With LeBron James on his way to Miami to form the equivalent of an NBA supergroup, I have just one request.
Can we please pull the "LeBron is the next Michael Jordan" tour bus over to the side of the Ain't Never Gonna Happen Turnpike and park it in the Things I Never Want To Hear Again parking lot?
Michael Jordan would never have taken the easiest possible path to an NBA championship — and that's what LeBron did with this move to Miami.
For basketball, James' move to Miami is great — it creates new jersey sales, a new supervillain for fans to root against and tons of new storylines. The Heat have become the Shaq/Kobe Lakers on crack, Boston's Big Three with a longer shelf life. Everybody likes to have someone to root against, and now NBA fans have their villain for the next six years.
For James and the idea that he's the evolutionary heir to Michael's throne, the move to Miami is the final nail in the coffin. Jordan's legacy as the league's greatest-ever player — and greatest winner since Bill Russell — is firmly intact. The only way LeBron can take Jordan's title is if he dominates the Heat, makes them his own, relegates Dwayne Wade to Scottie Pippen-like status and still wins four to six championships. I think the Heat are at least a year away from winning one title, and I don't see Kobe/Gasol/role player XYZ going anywhere anytime soon, either. He's got a tough road to travel.
I don't hate LeBron for leaving Cleveland. Actually, I kind of feel sorry for him.
He's never had a team worthy of his talents. He's Magic Johnson without James Worthy, Byron Scott, Mychal Thompson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - and a rabid fan base that expects him to walk on water, win every year, restore the Cleveland economy and feed the bears in the Cleveland Zoo, all at the same time. The Cavaliers management only has themsleves to blame for even giving James a decision to make on Thursday. If they had made good player-personnel decisions, James wouldn't have been looking for greener pastures. The Cavs let James' best teammate, Carlos Boozer, walk after his rookie season by not offering Boozer nearly what he was worth. LeBron tried to salvage this year with Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, a really old Shaquille O'Neal, Anderson Verajao and Delonte West — or, 1.5 players taking up the bodies of 4 guys. In hindsight, the Cavs ended up about where you should — losing in the conference semifinals to a better, deeper Boston team.
James never had a true number 2 player — and that is the Cavs fault. Dan Gilbert should send out another letter apologizing to Cavs fans for not having a good enough general manager to win a title with an individual player whose range of gifts hasn't been seen since Magic Johnson. He should apologize for not delivering a team that had enough talent to win. The Cavs will be back in the lottery next year without LeBron, because there isn't enough talent there to win 30 games. Gilbert should apologize for pushing LeBron out the door.
The heartache Cleveland fans are dealing with is on management's head, not LeBron's. He felt the need to take his fate into his hands and find better teammates since the Cavaliers front office wasn't going to do it for him. It's his life, and he did what he thought he should.
It just knocks him down a few pegs historically. Instead of being the next Jordan, going on a championship run on his terms and leaving his stamp on a city, he's hitching his wagon to Wade and Bosh and whoever else Pat Riley can get to play for the veteran minimum. The statue outside Miami's arena won't be LeBron -- it'll be LeBron, Wade and Bosh together. He's still a Hall of Fame player, but unless something unexpected happens, all Thursday night means is that he's not overtaking Jordan anytime soon.
I have a hard time believing Jordan would have bailed on Cleveland. He was too much of a competitor. Not only did he have to win, but everyone had to know that he was the reason his team won. The stories are legendary. There was the time, after the 1992 NBA Finals and Jordan's emasculation of Clyde Drexler, when Jordan felt the need to show his dominance over Clyde in Dream Team practices to the point Scottie Pippen had to ask Jordan to let up before Clyde broke down in tears and started sucking his thumb. There was the time, after beating Phoenix in the NBA Finals that, in the middle of the Bulls' championship celebration, he swore at Dan Majerle for the sole reason that Jerry Krause had thought Majerle was a prospect five years before. There was Jordan prompting Jim O'Brien, as coach of the Celtics, to tell Paul Pierce to stop talking trash to Jordan — after Jordan had been retired for three years — because O'Brien didn't want to have any part of a ticked off Jordan.
There is no way Jordan doesn't look at Wade and Riley's pitch as anything other than a slap in the face — and that's what made Jordan the killer he was. Not only was he going to beat you, he was going to rip your heart out, cut your testicles off and steal your girl, too. Had Dwayne Wade tried to sell to Jordan that the best way to a title was for Jordan to go to Miami, I would like to imagine the conversation going kind of like this.
Wade: Hey man, the Heat have enough cap space that you, me and Chris could all have max contracts. Who could match up with us Mike? Me running the point, you on the wing, Chris down on the block. It'd be awesome. No double teams. Easy shots. Run and gun. And, it's beautiful weather down here all year. There's Pat Riley's hair — and seriously, you have to see this thing up close. It's breathtaking. And, we have all those hot foxes in bikinis during the season — none of this parka crap you deal with in Cleveland. There's clubs to go to with private champagne rooms. Man, I had to get divorced just to be able to go there guilt-free. Anybody who's anybody lives in Florida. Hell, Tiger lives here, and he knows where all the hot women are at. There's no income tax, so we don't have to pay accountants to create shell corporations in Jamaica — we can just go buy Jamaica. You, me, Bosh, Riley. Come to Miami, Mike. It's paradise.
Jordan: That's tempting man. I'm tired of playing with Sideshow Bob Verajao. They lowballed Boozer and haven't found a decent power forward since. Shaq was fun, but he's always trying to hang out like we're homeys and, honestly, it's a little weird. These fans are crazy up here. They think I can win six championships in one season, and whine when I fail. They forget the second-best player on my team is my left butt cheek. And, man, the owner is craaazzzyyy. Seriously, he needs to switch to decaf. He called and texted me 792 times in the last three weeks, wanting to know what I'm going to do. It's nuts. Half of me just wants out. I want peace and quiet. I want some help. I want to be loved. I don't want my every move second- and triple-guessed. I just want to play basketball.
Wade: So it's done, then? You're coming to South Beach? We'll win, like, five titles. We'll be the favorites every year. People will want to take less money to play with us just to come in for a guaranteed title every year. It'll be great. You, me, Bosh — three Hall of Famers who gave up max money to win a ton of titles. Alone, we're flawed. But together, baby, we're unbeatable. And, don't forget, you have us to help with the crunch time stuff — no having to take it all on yourself. I'll deal with the press. I'll take care of everything. They love me down here. I can do no wrong. You and Chris just have to back me up.
Jordan: Slow your roll, D. I don't want to be Fiddle 1A or B. I definitely don't want to be Fiddle 2. I'm the best player in the league, and if you two are going to Miami, well, the title goes through wherever else I end up. You'll have to take that trophy from my cold, dead hands. I'll take the poopoo platter Dan Gilbert gives me, and I'll still kick your scrawny butts all over the league. Have fun playing with Mario Chalmers and Dexter Pittman next season. Say hi to your momma for me - I haven't called her since the last time we, um, got together, if you know what I mean.
And Jordan storms out of the room..
Seriously, can you imagine Jordan leaving Chicago for the path of least resistance to a championship? And don't tell me it couldn't have happened. Jordan had more than enough money at the end of his career. Chicago gave him back to back 30 million dollar contracts to make him stay. Had he wanted, he could have told the Bulls to take a walk and signed with anyone he wanted — maybe an Orlando team with a young Shaquille O'Neal, maybe a Boston team with a young Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, or even a trip to New York City to play with the Knicks. Jordan could have done anything he wanted — and he chose to ride it out with an aging Bulls team. Scottie was falling apart. Rodman was wearing his wedding dresses, marrying Madonna and painting his hair like it was the Sistine Chapel. Toni Kukoc, Jordan's big gun off the bench, was softer than a jelly donut. Jordan had to do battle with the serviceable Bill Wennington and Luc Longley in the post. And he still stayed a Bull.
