In July 2010, LeBron James was the star of an hour-long ESPN production called “The Decision” where he revealed to the world which team would be blessed with his talents. As we all know, King James decided to take his talents to South Beach where he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the most dominant trio in the NBA. The backlash against this decision was tremendous, including a scathing letter from the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron instantly became the most hated sports figure in recent history. His transformation into a villain was akin to Hulk Hogan turning his back on the Hulkamaniacs and forming the n.W.o. in 1996.
Admittedly, some of the criticism towards LeBron for his decision to sign with Miami was hypocritical. The public vilifies athletes who just go for the money and have no desire to win. However, LeBron left millions of dollars on the table by signing with Miami because his incumbent team, the Cavaliers, could have given him more money. Instead, he signed with Miami bringing Chris Bosh with him to join Wade’s team. This decision would give James the best chance to win a championship, or so he thought. The consensus amongst NBA fans and the general public was that LeBron was taking a shortcut to win a title. At this point, the NBA Universe wanted nothing more than any other team to win the championship.
It took awhile for the Heat to click as a team, but once they got rolling they didn’ty stop. They entered the playoffs with some speculation that they could get picked off by Boston or Chicago, but that never came to fruition. In fact. LeBron was a monster in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls. It sure looked like nothing was going to stop him from fulfilling his destiny. The comparisons to Michael Jordan would be warranted as James would get his first of many rings to decorate his fingers.
But then the NBA Finals started pitting the Heat against the Dallas Mavericks in a rematch of the 2006 Finals. In that series, the Mavericks went up 2-0 and proceeded to collapse giving Dwyane Wade his championship that LeBron so badly wanted for himself. He had a national stage to showcase his talents and prove to the world that he belonged in the same realm as Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, all he did was prove that he should never be mentioned in the same sentence or paragraph as Jordan.
It was amazing to watch LeBron literally choke during the Finals. He froze up in crunch time and avoided getting the ball when it mattered most. Even on defense, he stood around watching his teammates and opponents play their hearts out. It was disturbing and inexplicable. Last year, he had a horrendous game against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals allegedly because he had found out his teammate, Delonte West, was sleeping with his mother. I guess one can understand why he wouldn’t be focused on that particular night. But there is no rational or logical explanation for his performance in these Finals outside of the fact that LeBron suffers from a crisis of confidence and fear of failure.
We as fans can only speculate about a professional athlete’s state of mind when playing in a game. It is easy to sit back and criticize when watching on TV or in the stands at the game. The truth is that these athletes are under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform at a high level all the time. But LeBron is a self-annointed King and so badly wants to be revered in the same manner as Jordan. He created the expectations when he signed with Miami and he had the sole burden of proving that he has the mettle, desire and passion to win under any circumstances. And he failed to meet that burden.
No matter what the circumstances of the game were, Michael Jordan never would have stood around and watch the game go by him. He never would have avoided the ball or passed up opportunities to take the game into his own hands. LeBron James ran away from every opportunity he had to become a champion. And he probably will win a championship someday given the talent the Heat have on their roster and the genius that is Pat Riley running the organization. But no matter how many rings LeBron ends up getting in his career, he can never be compared to Michael Jordan again. He can’t even be compared to Kobe Bryant. He will never be able to make up for the colossal failure that was the 2011 NBA Finals because it is firmly entrenched in the annals of NBA history that LeBron James choked big time and lacked the heart necessary to be a champion. If the Heat win a title going forward, it will more be a testament to Dwyane Wade’s greatness than LeBron’s “talents.”
Even more damaging to LeBron’s legacy and reputation was his reactions and responses after the game. We know he heard all of the criticism and we know he is aware of his own shortcomings, so in a way I can be mildly empathetic towards him for being the recipient of such profound and constant abuse. But his remarks about g-d not wanting this to be his time now, or that everyone else will wake up the next morning with their own lives and problems while he will wake up a millionairre, just make LeBron look like a spiteful and spoiled jackass.
