. And that’s where Phil actually first coached as a Nets assistant. There’s celebrity pal Jay-Z in ownership and a jet set life to be lived. LeBron likes jet setting.

There’s a center for the Nets not as good as Noah and a point guard not as good as Rose. But I’m not sure LeBron is as much about winning as he is about the celebrity of the game. It’s not that unusual, really. Everyone wants him to be like Mike. But that’s taken. LeBron may define the new millennium athlete, which may mean winning is good, but fame and fortune are even better.

He certainly hasn’t seemed the least upset or depressed over all of this. True, the series isn’t over. And Boston still is a fragile, rickety bunch hardly certain to win Game 6.

But this one has enough story lines and intrigue for an entire playoffs. And with no one else playing, everyone gets to watch. The entire NBA is stopping for one game Thursday. And all eyes are on LeBron, and he loves it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: