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Can we still have a healthy level of skepticism about LeBron James?

Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports

Immediately following the earth-shattering announcement that LeBron James was leaving the four-time East champion Heat and returning to the Cavaliers, we all lost the ability to think rationally. For an unknown period of time – maybe just minutes, perhaps a few days – we all collectively became so swept up in emotion, surprise and wonderment about the actual basketball that we weren’t able to process the news, think about it on a level plane and assess accurately what it meant.

What did the decision mean? How would it affect the Heat, the Cavs, the league, LeBron’s career, his legacy, our sensibilities, our media, our culture, our economy or our way of life? It was impossible to say for sure. We were all so enraptured by “OMG LEBRON” that to make any guesses, right there on the spot without any time to truly reflect, would have been irresponsible.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. Everyone had a take. We talked about the flowing prose of LeBron’s Sports Illustrated essay, the wonderful narrative of a local boy returning home and the tantalizing, potentially title-winning possibilities that were borne out of the King’s move to team up with three recent No. 1 overall picks. Our opinions came from all different angles, and pretty much universally, they were positive ones.

I wonder how that will change over time.

While the initial shock was just too much for us, I wonder what will happen when that wears off. It’s now been precisely one week since James announced his Cleveland return, and now might be the right time to pause for a moment and take stock of the superstar’s public perception and how it’s changed.

This might sound tiresome. I’ll be the first to say that James received far too much scrutiny from pundits and basketblogger types like me over the last four years, so I understand why it’s refreshing to have a little time off. It’s nice to go a week without anyone bashing LeBron.

But this isn’t bashing – it’s just a careful once-over of the Decision 2.0 fallout. We were all quick to praise James for his impeccably heartfelt and PR-savvy return to his hometown team, and we hesitated to question it even for a moment. Now, a week later, a few queries might merit a bit of conversation.

Three questions in particular linger in my mind:

1. Did LeBron really sacrifice anything, basketball-wise?
One of the reasons the original “Decision” was received so poorly in 2010 was that LeBron’s route to glory was deemed too easy. After seven years plugging away in Cleveland and not winning anything, LeBron snapped and opted for the simplest possible way to win championships – stockpiling superstar teammates and overpowering everyone. Justifiably or not, this got a lot of backlash from fans who thought winning should be harder. “Why team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh,” they asked, “when you can try to beat them instead?” When people called James a coward, this is what they meant.

The 2014 decision was meant as the antithesis of the 2010 edition, and sacrificing ease of winning was supposedly a big reason why. Whereas with the Heat four years ago, LeBron stood up and predicted “not five, not six, not seven,” he wrote in his letter a week ago that he was determined to bring just one championship back to Cleveland. He also admitted he didn’t feel ready. From this, we’re supposed to conclude that LeBron has sacrificed a better basketball situation because of his personal connection to Cleveland, and this makes him a more sympathetic figure.

I have doubts. Is Cleveland really a worse option for LeBron, given that he may well finish his career there and he needs to plan for the next decade? Is it really better to hitch your wagon, long-term, to Wade (32) and Bosh (30) instead of Kyrie Irving (22) and Andrew Wiggins (19)? I don’t doubt that the former pair is more skilled right now and more likely to help James if his sole aspiration is to win the 2015 Finals. But one thing that sets LeBron apart from the typical player is his ability to see the big picture. Just as he can read a defense and pick it apart, he can likewise size up the NBA landscape and make shrewd decisions about his future. Cleveland, as luck would have it, just might be the best option.

I think LeBron realized this the moment he saw the Cavaliers draft Wiggins and ink Irving to his $90 million extension. I think he’s known it all along, and he’s underpromising rather than make big pledges like he did in 2010. In other words, he’s the guy with pocket aces who’s just flopped a set, but he’s content to slowplay his hand for now. He’ll get paid off later.

2. Was LeBron really destined to return to Cleveland?
To me, the most poignant single sentence in LeBron’s letter was the opener to paragraph seven – he wrote “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there.” With that simple statement, he implies that a Cavs comeback was destiny, that this was always going to happen, that he never would have had it any other way. That makes a wonderful message for a once-scorned fan base, but on a certain level, I find it hard to believe.

Obviously, a Cleveland return was something the LeBron was weighing throughout his four years with the Heat. He dropped numerous hints about it – talking about how Akron was still home to him, how he could forgive Dan Gilbert for the letter, how he wouldn’t rule out a comeback someday. All the seeds were planted. But there’s a big difference between planting the seeds and actually growing the massive redwood tree that is a LeBron James return to Cleveland. That’s a huge decision, and it doesn’t always follow from a couple of cryptic quotes in the media. All those Cleveland hints could easily have been forgotten – and I bet you that had the Cavs not shown so much hope for improvement, they would have been.