All of this has solidified LeBron’s status as the most hated man in sports. It is hard to imagine a way for him to rehabilitate his reputation and legacy without some major changes in his personality, demeanor, attitude and performance. The fact that the Governor of Ohio made the Dallas Mavericks honorary Ohioans for a day speaks volumes about how much this man is despised. I made the comparison earlier between LeBron’s villainy and Hulk Hogan’s heel turn to the n.W.o. However, the difference is that Hulk Hogan was able to regain his Hulkamaniacs by putting the yellow and red back on and training, saying his prayers, and eating his vitamins. Unfortunately for LeBron, he seems to be eternally entrenched as the bad guy. And he doesn’t even have a ring to show for it.
As a Knicks’ fan, I am very disappointed and frustrated that they have lost the first two games of their first round playoff series against the Celtics. These two losses have been excruciating and arguably should have been victories. There wasn’t much hope for the Knicks to realistically win the series anyway, but now being down 2-0 it is virtually impossible to think they have any chance at all. But, there is a better way to look at things…positively.
Before the season started, there was already a sense of disappointment and despair after the Knicks failed to sign LeBron James. The signing of Amar’e Stoudamire was a good start, but fans knew that he could not do this alone. The opening day roster was not one that elicited feelings of the playoffs. Then starting the year 3-8 certainly didn’t erase the horrible memories of the last decade marred by the likes of Scott Layden, Stephon Marbury, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Brown, and Eddy Curry. All of a sudden, the Knicks went on a huge winning streak and were over .500 later in a season than they had been in many years. The Knicks were relevant once again. Players like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, and Toney Douglass were complementing Stoudamire well and the team was playing with passion and energy. Of course, being a Mike D’Antoni team, the Knicks didn’t play much defense, but their explosive offense earned them the highest scoring average in the league for most of the first half. So compared the entire decade of the 2000′s, the Knicks were being talked about on sports radio and featured on network games during the week. The week before Christmas, the Knicks played a classic game against the Celtics that they would end up losing on a game-winning shot by Paul Pierce. But the gutty effort by the Knicks proved to the world that they could compete with the best and were a force to be reckoned with.
Despite how well the Knicks had played and the drastic improvements they had made, no one in their right mind believed they were a championship team yet. Based on the talent in the East, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Knicks would qualify for the playoffs by the time December rolled around. Rumors of a trade for Carmelo Anthony really heated up around this time as well. Those who supported the trade also acknowledged that adding a second superstar to the team is yet another building block towards the ultimate goal of a championship. Those realists could not have been more correct because there were obvious and severe growing pains once the Knicks made the trade for Carmelo. By dealing away Felton, Chandler and Gallinari, they needed to replace 3/5 of their starting lineup which is no easy task to do for anyone at any time of year, let alone the Knicks as they competed for their first playoff appearance since 2004. Sure enough, the growing pains lasted quite awhile as the Knicks put themselves in a dangerous position down the stretch, almost losing enough to remove them from playoff contention. But the chemistry with Carmelo started to click in March and the Knicks went on a rampage into the playoffs where the Celtics would await them.
So in looking back at the 2010-2011 season, the Knicks have succeeded in selling out Madison Square Garden again, finished the regular season with a record better than .500 for the first time in ten years, made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, rid themselves of all their bad contracts and still have salary cap room for the offseason, and they have two superstars in place who will be on the team for many years to come. These are all great achievements and are indicative of the direction the franchise is heading into the future.
So now we come to the playoffs against Boston. Yes, these two losses are truly brutal and games that could have been won by the Knicks. Forget about phantom offensive fouls or any other excuses, the better team has won the first two games of this series. True, the Knicks have outplayed Boston for most of the two games. However, Boston had outplayed the Knicks when it counts the most – the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. That comes from their superior size, invaluable experience, intelligent coaching, and lack of discipline on behalf of the Knicks. The way I see this is that the Knicks, a #6 seed (and barely better than the #8 seed), are matched up with a championship-caliber team in the Celtic,s a #3 seed, and are standing their ground giving Boston a real run for its money. Upsets in the NBA playoffs are rare, so it should not come as a shock to anyone that Boston does have a 2-0 lead. Again, I know the Knicks could easily be up 2-0 if certain things either happened or didn’t happen, but that is not the case.
