LeBron's days of misdirection are now over

July, 8, 2010
7/08/10
12:55
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Online Dictionary defines "misdirection" as "the act of distracting; drawing someone's attention away from something." The idea is to push focus in one direction long enough to pull off an act otherwise impossible under a steady watch.

Magicians, for example, create just enough spectacle to shove the proverbial rabbit inside the hat on the sly. Attention is fixated on the right hand, leaving the southpaw to sneak around undetected. Over the years, as the scale of tricks have increased, so has the misdirection. Eye-popping visuals and stages littered with set pieces have become commonplace as increasingly smarter audiences are being fooled. Bells and whistles in the name of entertainment, but also a conscious effort to cover up what's right in front of people.

Icon SMI

Chalk may still get in our eyes, but we can see things more clearly now with LeBron.



LeBron James is not a magician by trade, but he's definitely been a man of spectacle and entertainment. Tossing around chalk dust before games. Sideline skits with teammates. A subscriber to the idea of bigger being better. He's also been a consistent practitioner of misdirection over the last few years. His sleight of hand has commonly been referred to as "Summer 2010," and its ensuing hype has been the most effective misdirection this side of Houdini, along with the most overlooked element since James began teasing us with the proposition of leaving Cleveland.

For LeBron, 2-3 years' worth of impending free agency hoopla has been about more than just gluing himself to the forefront of the sports world's consciousness. About marketing his "brand." About ego out of control. At times, it hasn't been about much more, the most glaring example being "The Decision," tonight's farcical press conference announcing where he'll play next season. An hour devoted towards what can be comprehensively explained in 15 minutes tops, unless the destination happens to be the Timberwolves.

It's an exercise in laughable and potentially cruel excess, driving home in embarrassing fashion how no amount of spotlight is enough for LeBron.

Still, even acknowledging this insatiable craving, the constant reminders of a possible departure haven't served just to hog attention away from LBJ's fellow NBA superstars. There's been an additional -- in many ways, more important -- byproduct. This (previously) never-ending soap opera has conveniently doubled as a compelling distraction from an inconvenient truth:

LeBron hasn't won anything yet, and he's moved steadily further away from that critical goal.


Obviously, seven championship-free seasons aren't entirely James' fault. (Technically speaking, he hasn't played well enough to secure a ring, but it's hard to claim he hasn't been pretty spectacular while "failing.") Nor has a lack of titles been entirely glossed over, particularly as expectations have shifted from "it's adorable how he's carrying a crappy team at age 21" to "We're wai-ting." The Cavs' recent fall to the Boston Celtics during the Eastern Conference Semifinals was crucified by NBA analysts, with James enduring the criticism's brunt. Even worse, the "psychology" behind LeBron's oddly lethargic Game 5 attracted enough examination and rewinds by SportsCenter, the blogosphere and fans to make the Zapruder film feel inadequate by comparison. Teflon as LeBron has often appeared during his career, the bullets have nonetheless been fired.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron better be shaking Paul Pierce's hand next season as the player advancing forward.



But to a sizable degree, none of this truly resonated, because the larger story has always remained LBJ's destination come July, 2010. Criticism for coming up short has always been overshadowed by the saga that is today's "decision."

The Cavs' trades or acquisitions have been evaluated more by the likelihood of keeping LeBron content in Cleveland than their actual basketball merits. (Shaquille O'Neal may be a questionable fit from day one, but nonetheless such a grand gesture of a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep LeBron, he's gotta be impressed, right?)

Shortened postseasons have been less about failure to secure a title, but the fear of not securing James as a Cav for life.

Hell, even winning a title wasn't without implications. Back when the Cavs were considered the 2010 favorites (which feels likes about 100 years ago), the impact of a championship was rarely discussed in the context of what it meant for LeBron's career. Instead, people debated whether a ring would free him up to leave Ohio, his "business" now unfinished, or encourage him to create a homegrown dynasty.

If LeBron racked 50 in the Garden, it was a "sign" of wanting to play in New York. Body language during a conversation with Jay-Z was dissected for "openness" towards being a member of the Nets. A jersey change from 23 to 6? Surely, he's joining Chicago, right?

The guy couldn't eat a sandwich without sparking a debate over the "Cleveland-ness" of the ingredients.

And that's just the way he wanted it.

Whether thrilled or nauseated by the circus, you had to admire its effectiveness. We were all witnesses, even while looking in the wrong direction. But the big top eventually packs up the tents and vacates at some point, and for LeBron, that time is now. From here on out, no matter if he decides to play in Cleveland, Miami, New York, Chicago or Pluto, the days of diverting our focus anywhere but his still-naked fingers are now officially a memory.

Starting July 8, 2010, it's all about titles or "Why the hell don't you have one?"

Period.

Join another team and fail to win, then maybe the problem is him. Stay in Cleveland and fail to win, he's either a fool who couldn't see this coming, or again, maybe it's him, since the Cavs will have by then rolled out a million lineups to no avail. Either way, it's squarely on LeBron, and the days of using a B-Plot to throw off the headline story's scent are done.

There was always a natural shelf life for maintaining such intense hype without a championship. One can only present himself (or be anointed, depending on how you feel) as the poster boy for greatness for so long while everyone else raises the O'Brien. Even taking into account LeBron's undeniable talent (I've described him before as the league's best player, and believe he's played large chunks of a season as such), can we really keep debating his eventual ranking among the all-time greats --or even just against Kobe Bryant -- before he's even come through in the Finals?

With the gift of misdirection now sacrificed, the limit has been reached.

If LeBron knows this -- and I would assume he does -- it must scare the hell out of him. If he doesn't know, then I guess the act of misdirection was so impressive, it managed to fool the guy pulling the strings.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0