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Now here's where the parallels get interesting. Doc spent the next six seasons falling short as everyone picked him apart. Stuff like, "He's not the same guy that he was in the ABA," "He's too nice, he doesn't have a killer instinct" and "His teammates are letting him down." The '77 Sixers (a selfish team of freelancers) memorably self-combusted in the Finals against Bill Walton's methodical Blazers. When the '78 Bullets shocked Philly in six, not only did Washington's Bobby Dandridge outplay Doc in the series but everyone started calling David Thompson (rather than Doc) the NBA's best ABA import. The '79 Spurs knocked Philly out again, with San Antonio's Larry Kenon playing Doc to a draw. (That March, Sports Illustrated ran a feature called "Hey, What's Up With the Doc?" and wondered whether his best years were behind him.) Once Philly quietly started building a team of unselfish guys around him (Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks) and found him a second scorer (Andrew Toney), Doc's fortunes changed: Finals appearances in 1980 and 1982, as well as a (dubious, but still) MVP award in 1981. But only when Philly acquired Moses Malone, a true alpha dog and the league's best player at the time, did Doc finally get an NBA ring (in 1983).
Let's go back to those first three Philly seasons: Doc was stuck playing with guys such as George McGinnis (the ultimate ball stopper, owner of the all-time turnover record), World B. Free (gunner), Darryl Dawkins (great athlete, low basketball IQ), Jellybean Bryant (Kobe's dad -- I don't need to say any more) and Doug Collins (another guy who needed shots). He deferred to them way too much. For the '76 Nets, Doc averaged 22.7 shots per game. From '77 through '79: 16.7, 16.4, 18.7. Do you realize what a joke that was? Unfortunately, he was too nice of a guy. Doc allowed everyone else to determine his destiny. When he tried to take over it never felt right. He was always one of those flow-of-the-game stars. Always. The same quality that made him a wonderful teammate also made him a liability if things were falling apart.
Doc's Philly teams kept self-combusting at the worst possible times. The '77 Sixers took a 2-0 lead in the Finals, then blew four straight. They lost do-or-die playoff games by two points (1978) and three points (1979). In 1980, everyone remembers Magic (only a rookie) playing five positions, notching a 42-15-7 and improbably winning Los Angeles the title; nobody ever wonders why Philly, playing at home against a team missing the 1980 MVP (Kareem), laid such an unforgivable egg. In 1981, the Sixers blew a 3-1 series lead to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, losing the last three games by five points total. (And by the way, they led in the final minute of all three games.) By the time Philly blew the 1982 Finals, the consensus on Doc was this: phenomenal player, loved by all, an ambassador for the game, one of the best ever doesn't quite have it.
Then Moses showed up, Philly finally won a title, and people everywhere forgot they had felt that way.
Back to LeBron: I think we know what we have. He's Doc 2.0 with a little Magic and a healthy dose of Bo sprinkled in. That means the following
1. LeBron can win an NBA title (or titles) as the best player on a really good team with another leader in place (whether it's a great coach or another player).
2. If LeBron switches teams to a similar situation to the one he had in Cleveland these past two years (basically, LeBron and the LeBronettes), that won't translate to titles. (FYI: He finished seven wins short last spring and 10 wins short this spring. Not even close.) Staying in Cleveland, hiring John Calipari and sign-and-trading Jamison and Hickson to Toronto for Chris Bosh that won't solve the problem here. Neither will jumping to the Knicks/Clippers/Mavericks.
3. If he cares about winning titles (multiple) and reaching his full potential as a player, he has only one move: the Chicago Bulls. That's always been the play. If you've been listening to my podcast or reading this column, you know that I've been touting this possibility since the winter, and here's why: Deep down, I think LeBron (and, just as important, the people around him) realizes that he needs one more kick-ass player to make his life easier. That means Miami or Chicago. And really, I can't imagine him signing with Miami because Dwyane Wade is almost too good. LeBron wants help, but he doesn't want to be perceived as riding someone else's coattails, either. Wade might be the best player alive for all we know -- he certainly was in 2006, and he's been banged-up and trapped on bad teams ever since.
No, Chicago makes more sense. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah proved they were warriors these past two springs. They could be LeBron's Pippen/Grant or McHale/DJ. Easily. Rose could take the creative load off LeBron on nights when he doesn't have it. Rose could come through a few times in the clutch. Rose could hide some of LeBron's faults. It's the single smartest basketball move for LeBron James. It's the Michael Corleone move.
Of course, it doesn't have the same upside as New York: Biggest market, great fans, most meaning. If LeBron saved professional basketball in New York and brought Knicks fans their first title since 1973? That's the best available accomplishment in team sports right now. Name me a better one. You can't. Biggest star, biggest city. But it wouldn't be a smart basketball move. He could bring only one good free agent with him, and from what we've seen, would LeBron + (Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson or Amar'e Stoudemire) combined with what the Knicks already have (not much) translate to anything more than what just happened in Cleveland? Please. That's the Sonny Corleone move.
The other realistic option: Just stay in Cleveland. Finish what you started. That's the second-best available accomplishment in team sports right now: Be like Tim Duncan. Be the guy who didn't flee for greener pastures. Be the guy who stayed when almost everyone else would have left. Be the hometown kid who saved Cleveland sports, brought home the first title since 1964 and single-handedly removed the fatalistic malaise that hangs over the city. Be the guy who proved loyalty matters more than anything else. That's the Connie Corleone move. Remember when she finally forgave Michael for killing Carlo and became the matriarch of the family? Exactly. Family trumped logic.
(And yes, if you're scoring at home, the Clippers would be the Fredo Corleone move.)
It's one of the greatest sports decisions I can remember: LeBron can choose winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York). We have one answer -- Doc 2.0 with some Magic and Bo sprinkled in -- and now, we're waiting on the other. Within the next six weeks, we will find out precisely what matters to LeBron James. Just know that, wherever he lands, he's going to need a little more help than we thought.
Final point: Between Games 5 and 6 of the Cavs-Celtics series, an Austin, Texas, reader named Chris Rider sent me the following e-mail:
"I figured LeBron out, dude. I think you define a player by defining what is most important to them in one word.
"MJ -- Winning. Hands down, all he wanted to do was win. And that's over-used for a lot of athletes, but not him.
"Kobe -- Greatness. Yes he's going to win some, but only because he wants to be considered great and that will be a by-product at times. But you'd also see him shoot his team out of a game; jack 3s when he should press the issue and get to the paint. He didn't mind losing a few games if people came away saying 'Kobe is great; look what happens when he doesn't shoot.'"
"LeBron -- Amaze. I think he just really wants to amaze people. Which is why he spends 10 minutes before the game throwing underhand, left-hand half-court shots. Why he celebrates amazing dunks and blocks, but isn't working just as hard to win. I know the Cavs aren't great without him, but he's got PLENTY on that team to win rings with."
Is that totally fair? Probably not. But just for fun, let's extend Chris' game
Russell, Magic, Bird, Duncan, Walton, West and Havlicek: Winning.
Oscar and Barry: Perfection.
Kareem and Elgin: Pride.
Malone and Garnett: Work.
Cousy, Stockton, Isiah, Pippen and Nash: Team.
For Doc and LeBron, you probably need more than one word. By the rules of the game, we can use only one. So we're forced to pick this one: Amaze. You are who you are.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.