Jordan wouldn't have bailed on a challenge. Jordan wouldn't have bailed on his fans.
A lot of things had to go right in Jordan's career to win six titles in this era of NBA basketball. He missed playing the best centers (Hakeem, David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal) in the playoffs — which took amazing luck. Krause had to get lucky with Pippen. Rodman had to remember to put on his uniform and not a corset. But the one thing that the Bulls could always count on was Jordan to be Jordan. Sure, he put up the occasional clunker. He's human. But, when the chips were down, his last six seasons with the Bulls, nobody was beating Jordan. It didn't matter who you put with him.
To this observer, it looks like LeBron is taking the easy way out to a championship. It's not his team. Miami will be, and probably forever will be, Dwayne Wade's team. It smacks of Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens coming to the Yankees — an uberstar looking for a ring. How long did it take A-Rod to win? Does Clemens get a lot of credit for winning rings with the Yankees? Nope. They came to Derek Jeter's team and pitched in - or, in A'Rod's case, it took so long to win the pressure was off. On their own, they couldn't seal the deal. A-Rod and Clemens were great individual players, but Derek Jeter goes down in everybody's book as the cold-blooded winner.
Winning is never as easy as it looks. Having the best players don't always make your team the the best team. You still need role players to come up big for you. For every Kobe Bryant, there is a Derek Fisher hitting big shots. For every Alex Rodriguez blasting home runs, there is a Brett Gardner getting on base ahead of him to score runs. For every Roger Clemens, there is a Jeff Nelson holding his leads in the eighth inning.
Who are the role players on this Miami team? Do you really trust Jarvis Varnado or Dexter Pittman to make plays down the stretch? In Cleveland, LeBron was one player, maybe two players, away from a championship. In Miami, we don't know yet, because they have a three-man team. Michael Beasley is gone, and the Heat drafted Varnado, Pittman and D'Sean Butler in the second round. Pat Riley still has work to do, because somehow, I don't see Pittman, Butler or Varnado becoming the next Steve Kerr, Robert Horry or John Paxson.
So, enough with the greatest ever talk for LeBron. He's more of a Magic Johnson-type player, and there's nothing wrong with that. Bron wants to facilitate, not dominate.
Michael loved the spotlight, craved it really. He didn't just want to win titles. He HAD to win titles. It was in his blood. And he wanted to win them on his terms. Early in his career, he had to learn to trust his teammates. When they repaid that trust by coming through for him, the gloves were off. The Bulls were unbeatable. I give Phil Jackson a lot of credit for that. Jordan destroyed teammates before Jackson and the Tex Winter triangle offense came along. The triangle forced Jordan to involve his teammates. When John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong showed they could hit a few jumpers, when Pippen showed he could be a good second banana, when Horace Grant showed he could be trusted to grab a key defensive rebound late in a game, Jordan believed. When his teammates needed someone to take over down the stretch, they believed in him.
They were role players, but they filled their role perfectly. Just remember that we saw the Bulls without Jordan, and they weren't a title contender. They were a middle of the pack team that couldn't get past Shaquille O'Neal, Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway. When Jordan and Pippen left, they were a lottery team that has barely been heard from since.
When crunch time comes around now, LeBron can pass to the open man and not worry about failing in a big spot. The media won't be talking about why he didn't take the shot or shoot enough in the fourth quarter. He's a facilitator, a piece of a whole, like Magic. Wade or Bosh can take the big shots if Bron-Bron decides he isn't in the mood. He doesn't have to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders anymore. In Cleveland, he had to right all of the sports wrongs of the last 40 years: The Fumble, The Shot, Jose Mesa blowing a World Series, no titles for the last 60 years. In Miami, he's a piece of the puzzle waiting for the inevitable title to fall into his lap.
There's nothing wrong with that. You can win titles that way as long as you have a good enough supporting cast — and catch Kobe and the Lakers on a bad night.
I just don't want to hear another word about the next Jordan — because King James just kissed away his right to that throne.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.