The basketball world was rocked when LeBron James announced that he would be coming home to Cleveland and play for the Cavaliers. Our very own Glenn Minnis wrote a piece taking a cynical look at James’ intentions of returning to Ohio. Meanwhile, Bogar Alonso poked fun at all the possible narratives that fans and pundits alike were fabricating, no matter which way James went in his (in)decision during the the 2014 offseason. These are two, well-written pieces that put some perspective into James’ ultimate decision to go back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the most part, however, the NBA free agency period was littered with seemingly over-the-top, medieval-like storylines that would rival those from your new, favorite Role-Playing video game. Of course, the “King” was at center court, getting the most attention and most speculative fiction created. But James was not the only player fans and pundits were trying to attach some sort of ridiculous back story. There was also the tale of Carmelo Anthony and the chapters that dealt with his desire to leave New York in pursuit of (championship) glory with another team; teaming up with the once relevant, (black (mamba) knight) Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles; and what’s a story about Melo without including the magical sorcery powers of one Phil Jackson, the only man capable of deterring Anthony from leaving the Big Apple? And what was Jackson’s Ultima power you ask? Evidently, it was his ability to offer more money to Anthony than any other team that was in full pursuit of his services.
But the angle that James somehow saved the NBA and the city of Cleveland is the winner here. There’s the imagery created by numerous writers and bloggers of James playing the role of prodigal son, having left for the Miami Heat (away at college, as James explained for Sports Illustrated), only to return, in a blaze of glory and with gold-and-platinum-plated shining armor, arriving to a chorus of cheers of approval, in one of his exotic whips around northeastern Ohio. Vroom! Vroom! cries out his horse-powered vehicle.
LeBron James is a hero that the basketball community has been looking for. Not because he has won championships or MVPs. No, he’s a hero because he “made things right.” After spurning Cleveland and using his free agent rights to go to Miami to team up with his “super friends”–Chris Bosh (who recently spurned Houston to stay in Miami) and Dwyane Wade (who apparently needs help removing the dagger that is now firmly placed on his back)–and avoid basketball obscurity (and end up as the next Charles Barkley, a knight himself–there’s a reason why they called him “Sir Charles”), he is now the new basketball hero because he used those same free agent rights (which was made possible by a contract he and the Heat had agreed upon) to spurn Miami to return to the Cavaliers.
Every great story needs a villain and, for that, Pat Riley (unintentionally) volunteered himself to that role after making his “I’m Pissed” speech. In that speech, Riley gave the basketball world the material needed to, well, make him look foolishly evil:
“This stuff is hard,” Riley said. “And you’ve got to stay together if you got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
That’s all fine and dandy, but Riley benefited from that same perception of James, four years ago, in the 2010 offseason, when James found “the first door” and ran to Miami, leaving the town of Cleveland in flames. But in the end, that’s okay because James balanced the basketball world in his return to Cleveland by “screwing” Miami. Apparently, people really love Cleveland.
Then there were others who were in panic at the notion of James setting himself up to combine forces with another set of superstar players this offseason. These same people were marveling at the model franchise, the San Antonio Spurs. The same Spurs team whose “Big Three” players all took pay cuts to stay in San Antonio and continue to be one of the most successful franchises in NBA history. The Spurs star players taking paycuts to keep the team intact? That is acceptable. LeBron James possibly pursuing the same thing as a free agent? Unacceptable?
It’s a confusing double-standard, but it makes sense because people are used to professional teams having all the control, all the power, especially over players. This “reserve clause mentality” has been hard to break from our collective psyche and the idea of free agency is still relatively new. Regardless, we learned this offseason that it is always more than acceptable for franchises to have total control of the players’ destiny, but it is frowned upon when those players dare to control their own. That makes perfect sense.
But then how does one explain the backlash that Anthony has been receiving lately for not running through that “first door” and escape from New York? While James gets criticized for leaving Cleveland in 2010, Anthony is ostracized for not leaving New York to pursue championships. How does one go about explaining this particular double standard? Perhaps it was because he decided to ultimately pursue all of the money by staying in New York and greed is a very unattractive characteristic; especially for a basketball player. However, that is a ridiculous thought because James took a pay cut to play down in Miami in his pursuit of winning titles. Yet James was blasted by the basketball world for doing so, but the basketball realm was begging Anthony to take the pay cut to increase his opportunities at championship glory. This mystery might forever go unsolved.
Nevertheless, the most hilarious narrative came from the west coast and it took a year in the making to unravel. The idea coming from Los Angeles was that this offseason, James and Anthony would combine forces to team up with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Even getting one of those players would suffice. It was a thought that made this “Kobe-hater” sick to his stomach. But players talk and as revered as Bryant might be in NBA circles, the episode between him and former teammate Dwight Howard must be well and fully known among the players. After seeing what Howard went through with Kobe and reading the quotes (“big boy pants“) that he made about former teammate Pau Gasol (now a member of the Chicago Bulls), it was hard to imagine any high-end free agent wanting to play with that aging egomaniac. Though Anthony did show interest (undoubtedly because of his celebrity wife), both players ultimately balked at the idea of playing with Bryant and the Lakers, assuring the world will not be enveloped by a black abyss by this unholy union.
In the end, no sales pitches by teams, pursuit of forming more super teams, or being influenced by powerful people in the game had a say where the superstar free agents would go. It did not matter how much salary cap space was cleared as Chicago, Houston, and even Phoenix failed to land a big-name free agent. It did not matter who the critics thought was the team closest to winning a title. Most players were not willing to take pay cuts. The story ends with the players reminding the world that the NBA is a players’ league. Players are going to play wherever they feel like playing. Most importantly, in the cases of Anthony and Bosh, money still talks in this league.