What a difference a month makes.
Christmas Day was a memorable one for basketball fans in general, but especially for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs matched up with the team they beat in the Finals last year. The team that was supposed to wipe them off the map after having a an all-time best regular season record of 73-9 and seemed on the verge of doing just that when up 3 games to 1 in the series.
We all know what happened next. The epic comeback. The BLOCK. Kyrie’s three. The first championship for Cleveland and the ultimate validation of LeBron James.
The Christmas rematch gave us more of that narrative.
The Warriors were up 14 points in the 4th quarter and it looked like the addition of Kevin Durant to a squad that already set the record for regular season wins was too much for the Cavs to handle.
Until it wasn’t.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving lead a stunning fourth quarter comeback that ended with Irving hitting the game winning shot. The Cavs looked like the team of destiny that they were in last season’s finals and Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala seemed to cave under the pressure from Cleveland just as the Warriors had done just six months ago.
This Cleveland team in some ways looked even better than the one that took the championship. Kevin Love was finally healthy and really seemed to figure it out in ways that he hadn’t since coming to Cleveland. It genuinely looked like the dominant Love that we’d seen in Minnesota during the first six seasons of his career. Tristan Thompson was really starting to thrive in his front-court role. JR Smith continued to do JR Smith things (albeit with a shirt on this time) and shoot the lights out for the Cavs. Channing Frye was playing the best ball of his career since he peaked in Phoenix. Iman Shumpert actually looked reliable and consistent. Even old man Richard Jefferson was throwing it down again.
The Cavs looked like a team that was probably a lock to defend their title. Golden State had added the NBA’s biggest free agent since LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010 and still couldn’t put Cleveland away. If they couldn’t who could?
Then came January and the Cavs stumbled hard.
They dropped an early January game to close James’ friend Dwyane Wade (one of the banana boat crew along with Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony). They dropped a back-to-back on a west coast swing to the hot Utah Jazz and the struggling Portland Trail Blazers before beating the listless Sacramento Kings and then going into Golden State and getting blown out 126-91 in a complete reversal of the Christmas Day game. They then rebounded in Phoenix before losing three straight to the San Antonio Spurs, the New Orleans Pelicans (WITHOUT ANTHONY DAVIS) and the Sacramento Kings (!) at home (!). They closed the month out with a loss to the Dallas Mavericks – a team struggling to stay in the Western Conference playoff picture after a horrendous start to the season.
Losing to the Spurs, Warriors, Jazz or even the Bulls is nothing to worry about. Losing to the Kings, Pelicans (WITHOUT ANTHONY DAVIS), Blazers or Mavericks is downright concerning. Especially given the manner in which some of those losses went down (the Blazers blew them out 102-86 and both James and Irving were in the line-up). The Cavs limped to a 7-8 record in the month of January. The first time a team with LeBron James on the roster posted a losing record since February of 2006. So what went wrong?
Well injuries for one. JR Smith went down with a thumb injury against the Bucks in January that will probably keep him sidelined until March and robbed the Cavs of their biggest outside shooting threat. Kevin Love after having his best start in years was lost to food poisoning and then a bout of back of back spasms. Chris “Birdman” Andersen was lost for the season with a torn ACL. These injuries were crippling to the depth of a team that had already lost Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova to free agency and Mo Williams to retirement following a pre-season knee injury.
Andersen was supposed to fill Mozgov’s back-up big role and the loss of Dellavedova and Williams mean that the Cavs have a huge void in the backup point guard spot.
Despite their strong start, the Cavs are not a deep team. LeBron James is aware of this as he has recently characterized the squad as “top heavy” following the January 24th loss to the Pelicans in which James, Irving and Love combined for 97 of the Cavs’ 122 points and they still dropped the game to a Pels squad that was without Anthony Davis.