What is the case here is that the Knicks have been playing like a legitmate playoff team these first two games. Their overall defense has been drastically improved compared to just a couple weeks ago. Their intensity and intelligence have shown through (with some admittedly lapses of judgment and execution at times). The Knicks are pushing the Celtics to their extreme limits. This performance should give the Knicks players, management and fans the confidence that they can be competitive against any team and that they are headed in the right direction. Chauncey Billups is a nice player and has a lot to offer the team, but he is not the long-term answer at point guard. The Knicks also have a glaring hole at the center position. They need a big body to clog up lanes, box out, and secure rebounds. Assuming they address this need in the offseason, couple with the additional time and experience gained by Carmelo and company, the Knicks should be a 50-win team in 2011-2012. They are young and talented, and hopefully no matter who is the coaching them they will continue to make progress.
So, even if the Knicks do get swept or win a game or two before being inevitably eliminated, it would behoove you to look at the positives of this season as opposed to the missed opportunities here in the playoffs. Just the fact they are in the playoffs and playing competitive games should be enough to satiate your desire for change and improvement.
After ten long years, I have finally been able to openly admit that I am a fan of the New York Knicks. This past decade has been akin to the Dark Ages for this storied franchise. Once the Patrick Ewing era ended, it has been a continuous freefall for the Knickerbockers who became the biggest joke in the NBA. Felled by horrific ownership, poor management decisions, questionable personnel choices, salary cap mismanagement, and lack of quality basketball, the Knicks were constantly setting standards for what NOT to do when running a sports franchise. From Scott Layden to Larry Brown to Isaiah Thomas to Eddy Curry to Stephon Marbury, it has been an endless cycle of futility and incompetence. But after all of that, the Knicks are finally relevant again and heading to the playoffs where anything can happen.
I am not going to get ahead of myself and make any arguments as to why they can win a NBA championship this year. That is because they have absolutely no shot at winning it all in 2011. The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, while necessary and great for long-term building, stripped the Knicks of their depth and forced them to learn on the fly how to play basketball with one another. Now they have their coveted “second” superstar along with Amar’e Stoudamire. The pieces are in place to become a legitimate championship contender in the next several years. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Under Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks, much like every other team he has coached, do not play any defense, let alone good defense. D’Antoni is an offensive-minded coach, and a good one at that. However, in order to win in the NBA, you have to be able to play good, consistent defense. One area where the Knicks have a glaring hole is at the center position. The Knicks lack size and strength in the middle to clog up the lanes and secure rebounds. Playing Stoudamire at the five spot is unfair to him as he cannot match up well with the big men in the league. The Knicks don’t necessarily have to have a player who can post up, but they need a body in the middle who can both defend the rim and also command some attention on offense to allow outlet passes to an open player behind the three-point line. Another necessity is to lock up the point guard position for the future. Chauncey Billups came over in the Carmelo Anthony trade, and he will provide the leadership and experience they so badly need at that position. But he is 34 years old and not a long-term solution. Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP, will be the key to any success the Knicks have this year in the playoffs. But when planning for years down the road, the Knicks will need someone like Chris Paul to round out the trifecta of superstars that seem to be necessary to reach the upper echalon of the league.
The mere fact that I am writing about the Knicks speaks volumes to the strides they have taken this year. It is true that they are still merely a .500 team with lots of gaping holes on their roster. But they have turned the corner and are relevant once again because the pieces are in place to build a winning team. Excitement has returned the Madison Square Garden, the mecca of sports. We know there will be at least one playoff game hosted at the World’s Most Famous Arena, and that is good for the Knicks, good for New York, and good for the NBA.