Put simply, LeBron ain’t going to Cleveland if the team stays bad. He needs reasons, basketball-wise, to go there. A Cavs return was always a possibility, but he knew he couldn’t actually do it unless the team had potential. Ergo: He got lucky! The Cavs won the lottery three times, locking in Irving and Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, and then he could make his comeback.

Even after all the luck, though, it still wasn’t a done deal. Remember: The Cavs drafted Wiggins on June 26, and James still didn’t decide to play for them until July 11. That’s a ton of time, and while I don’t begrudge him taking that long, I also don’t think it makes sense to think of his decision as destined or anything like that. Clearly, he struggled with it a lot.

Part of it was a PR thing. It wouldn’t shock me if the reason word leaked to Chris Broussard about Cleveland, back on July 6, was that LeBron’s people deliberately put the word out there to gauge public opinion. Once Broussard fired off a couple of tweets, they had a full 96-hour news cycle to feel out what fans would think. Then, they could make a confident decision.

(It’s like how, early in “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s congressman character tells Kate Mara’s reporter character that “Catherine Durant” is the key name to know in the race for Secretary of State? Then Mara asks, “Is she in line for the job?” and Spacey responds, “She will be.” Same principle here: Once you put something out there for public discourse, it can become true – even if it wasn’t to begin with.)

3. Was LeBron’s Sports Illustrated letter really as perfect as we said?
I’m as guilty of this as anyone – immediately in the wake of seeing LeBron’s prose in SI, I decided that every single word was absolutely pristine, and that this was the ideal way to announce his signing with the Cavs. The letter sounded sincere, it seemed humble and it was the polar opposite of everything we hated about 2010.

A couple of things, though.

After reading the letter over and over all week, I think I’ve concluded that omitting Wiggins from the teammate shoutouts was, well, kinda dumb. If it was just an oversight because he skimmed the Cavs’ 2013-14 basketball-reference page and forgot to include their recent draft picks, that’s an embarrassing mistake. Or if it really is, as everyone’s speculating, because LeBron wants to see Wiggins traded for Kevin Love, then he chose the wrong time and place to send that message. For one thing, it kills your leverage to put it out there in the media that a trade must happen. And secondly, it’s awful presumptuous, isn’t it? What if Flip Saunders doesn’t want to trade Love for Wiggins? And besides – who’s to say LeBron’s trade idea is a good one? What if Wiggins is the second coming of… well, LeBron? What if the Cavs are better off not letting their player play GM?

The other imperfection with LeBron’s letter comes toward the end, when he begins to talk about the power that his decision could have to revitalize Ohio. He talks about kids going to college, coming home, building families, starting businesses. Maybe he’s onto something here, but it seems like an incomplete thought. Is anyone really starting a business in northeast Ohio because of a guy who plays basketball? We’ve all praised LeBron in recent years for his humility, but his “a calling above basketball” message sounds anything but.

I write all of this just to spark discussion. To clarify, I love LeBron and think he’s not only the best player since Jordan, but one of the most compelling people as well. But what is sport without debate? What is a superstar player without a counterpoint? If we can’t question LeBron anymore, where’s the fun in that?

Obviously, having checks and balances for your president is more important than for your basketball star. A commander in chief with too much power has the potential to, you know, destroy the world. But with LeBron, healthy debate is worthwhile too. If we had nothing to argue about with the game’s best player, I don’t know what we’d do with ourselves. I think – and, maybe perversely, hope – that it’s only a matter of time before the discourse starts back up again.

Evans Clinchy

  • Troy Bravestarr

    Regarding #3 The wiggin’s in the room

    I was thinking on my morning commute, Lebron was particularly savvy to just fade into the back during all this conversation. It is interesting to think about what his role as leader, and his concrete intentions outside of the general bring happiness to Ohio.

    Being in the driver seat of this new Cav’s team what exactly will his role be roster construction and management. He states that it is not about roster or organization, but such benevolence seems contradicting when his altruism never extended into his paycheck (let the record show he should be the highest paid player in the league in my opinion).

    No hate. I just find him, not only one of the best players, but one of the most fascinating, in terms of his balance he has had to do of media, to performance, to person.

  • Joe

    the problem is you can’t debate anything lebron. The second you say the slightest thing critical about him you are immediately labeled a jealous jordan loving hater.