LeBron and Cleveland Succeed Without Each Other



Travis Basciotta

July 8, 2010: Was it really that long ago? In case the date doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps the word “decision” might ring a bell. I’m talking about the day LeBron James and his friends/advisors took a break from good judgment and approved a deal with ESPN to televise his signing with the Miami Heat. The city of Cleveland, and even the state of Ohio, tuned in, waiting to see whether their beloved hometown hero would stay by their side and try to win a championship with the Cavaliers, only to have their worst fears realized. It was the basketball equivalent of a public breakup – only the entire sports world was watching, and Cleveland didn’t take it well. The whole ordeal was misguided, contrived, insensitive and selfish. But that was two and a half years ago.

February 14, 2013: You know that public breakup that went horribly wrong? The one where ugly things were said, belongings were burned (literally), and feelings were hurt? Well I’m happy to report that in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, both parties have settled their differences and moved on. LeBron matured, admitted his poor taste in judgment, emerged as the unquestioned leader on both an NBA Championship team and gold-medal-winning Olympic team, while putting up numbers that make Michael Jordan uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that he’s saying things like I’d take Kobe over LeBron. Sure, MJ. You probably also think the Bobcats are a well-run organization. 

As for Cleveland, let’s just say they found somebody else. He was also picked first overall (I guess that’s their type) and is showing the blend of talent, athleticism and confidence that has Ohio natives dropping their hard-earned paychecks on No. 2 jerseys with “Irving” across the back. I’m talking of course about Kyrie Irving, the 20-year-old point guard who just added NBA All-Star to his already-impressive resume. Cleveland certainly hasn’t forgotten about LeBron, but the presence and play of Irving helps to put their minds at ease. 

Before diving into LeBron’s play, I’d like to talk briefly about Cleveland. I’m not exaggerating when I say they have the potential to challenge the Heat, Bulls and Pacers in the East in 2014-15. Presently, the young core of Irving-Waiters-Varejao-Thompson is struggling to win games in the absence of Varejao, but they have shown enough potential to get Cleveland fans excited. Byron Scott is letting his young guys play through rookie and sophomore hiccups in order to allow them to gel as a team. This is the OKC model: tank for three seasons, convert on high draft picks and develop team chemistry. It wasn’t too long ago that the Zombie Sonics were a perennial joke, until they scored big on three consecutive top-five picks (Durant-Westbrook-Harden), not to mention stealing Serge Ibaka in the late first round. That same core, minus Harden, has OKC positioned as perennial contenders, despite being stationed in one of the smallest markets in the league.

The Cavaliers can do the same, especially considering their bevy of picks in next year’s draft. Their own pick will likely be top-five, and they also own three others that could be traded to move up into the lottery. A few possible fits that jump out include Kentucky big-man Nerlens Noel, who will still go high despite suffering a gruesome season-ending leg injury, versatile UNLV forward Anthony Bennett and Georgetown star wing Otto Porter. Any one of these guys would add even more depth and athleticism to the young core in Cleveland. If they hit on their draft picks and Kyrie can take his game to the next level (which he’s shown he can), beware of the Cavaliers. 

Now, back to LeBron. Hatred of

LeBron was like LMFAO: it peaked in 2011 and now I’m just annoyed every time I hear it. The Decision, when he announced he would join the Miami Heat, and the accompanying purple-checkered shirt were bad but not bad enough to stay bitter at the most talented basketball

player of our generation. He’s not the greatest yet (rings are needed, but will come), but there is nobody that rivals him in terms of pure basketball ability. In the month of February, LeBron is averaging 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, six assists, 1.6 steals and one block on 69 percent shooting from the field. For the year, those averages are 27.3 points, 6.9 assists and 8.2 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. Looking at those numbers, I’d argue LeBron combines the best of both worlds: the high volume scoring of a perimeter player with the efficiency of a post player. For opposing teams, that’s not just a nightmare – it’s downright unfair. And the scariest aspect of LeBron’s dominance is that he’s still improving! 

Consider LeBron’s long-range shooting, long hailed as his Achilles heel. Through his first eight seasons, LeBron shot 33 percent from three-point range, allowing defenders to sink back and protect the paint when he was stationed on the perimeter. Now, LeBron has developed into a quality three-point shooter, making 42 percent of his attempts this season and forcing defenders to at least get a hand in his face. Developing that jump shot has also opened up the lanes for him, making it easier for him to do what he does best – getting to the rim and finishing. Still, there’s considerable room for improvement in that and other aspects of his game (free throw shooting, off-ball movement), so we may not have reached his ceiling. 

For the time being, I’ve made a firm commitment to simply appreciate LeBron James. I don’t have to like him or root for him and the Heat to win multiple championships (and I won’t), but I can’t ignore his play over the past month. As a basketball fan, it’s been exciting to see him rewrite the history books and to imagine what he’s capable of should he continue to improve. Only time and rings will tell where LeBron will rank on the list of all-time greats, or if he can be mentioned in a discussion with MJ, but I’m just looking forward to watching him try.