The public hand-wringing over "The Decision" has largely remained a public trial with a single defendant. Either LeBron James is guilty or not guilty of bad behavior unbecoming of a highly branded athlete. Some reduce the charges to innocent on first-degree treason, but guilty of irreprehensible assault on a beleaguered and loyal fan base. Whatever the judgment, very little room for nuance exists.
Now that December 2 has passed, James seems to be receding as a primary concern for the NBA fan in Cleveland. A more enduring reality has surfaced: The Cavaliers are a troubled franchise with a collection of role players and veterans past their primes, with a couple of interesting young prospects with limited potential. If you're in the blame assignment business, is that something you can lay on James or do you begin to look at those who are charged with designing and maintaining the organizational framework in Cleveland?
Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert has been marching with his pitchfork since the night James announced his decision to sign with the Heat, encouraging a movement of civic martyrdom. ESPN.com's Howard Bryant tells basketball fans in Cleveland that, as they suffer for years to come, they might want to reconsider their perceptions of Gilbert, who has fully embraced the role of local folk hero in this affair:
Watching Cleveland lose at home to Boston last week in the game before the team fizzled in the showdown with the Heat is proof enough that the Cavaliers did not have a Plan B in the event that James left, a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the owner -- who not only lost his best player, but also fired the coach and general manager responsible for the two best years in Cavaliers history last offseason. It is Gilbert, and not James, who is primarily to blame for the state of the franchise ...
... Successful organizations must adopt and believe in an institutional philosophy. The Cavaliers had won 66 and 61 games the previous two seasons, the two best win totals in franchise history. Gilbert sent the message that he did not believe in his front office, firing coach Mike Brown and general manager Danny Ferry even as the possibility of losing James as well hung over the team.
The takeaway is that Gilbert is blaming everyone but himself.
But in preparation for a potential James departure, Gilbert stood pat, let James control the negotiation and then was left without a chair when the free agent music stopped. Judging from his actions and his words, Gilbert apparently believed that his team wasn't very good, that his star was a quitter and that his coach and general manager weren't good enough to win a championship -- harsh assessments for a team that crossed 60 wins in consecutive years. What is more likely is that Gilbert clearly did not know what he wanted after the tough playoff loss. The result is a 2010-11 team without a compass and a fan base of season-ticket holders who thought they were going to be watching championship-level basketball paying to see a team that might not even make the playoffs.