Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Four years later

Four years later, I’m back where I was.

Just like that July day in 2010 when I sat down to pen my thoughts on LeBron James leaving for Miami, I don’t have any way to sum up LeBron’s return in a nice, neat package. It covers so much ground, means so much on so many levels, it’s difficult to find a broach point for it all.

But if there is a point of entry, it’s probably one word long: Change.

A lot has changed these past four years. In 2010, I was a single apartment-dweller who counted sports blogging as his primary hobby. In 2014, I’m married, a homeowner, and have pushed sports blogging far into the background to concentrate on other endeavors – namely running and artwork. (Oh yeah -- I co-authored a book, too).

In 2010, LeBron was still a work in progress. He accepted the burden of his talent – carry the team, carry the city, carry the region, and take the game-deciding shots – but deep down, I think he resented it. He longed to belong, like he did in his happiest of basketball times, when he was winning state championships at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, with teammates who would become lifelong friends and business associates.

He resented the pedestal he had to occupy, with thousands of eyes looking at him as the ultimate antidote who could neutralize every flaw on the Cavs roster, and above all, the emotional baggage of an entire region, wrought by half a century of sports heartbreak.

In the 2010 playoffs, LeBron decided he’d had enough. Maybe he didn’t overtly quit, but he played like a man defeated. Like a player who was tired of lugging everything around on his shoulders. He wasn’t this region’s savior – he was its Atlas. And he didn’t want that anymore.

So he left for Miami. Dwyane Wade was still in his prime, as was Chris Bosh. LeBron was no longer a chosen one; he was a member of a chosen three. It took a year of discord to iron out the wrinkles. The 2011 Finals, and the subsequent summer, was LeBron’s nadir. But it helped forge him into a champion.

LeBron has done a lot of growing these past four years. He reached the NBA’s summit twice, among four straight trips to the NBA Finals. He learned what it truly takes to be a champion, what it truly means to be a champion. And perhaps in the process, he learned that title banners don’t make the man. They don’t even make the player.

The 2010 version of LeBron seemed to be obsessed with accumulating championship rings. His holy grail was to meet or surpass the six rings won by personal idol Michael Jordan. Six, for him, was a magic number. Get to six and cement your image on basketball’s all-time Mount Rushmore. That was the end that justified all means.

The 2014 LeBron still wants to win as many rings as his career will allow, but it appears that he no longer views six as his pass/fail line. You can win two titles, or three, or four, and still have one of the greatest careers of all time, and – even more importantly – have a career that fulfills you personally.

Which brings us to LeBron’s essay, co-authored by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. It materialized on SI.com at about 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time on July 11. Four years and three days after “The Decision” wounded this region unlike any event had wounded it since the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995.

I had just finished setting up my booth at the Cain Park Arts Festival in Cleveland Heights when my phone started going berserk with text messages. After two solid weeks of false leads and red herrings and Internet trolls and rumors about clandestine private flights to Miami, I was initially hesitant to believe the news. Surely it was a fake site or a fake Twitter account “breaking” this story which hadn’t broken despite the vigilance of thousands of fans for days on end.

But there it was, legitimately, on SI.com. The 2012 SI "Sportsman of the Year" cover photo of LeBron smiling, wearing a black suit with his first Heat championship ring prominently displayed on a finger. Laid over the picture, a three-word headline: “I’m coming home.”

The headline linked to the 12-paragraph essay. I read it over several times, just processing it.

It was hard to not feel some tears welling. It’s everything we ever wanted LeBron to say – to feel – about our embattled, often-ridiculed region. Everything we thought he didn’t feel in 2010, he actually did feel, and quite profoundly.

He was coming home, and not necessarily because he felt the Cavs offered him the best chance to win more titles in the short term. He was coming home because he wants to serve as a leader and a source of inspiration for Northeast Ohio. Because our region “needs all the talent it can get.” Because he wants the children of the region – our future doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs and artists – to follow his example and build their careers here.

Because nothing would satisfy him more as a basketball player than to win one ring for us -- to be the curse slayer.

He left not because he was a cold-hearted mercenary, but because he knew he could never learn what he needed to learn by staying put. He had to go to an organization that had been to the top. He had to get scorched by the spotlight. He had to become the villain. Everything that he never had to face in Cleveland, he knew he was going to have to face – and overcome – in Miami.

Over four years, he was broken down and rebuilt into a player who returns home as a mature leader and mentor – someone who not only knows his role and the burdens that come with it, but has grown to embrace it and is eager to pass on what he has learned to younger players like Kyrie Irving.

Four years later, LeBron has reached a point where he really, truly and completely understands what he means to this area. We want to win a championship, of course. But his relationship with this region means so much more than just basketball. And that’s what we were in danger of permanently losing in 2010.

The pain caused by his departure, and how it was carried out on national TV, caused him to become a local pariah. LeBron was all but erased from the concourses at Quicken Loans Arena. You seldom found any evidence in the community that LeBron once played for the hometown team.

Sure, LeBron came home to Akron every summer. And yes, he gave -- and still gives -- much in the way of time and money to community causes in the area. But we didn't view him as someone who was really on our side. Not when he left every fall, pulled that Heat uniform back on and administered several annual beatdowns on the young Cavs.