LeBron is of course absolutely right. They lack a significant amount of depth. James and Kyrie Irving are the only players on the team capable of creating their own shot opportunities on a consistent basis. The lack of guard depth means that the team relies on LeBron far too much to move the ball which has seen him hit a career high in turnovers. With Love hurting and really struggling as of late, the Cavs lack of depth and over-reliance on LeBron and Kyrie is on display.
The addition of Kyle Korver has certainly helped fill the gap left by the JR Smith’s injury, but Korver is still adjusting to his new role in Cleveland and the mounting pressures and struggles in Cleveland hasn’t helped to ease that transition.
Also one addition isn’t nearly enough. The Cavs badly need depth at the point guard position if they have any hope of repeating as champions. LeBron knows this and has been calling for it since early January. In other words, the King saw Cleveland’s struggles coming before anyone else did. The mark of a player with a high basketball IQ and there’s probably never been anyone in NBA history with a higher one than LeBron James who has undergone a Bill Russell-like quest to tailor his game to help his teammates in recent years.
Of course, because it’s LeBron James the media is piling up on him for expressing an opinion.
LeBron has been a favourite target of the media since coming into the league. There were the instant comparisons to Michael Jordan which were then as unfair as they are now given the two are completely different players and play in entirely different eras. I wrote about it here.
When The Decision happened in 2010, critics went into overdrive talking about how Michael Jordan would have NEVER teamed up with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the way that LeBron went to Miami to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth and how weak LeBron’s character was and how any championships he won in Miami would be tainted by his selfishness. All while forgetting that Michael Jordan didn’t win jack shit in Chicago until Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen showed up and that once Grant left the Bulls got their asses handed to them by the Shaq-Penny Orlando Magic until they went and got Dennis Rodman and another three-peat, but yeah LeBron had to do it by himself. It was a bullshit argument then and it’s still a bullshit argument when it’s applied to Kevin Durant. Free agency didn’t exist in that era in the way it does today. It’s apples and oranges.
There was also the criticism LeBron took for taking political stances such as when he organized a Heat team photo to honour Trayvon Martin or when James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt in the wake of Eric Garner’s murder by the NYPD in 2014. He also wore a safety pin on his lapel in his Sportsman of the Year cover for Sports Illustrated which some took as a shot at the new US President, a known racist.
The fact is that LeBron James is an outspoken and political figure and not the safe “Republicans wear sneakers too” Michael Jordan. He speaks his mind in a way that makes the media and a lot of white folks uncomfortable. He is lambasted for that in many circles in much the same way as Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, Dr. John Carlos, Tommy Smith and others were ripped by the predominantly white media for holding political opinions about the black struggle in white America. It’s the same way that Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick are treated by the media. LeBron James is very the spiritual heir to Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s legacies in basketball and activists and athletes than he is to Michael Jordan.
We’re all better off for it.
Of course the Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith types will continually take shots at the King for daring to show such strength of character. But there has been one figure in the media that has gone after LeBron on a more deep and personal level than any other out there: Hall of Famer and current TNT broadcaster Charles Barkley.
There have been many takes that have been written about Barkley’s character assassination of LeBron James. Few of them mention how Barkley, a card carrying Republican, would view James’ political activism. Well thankfully Sir Charles gave an indication of what sort of thoughts he might have when he said the following about the Black Lives Matter movement:
“Unfortunately, as I tell my white friends, we as black people, we’re never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you’re black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people. It’s a dirty, dark secret; I’m glad it’s coming out.”
“One of the reasons we’re never going to be successful as a whole, because of other black people. And for some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough. If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person. And it’s a dirty, dark secret.”
“There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don’t have success, It’s best to knock a successful black person down because they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful…We’re the only ethnic group who say, ‘Hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’ It’s just typical BS that goes on when you’re black, man.”
The racist Breitbart news agency (who now kind of control the White House) and the Blue Lives matter movement howled in delight at this. Barkley was positioned and celebrated by them as the antidote to people like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James.
Barkley really resembles Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks or Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Django Unchained more than anyone we should take seriously anymore. Certainly it’s an important piece of the narrative that is left out in coverage of the current public feud between the two.