Going along with the theme of building a championship team down the road, I do not think that will be possible with D’Antoni as the coach. He is a genius when it comes to designing offensive plays and schemes. But like I said, you need to play defense to win a championship. The Knicks do have explosive offensive weapons on their team, but they need to focus on defense just as much, if not more. If they play Miami in the first round of the playoffs, they will have a chance to win but they likely will fall to the much more defensive-oriented Heat. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all prolific offensive threats, but they also play good, hard defense. The Knicks are anything but assured of being able to stop the Big Three down the stretch in the 4th quarter. This is why I would argue that the Knicks need to also start thinking about who the next coach will be and whether he can instill some defensive priorities into the mix. While he has no prior coaching experience, I would give former Knick guard Mark Jackson the opportunity to coach. This arguably should have been done years ago, but Jackson clearly is in intelligent basketball man and can command the respect of his players. Jackson undoubtedly would instill fundamental principles of defense into the Knicks’ repertoire, as well as better ball movement and distribution. The run and gun schemes that D’Antoni loves are great for energizing the crowd and putting up crooked numbers. But those crooked numbers won’t mean much if the opposition’s numbers are even more crooked.
At the end of the day, I am just going to enjoy the Knicks’ return to relevance and an exciting playoff matchup with either Boston, Orlando or Miami most likely. Even if they get swept out of the first round, there is at least hope for the future. That is more than can be said any other year since 2001.
Finally, it is over. After years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds of anticipating where LeBron James would end up once he became a free agent, the wait is now over. LeBron James is now officially a member of the Miami Heat where he will join superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, in the process forming a dominant triumvirate that has catapulted the Heat into the mainstream media. After meeting with the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Clippers, Heat and incumbent Cavaliers, LeBron chose South Beach as his destination in his quest for a NBA championship.
This entire process and the decision he made have portrayed LeBron in a different light than what the public has been accustomed to since he was drafted as an 18-year old high school kid. LeBron has never had any off-the-court issues, is regarded as a good teammate and a fair competitor, and has always helped his community through charity work and philanthropy. However, the free agency process has changed the public perception of King James, and not for the better. It was obvious that he was going to test the free agent waters, and even the Cleveland Cavaliers knew that. Any successful athlete that has put in the time and had success certainly earns the right to explore free agency and see what his own market value is. But this process became a reality TV show. It became The Bachelor where LeBron was being courted by desperate suitors, all looking to have a ring placed on their finger.
LeBron’s suitors all lined up and gave presentations to him showcasing the benefits of why he should join their franchise. It was borderline pathetic seeing these organizations beg, plead and grovel for King James to bring his court to their court. But then to find out that “The Decision” would be revealed to the public in a televised primetime special on ESPN made the whole thing even more grotesque. Not even Alex Rodriguez was this pretentious when he signed either of his mega free agent contracts. Not even Brett Favre demanded this type of media coverage to make his annual decision of whether or not to retire.
Before we even get to the ESPN “special,” the media coverage and time dedicated to breaking down the decision on sports talk TV and radio was excessive and obnoxious. Personally, I am a closet Knicks’ fan (only closeted since 2000). Of course I wanted LeBron to come to New York and revitalize the Garden. But hearing day after day why he should go here or go there, what happens if this one signs here, blah blah blah. It was just too much. I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached a point where I really didn’t care where he signed, I just wanted it to be official so people would stop speculating and predicting possible scenarios. It baffled my mind that a professional athlete with 7 years of experience and only one appearance in a championship series (and no titles) garnered this much attention. Yes, LeBron is an amazing basketball player and can easily transform a team into a contender (as he did single-handedly in Cleveland). He transcends the sports and brings unlimited exposure and marketability to any team he is on. But what the hell has he done to warrant this type of attention? Did he cure cancer? Did he plug the oil spill in the Gulf? Did he find Nicole Brown Simpson’s real killer? No, he is a talented basketball player.