If that was the final chapter in LeBron’s relationship with Northeast Ohio, it would have been downright tragic. The greatest basketball player this region has ever produced, and the greatest player in Cavs history, a virtual nonentity, persona non grata. Reviled, not revered, in the area where his legacy matters the most.

The only way to real repair was for LeBron to come back to the Cavs while he could still play at a high level. A diminished 38-year-old LeBron returning during the sunset of his career wouldn’t have done much to repair the relationship. For the public to buy in, LeBron had to come back while he was still in his prime, still at or near the top of his game.

That’s exactly what happened. LeBron, at the age of 29, is back, and it would appear he intends to finish his career here.

It’s a new beginning with the best possible goal: A happy ending.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Doing it wrong, all along?

Maybe Cavs GM Chris Grant really is lousy at drafting. Maybe Tuesday’s trade that brought Luol Deng to Cleveland is Grant’s acknowledgement that his drafts have been lacking.

Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement that the system is flawed, and no team lives on drafting alone. In fact, if you want a championship parade, history says you do what Grant just did and peddle future assets for established talent.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, as Cleveland shivered in the clutches of the coldest night in two decades, Grant shipped Andrew Bynum – or more accurately, Bynum’s non-guaranteed contract -- and three draft picks of lesser importance to Chicago for Deng. Chicago made the deal for future flexibility, as they prepare to retool their team around the currently-injured Derrick Rose. The Cavs made the deal because they simply need more talent.

So why Deng? He’ll be 29 in April. He’s a high-mileage player who led the Bulls in minutes per game each of the past two seasons, and led the entire league in minutes played two seasons ago.

He’s a good player, not a great player, and common wisdom says you need a great player at Deng’s position of small forward in order to contend for a title in today’s NBA. Deng is averaging a career high in points per game (19) and nearly a career high in rebounds per game (6.9), but he’s really the definition of “good at everything, master of nothing.”

There is definitely a place in the league for players like Deng, but nobody is going to confuse him with a franchise-caliber talent. Contrast that with the 2014 draft, which is supposedly to be loaded with franchise talent and difference-makers. Thanks to Deng, the Cavs will be too good to garner a high lottery pick.

Grant punted away a shot at a stud prospect like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Marcus Smart for four guaranteed months of Luol Deng. How insane and/or stupid can an NBA GM be?

Or maybe Grant is out-foxing the fox.

History says that the draft can do a lot for you, but it’s probably not going to win you championships if that’s your primary means of laying a foundation. Veteran teams win championships, not young teams. And thanks to the restrictions of the salary cap, young teams don’t stay intact long enough to mature into veteran teams.

No team has done a better job of building through the draft than the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the start of last season, finances forced their hand into trading James Harden to Houston. Harden quickly became an elite player for the Rockets, and the Thunder felt the sting of his absence when Russell Westbrook went down with an injury right before the playoffs last spring. Instead of getting over the hump, the Thunder were set back a season.

The Indiana Pacers have done a great job of building through the draft – all through mid-to-low first-rounders, no less. They still have yet to make the Finals with this group, thanks to the Miami Heat, who were store-bought.

It’s a recurring theme over the past decade-plus. The Lakers have won five titles dating to 2000. Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were the two key players who arrived in L.A. as rookies. Everyone else arrived via a trade or free agency. The Heat have won three titles with acquired players such as Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The Mavs won their 2011 title with home-grown Dirk Nowitzki supported by an army of ringers including Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler.

The Celtics drafted Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. The other half of their 2008 championship core – Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen -- arrived via trades.

In 2004, the Pistons started one of their own draft picks – Tayshaun Prince. Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups were all traded for, or signed as free agents.

In the wake of all those teams? Teams that tried to scale the draft mountain.

In the 21st Century, only the Spurs have won championships with a completely home-grown backbone. And much like the Patriots with Bill Belichick, the Spurs exist in their own mad-scientist laboratory, concocting potions that only they can produce. If you, as a mere mortal, try to replicate their ways and means, it’s a recipe for failure.

So, should Chris Grant have waited on the 2014 draft? After three years of tanking? Needing to show the best of his draft picks, Kyrie Irving, some sign that the team is committed to winning?  Knowing that Irving is due an extension offer this summer, and if he tables it or turns it down, it will make for a very nervous 2014-15 season?

Any more, it’s not about drafting the best players. It’s about acquiring the best players that other teams have drafted – that other teams have done the dirty work of developing into quality veterans.

Go for Wiggins and his greenhorn brethren, and you’re stuck waiting for him to develop into a veteran star – if it ever happens. By then, Irving and Tristan Thompson will have been due extensions, Dion Waiters will have been due an extension and you’ll have likely needed to make a call on whether to invest more money and years in Anderson Varejao. You can’t keep the whole house of cards standing that long.

Trade for an established veteran like Deng, and while you might have shortened your possible window of contention, at least you’ve started to define the window. Add another quality veteran before the February trade deadline, and – if you re-sign Deng this summer – you can possibly jump right into the May/June basketball conversation next year. Especially considering the low overall quality of the Eastern Conference.

The draft has value, but perhaps not the value we think it does. The current NBA system positions successful-drafting teams as banks to be robbed. If I’m running an NBA team, I’d rather be wearing the mask than guarding the safe.