Barkley’s basketball analysis when it comes to LeBron is way off the mark too. Sir Charles has a history of demeaning the current game by saying it’s the worst ever (seemingly invoking Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) or continuously ripping the Golden State Warriors, coming off their record 73 win season, by saying that they play “little girly basketball” not long after nonsensically stating that Klay Thompson – who plays for those same little girly Warriors – is the second best player in the NBA.
Every one of these things is demonstrably false. The NBA has never been better from a quality of play perspective and from the training, conditioning and talent level of the current players. The Warriors have the best regular season ever. Klay Thompson might be the third or fourth best player on his team (definitely behind Curry and Durant, probably behind Draymond Green) never mind being second best player in the league.
Barkley likes to say outrageous things to get attention. He’s actually much better at that than he was a basketball player and he was named as one of the 50 greatest NBA players ever by the league during its 50th anniversary celebrations.
So we shouldn’t be shocked that Barkley has taken aim at the top dog or that everything he says about LeBron James is absolutely false.
When Barkley characterized LeBron’s request for a point guard as: “Inappropriate. Whiny. All of the above” he was wrong. James isn’t the first athlete to point out weaknesses in his team and he won’t be the last. In fact, the man that Barkley consistently praises as the greatest ever – Michael Jordan openly feuded with Bulls GM Jerry Krause over personnel decisions and was instrumental in getting Dennis Rodman to the Bulls for the second three-peat. It was Jordan’s insistence in interfering in personnel decisions during his ill-fated tenure with the Washington Wizards that cost him his executive position when his playing career was done.
At least the things LeBron James is asking for don’t include taking Kwame Brown first overall or bringing in a 40 year old Charles Oakley. Instead LeBron is actually asking for things his team needs in order to have a shot at another championship.
Barkley went on to say: “The Cleveland Cavaliers, they have given him everything he wanted. They have the highest payroll in N.B.A. history. He wanted J.R. Smith last summer, they paid him. He wanted Shumpert last summer. They brought in Kyle Korver. He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete?”
Now if anyone should be aware that one man doesn’t make a team, it should be Charles Barkley. He had a transcendent 1993 campaign that saw him win the NBA MVP award while leading the Suns to an NBA best 62-20 mark. He averaged 25.6 points on 52% shooting while adding 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists. Despite his transcendent campaign, the Suns went NBA finals and lost in six games to the Chicago Bulls. Despite a great individual year for Barkley, the better team won the championship.
One man can’t do it all.
In terms of LeBron wanting all the good players, I think that’s a better argument to make about the Golden State Warriors given that they have the men who won the last three MVP awards on their team. Add LeBron to the mix and you have the last five MVPs.
James isn’t looking for another MVP-level player. He wants a back-up point guard. That’s a world of difference.
Now LeBron James doesn’t need me to defend him. He did a great job of did a great job of firing back at Barkley on his own. And everything he said was true. Barkley did throw a man through a bar window. He did spit on a kid. Sir Charles definitely did have unpaid debt in Las Vegas. He did in fact star in a Nike commercial where he famously declared that he is not a role model.
LeBron James, however, is a role model and his legacy means something to him.
Why else would he go back to Cleveland? Do you think that it was easy for him to do that after owner Dan Gilbert famously lambasted the best player in the entire league after he bolted Cleveland for Miami in a very strange, somewhat disturbing rant in comic sans?
Gilbert spoke to the Cleveland fan base about LeBron James as if he was a piece of property rather than a basketball player. The whole “how dare he?” narrative rendered fucking ridiculous by the fact that LeBron never had anyone better than a broken down Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to play with and yet dragged a sorry Cleveland squad to the 2007 NBA finals. While Boston brought together a big three that took the league by storm and the Lakers brought in Pau Gasol to help Kobe win two more championships, LeBron was expected to do it all by himself.
Why wouldn’t he have left?
