I am conflicted about LeBron James these days, and not in the way most of you are conflicted, where you wonder whether he should be tarred then feathered, or feathered then tarred. But in the wake of Dallas Mavericks 4, LeBron And the Forces of Evil 2, I think we have to paraphrase one of LeBron's lines:
What should we do?
The season is over. He lost. He appeared to be crying, or almost crying. We got our pound of flesh (and we took it from his back, so that CHOSEN 1 tattoo just says HOSE, because this amuses us). Ever since the inane "Decision" last year and even inaner welcome/victory party in Miami -- the party was more ridiculous, because it was organized by the Heat, not LeBron and his entourage, and because it came in the wake of his TV special, when public opinion had already turned on LeBron and somebody could have said, "Hey, this idea here, not so good" -- America has wanted anybody but the Heat to win this championship.
So what should we do now? Hating the Heat was good for a year. Can it really sustain you forever? What if the Heat do win? Then what? And mostly, seriously: Does it bother anybody else that this entire debacle is messing up our chance to see the most talented player alive at his best?
That's the part that troubles me. The entire narrative of James' career has become about schadenfreude (a German word! Go Dirk!), and it is clearly affecting his game. I don't buy the plus/minus stats that say LeBron was the worst player in NBA history in the Finals, because plus/minus is the worst kind of stat -- it seems like a modern-era, truth-revealing stat, but it actually tells you very little. Still, it's obvious that LeBron was nowhere near as good as he can be, and it wasn't just because of Dallas' defense or fatigue. He played his worst when everybody said he would play his worst: in the fourth quarter. He choked, and a nation reveled in it.
James said after this Finals loss that "I pretty much don't listen to what everybody has to say about me or my game or what I've done with my career," but this is the same guy who tweeted last year, "Don't think for one [minute] that I haven't been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!" So it's a bit late for him to say he doesn't care.
Frankly, I don't care whether he cares or not. On a personal level, I don't care if he ever wins a championship. But as somebody who appreciates athletic greatness, I'd like to see him play his best. Isn't that the fun of sports? We're not just in this to watch guys suffer, are we?
Look, I get the hate. I have probably written 15,000 words on the topic of LeBron James betraying the universe. I would be lying if I said that as I watched the Mavericks finish the job Sunday night, I was hoping LeBron would pull off a miracle. (My wife actually asked me, "Who are you rooting for?" which is odd, because she knows I'm an American. Actually, I was just rooting for the story, and the Mavs winning was a better story. It also makes next year's NBA season a better story -- if there is a season.)
LeBron's p.r. problem is that he doesn't seem to want real success as much as we want him to want it. Unless the players desperately care, the entire enterprise feels like a fraud. Cleveland fans spent decades of time and recreational income trying to find a winner, and LeBron dumps them on national TV? Just not fair.
The self-proclaimed King wanted it to be easy. His company's logo should be a cart in front of a horse. I think that's his biggest flaw. He doesn't realize what Michael Jordan figured out: All his financial success and popularity flows from how he conducts himself as a basketball player. James thought he could team up with his buddies and win championships and the public would think it was just like winning titles in Cleveland. Then came the backlash, and he hasn't handled that well, either.
Still: How bad of a guy is he, really?
He hasn't been arrested. I doubt he uses steroids. He hasn't robbed any 5-year-olds, as far as I know. He has an ego the size of the Pacific Ocean and he wants things handed to him on a silver platter engraved with a picture of his face, but in pro sports in 2011, is that so unusual?
I mean, Dallas guard Jason Kidd was arrested for hitting his wife (it was a volatile marriage, and I'm not here to rehash it) and forced his way out of New Jersey when the team started going south. People are happy he finally won a title. LeBron left as a free agent and did it in idiotic fashion, but how is he so much worse than Kidd? Other than Cleveland fans, are we really going to hold this against him forever?
LeBron James is the most gifted basketball player I have ever seen. Shaquille O'Neal rivals him, I suppose, but Shaq always had a circus-clown quality to him. It seemed silly to compare him to other basketball players. But LeBron has the size, athleticism and skill set to be a combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, which is just preposterous. I mean, look at how good Dwyane Wade is -- at times he seems like the best player in the world. And based on their physical gifts, LeBron should be significantly better than Wade, even on his worst day.
I'd like to see an entire spring full of his best days. It has nothing to do with my personal feelings about the guy. Part of me hopes that, at some point, on some level, most people will want to see his best, too.
We live in a world in which Richard Nixon became some kind of elder statesman and Ron Artest, instigator of the worst brawl in NBA history, just won the league's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. People do forgive and move on. But people also don't like to admit they were wrong, and hating LeBron James is such a default position for sports fans these days that anybody who defends him will get shouted down.
So here he is: Hated, humiliated, and once again, not a champion.
And maybe that's his way out of this mess.
Maybe now he can become the player he is supposed to be.
Maybe if that happens now, we can actually enjoy it.
If the Heat had won this title, I don't think LeBron ever could have regained the admiration of mainstream sports fans. It would have felt like he cheated the system. And if the Heat had won, would LeBron ever have taken a hard look at himself? Would he have worked on his mental toughness, his post game, his leadership and his insecurities -- all the reasons why he is not quite as great as he should be? I doubt he would have cared. He would have has ring.
Now at least there is a chance that privately, he addresses all of that. And there is a chance that he comes back humbled and the public forgives him. We have forgiven far worse.
James, Wade and Chris Bosh could ignore the critics all season, but they can't ignore their ultimate failure. They set the terms of engagement when they signed up for this.
The immediate and inevitable speculation will be that the Heat will a) trade Bosh, b) fire coach Erik Spoelstra, and c) replace Spoelstra with team president Pat Riley. For what it's worth, my predictions are a) no, b) no and c) no.
As I wrote a few months ago, signing Bosh was a mistake. They don't need him. If you have two of the top six players in the league, you use the rest of your payroll on a mix of rebounders, defenders and shooters -- by spending so much on their third-best player, Miami killed its chances of having any depth.
That is how a team ends up with Eddie House playing 21 minutes in Game 6 of the Finals. House wasn't the worst player in the game. The Mavs played Brian Cardinal, but at least Cardinal had the decency to go in, foul somebody as hard as he could and wave to his mother. House shot two three-pointers in the final 10 minutes of the season.
So no, they don't need Bosh. But I understand why Miami signed him: Riley was courting Wade and James at the time, and those guys wanted to play with Bosh. That's why I don't think they will trade him -- Wade and James won't go for it, and the Heat can't risk alienating those two guys. I don't think they will fire Spoelstra, either. He did make it to Game 6 of the Finals. Coaches who do that don't get fired unless they have a problem with the owner.
They are probably in this together, and they should be. This is what they wanted, so this is what they get. If Bosh gets dealt, or Spoelstra gets fired, it will just come off as LeBron being the bad guy again. It's possible, maybe even likely, that the Heat will tweak their roster, as contenders do, and that will be enough to bring a title next year. But I hope we see the best of LeBron James, too.
I think, deep down, basketball fans want to admire the most talented player in the world. I hope he acknowledges that he brought this criticism upon himself and, I hope he admits it publicly and candidly. Maybe he is too far gone, too deep in his own cocoon. But after a year of being hated, LeBron can change and show the humility and desire we admire in all of our best athletes. He can do it if he wants to do it. That is truly his most important Decision.