So the ESPN special comes on and we are treated to the charismatic Jim Gray asking LeBron very poignant questions, such as “Do you still bite your fingernails?” There is no doubt that all teams pursuing LeBron offered psychological counseling and therapy to break LeBron of this habit. This would have led some to believe the Clippers were the favorite to land LeBron..get it…he bites his nails and would play for the Clippers…get it? Ok moving on. So at this point, we are told by LeBron that none of the six potential teams know what his decision is (despite various sources claiming it was Miami earlier in the day). These teams all traded players away and made various personnel decisions to clear significant salary cap space in an attempt to sign James to a max contract. They were all allegedly in the dark when James, finally 27 minutes into the hour-long special, stated that he was taking his talent down to South Beach. After 7 years, King James was deserting his hometown fans to join his buddies down in Miami in the hopes of winning a championship.
Now, let me say something first. I am the first to criticize an athlete when they sign a contract for the most amount of money with a team that has no chance of winning. When it is so plainly obvious that an athlete doesn’t care about winning and only his bank account, I have a little problem with that. So LeBron’s rationale to leave Cleveland (and an additional $30,000,000) and go to Miami because he has the best chance of winning a title has some nobility. I always appreciate an athlete that puts winning ahead of money. However, in LeBron’s case, money cannot really be considered a factor here. He was going to get maximum money no matter where he signed, but his financial status is truly cemented and augmented by his branding, advertising and marketing. So in the end he wants to win titles. He probably wants to be considered at the same level as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. But there is one very large distinction between Michael/Kobe and King James – Michael and Kobe won with THEIR OWN teams. The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team that he helped nurture and grow into contenders and subsequently winners. The Lakers were Kobe’s team that won with Shaq and without Shaq. Neither of these players deserted their teams when they weren’t winning. They helped build the foundation for their respective successes and won where they started.
LeBron clearly changed the Cavaliers’ fortunes when he joined the team. The Cavs were one of the worst teams in the NBA for quite some time when he came along. Instantly, the Cavs were a playoff contending team every year, and even the Eastern Conference champions once. But no matter who was on LeBron’s supporting cast, including Shaq, they couldn’t get over the hump. So instead of continuing to build the team and take that next step, he bolts as soon as an opportunity arises to play with two other superstars under a team run by Pat Riley. Now LeBron is a player on someone else’s team. Make no mistake about it, the Miami Heat are Dwyane Wade’s team. He is the heart and soul of the Heat, and he has won a championship with this team. Now Chris Bosh and LeBron James have come to join Wade’s team. So no matter how many titles LeBron wins on the Heat, or anywhere else for that matter, he will never be regarded in the same light as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The letter issued by Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert was shocking. While I can appreciate Gilbert’s attempt to appease the Cleveland fan base and instill some sense of confidence in the organization, his words and message about LeBron were vindictive and unprofessional. To expect an athlete in today’s environment to maintain loyalty and selflessness are unrealistic. LeBron earned the right to become a free agent and pursue whatever opportunity he felt was best for him. is that selfish? Maybe, but maybe not. As the owner of the team, Gilbert’s verbal attack on LeBron’s reputation and personality makes him seem like a scorned lover whose significant other left him for another man. LeBron fulfilled his contractual obligations to the Cleveland organization and brought them out of the depths of irrelevance and mediocrity. LeBron single-handedly made people care about the Cavaliers. Despite how painful it must be for the Cavaliers to lose him, LeBron had every right to make this decision and choose his own destiny. Dan Gilbert made the whole thing too personal, and this sends the wrong message to his other players and every other professional athlete that makes an unpopular decision.
At the end of the day, this is just another marquee sports figure who has decided to pursue other opportunities by changing teams. It has happened plenty of times before and will happen many more times in the future. But the whole process of how this was handled and reported leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Not because I feel bad for Cleveland, not because I am upset LeBron didn’t join the Knicks, and not because LeBron doesn’t feel he can lead a team on his own to a title. I have a sour taste about it because this process made LeBron seem more important than a team and the entire NBA. This whole process was milked for more than it was worth, and it unfortunately ruined a relatively pristine public perception of one of the game’s most talented players. It also proved why the NBA is perceived so negatively by the public as compared to the other major sports.
I look forward to ESPN’s coverage of where Eddy Curry will sign as a free agent next summer. There will probably be a televised special on ESPN 2 hosted by an intern.