Gilbert’s laughable assertion that the Cavs would win a title before LeBron did in Miami looked silly back then and even sillier after he won two rings while going to four straight finals with the Heat while Cleveland hit rock bottom and wasted a number one pick on Anthony Bennett.
The celebrations in the streets of Ohio orchestrated largely by Gilbert after the Heat lost in the 2011 finals to the Dallas Mavericks were quickly transformed into silence when LeBron followed it by rattling off back-to-back MVPs winning two straight championships and cementing his status as the best player on the planet. There was no comic sans missive marking those achievements.
Fuck Dan Gilbert.
The fact that LeBron returned to Cleveland after that fiasco shows that he is the bigger man – one of the biggest men in sports. His humble announcement confirming that he was coming home read like a confessional, an apology and everything that the much maligned ESPN Decision special wasn’t (although nobody ever mentions that James raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls club as part of it).
LeBron returned to home even in the wake of Gilbert’s humiliating tirade. He returned even though fans had burned his jersey on the way out, even though a book called “The Whore of Akron” was written by Scott Raab tearing him to pieces, even though he could have went to an
LeBron returned to home even in the wake of Gilbert’s humiliating tirade. He returned even though fans had burned his jersey on the way out, even though a book called “The Whore of Akron” was written by Scott Raab tearing him to pieces, even though he could have went to an number of destinations to increase his chances of winning a championship with better climates and a fresh start.
He went home and likened his experience in Miami to being at college and never looked back. He was gracious and he let everything go. Everything.
It wasn’t Cleveland that needed to forgive LeBron James. Fuck that. LeBron James was wronged. The fact that he forgave the city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and returned to Akron cements his legacy in a way that will extend far beyond the basketball court. James is a man who cares about where he’s from. He cares about his people and he cares about the legacy he leaves them.
And what a legacy. In his first season back he lead an injury riddled Cavs team all the way to the NBA Finals and put up a superhuman performance against a loaded Warriors squad. The Cavs had no Kevin Love and no Kyrie Irving and still took Golden State to six games. LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the best finals performance that I have ever seen in my life. The fact that he didn’t win the Finals MVP was an absolute travesty.
We all know what happened last season. The King delivered Cleveland their first championship since the Browns won in 1964. 52 years of nothing for the city all in the past because of Akron’s favourite son.
THE BLOCK supplanted THE SHOT (which was a push off by the way) as the most memorable play in NBA Finals history and LeBron James ascended to the Mount Rushmore of basketball history.
Now all he’s asking for is a back-up point guard.
Dan Gilbert owes LeBron. The city of Cleveland owes LeBron.
Get a damn back-up point guard.
The fact of the matter is that the Golden State Warriors took the nuclear option in the NBA arms race when they signed Kevin Durant this offseason. Four of their players were named to the all-star team. They have lost 7 games all year. One less than Cleveland lost in the month of January alone.
LeBron James’ prime isn’t going to last forever. The young guns of the East are coming. Embiid, Porzingis, and especially Antetokounmpo are going to take over. I wrote here about how shook James as after a back-to-back with the Bucks. He was rattled by how hard Giannis and teammate Jabari Parker went at him. He knows the end is near as much as anyone and the next generation is staring him in the face and they aren’t scared anymore.
He’s 32 and it’s only a matter of time until his skills erode and then he rides off into the sunset. I don’t see LeBron entering a Jordan on the Wizards phase of his career either so we need to appreciate him while he’s still around and before he rides off into the sunset.
He’s given us everything we could dream of and more throughout his career and more. If he wants to load the Cavs for one or two more shots at the title, everyone owes it to him to set him up for the best possible chance at continuing to build his already amazing legacy.
Haters like Charles “Uncle Ruckus” Barkley will always be around but they don’t matter. Barkley’s didn’t accomplish a tenth of what James has through his career and he never could have in any era.
LeBron James is an all-time great – talent that comes around once in a lifetime, hell if you’re lucky, once in a generation. He deserves every shot at success after everything he’s given the game of basketball.
Let the king defend his crown.