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Friday, May 14, 2010
Winning, loyalty or immortality?

By Bill Simmons
ESPN.com

My son wakes up between 5:30 and 5:50 every morning. We call him the CEO. He rolls out of bed, stomps toward his door, opens it, walks out, slams the door as hard as he can, then stomps into our bedroom saying, "Come on, let's go downstairs" in his little boy voice. If I want to wake up early, I don't even set an alarm clock anymore. I just rely on him.

So when I wanted to get up early to write about Thursday night's Game 6 in Boston, I just assumed he would wake me up in time. Nope. He woke up at 6:45. An hour late. I hopped out of bed for a hasty wake-up shower, but not before asking him, "What happened? Where were you?"

His answer: "I don't know, Daddy. I didn't wake up."

Same goes for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They never woke up.

You could pick this series apart for years, but the NBA playoffs boil down to one thing: urgency. For professional basketball, there are three types and three types only. The first occurs when a team collectively says, "We would walk through fire to win this game." (Think 2008 Celtics, 2009 Lakers or 2010 Suns.) The second happens when a former champion that has battled internally to keep its edge says to itself, "You know what? We're not done yet. We're not ready to give this up." (Call it a retro-urgency. Think 2010 Celtics or 2010 Lakers.) The third is faux urgency -- when a team's players don't trust each other or their coach and don't have the right leadership in place, but they're desperately pressing to make a bad situation work anyway. That's the worst kind of urgency. They all fully understand the magnitude of the moment, only they can't quite do enough about it. Maybe it looks as if they're trying, but their body language betrays them.

(Important note: If you don't want to leave out the 2010 Atlanta Hawks, "complete apathy" is the fourth type of urgency. By the way, I have no idea whether Orlando has real urgency or faux urgency. I'm leaning toward the latter. Stay tuned.)

You cannot call what happened in the Cavs-Celtics series an upset. Boston played better in five of the six games. The C's had four of the five best players. They were better defensively. Their best player (Rajon Rondo) played better than Cleveland's best player (LeBron James). They had playoff-proven guys who kept coming through. They had better crowds. They showed more heart. This was not an upset … but still, it felt like one. And only because we were duped by Cleveland's faux urgency (for most of the season, it felt genuine) and Boston's retro-urgency (for most of the season, it was dormant). The playoffs hinge on toughness, chemistry, defense, leadership and urgency. Cleveland lost all those battles. Every one of them.

I once heard a great story about Game 6 of the 2006 Finals, when Miami was trying to clinch the title in Dallas, from someone who has seen the unedited footage of Miami's huddles in the second-half timeouts. Pat Riley basically stopped coaching. Threw out his X's and O's. Quit giving advice. Stopped drawing up plays.

So what did he do? He screamed at his guys like a boxing trainer. You're tougher than them! YOU'RE TOUGHER THAN THEM! Don't let up! They are ready to quit! They are ready to fold! Keep attacking them! Keep getting to the rim! Keep knocking their asses down! No layups! No dunks! Stay together! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! That's what he did for the entire second half. Eventually, his players believed him.

Remember that story when you're picking apart James this summer. From the moment he entered the NBA, he's been asked to do everything himself. He's never had a good coach. He's never had a great teammate, or even a very good one. These past two years, he's been asked to vacillate between Magic Mode and MJ Mode depending on the situation. Because his front office screwed up so many times, his supporting cast ended up being a peculiar blend of hand-me-downs, discount guys and bargain pickups from teams that wanted to cut salary. It ended up being too much. One-man teams don't win titles.

As summer free agency approaches, LeBron's camp will shift public blame to his coach (Mike Brown, who could be sued by Cavs fans for coaching malpractice after this series) and his GM (Danny Ferry, who dropped the ball at the 2009 trade deadline and never found LeBron a Pippen-type supporting guy). His people will make the following sentiment clear to Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert: For LeBron to even consider staying, you need to splurge on a better coach and a better GM. And even then, LeBron might leave. Part of me doesn't blame him.

Part of me.

Because the other part feels as if we learned something substantial about LeBron James this spring. I always thought his ceiling looked like this: Jordan's DNA crossed with Magic's DNA crossed with Bo Jackson. Nope. Take the Jordan DNA out. Have to. Jordan was a ruthless mother******. Jordan was a killer. Jordan didn't care if his teammates despised him. Jordan never, ever, not in a million years, would have allowed his team to quit in the final two minutes of Thursday night's game the way LeBron did. His teammates feared him, loathed him, revered him and played accordingly. Bird had that same quality. In the second half of his career, so did Magic. Winning meant so much to those guys that their teammates almost didn't have a choice; they had to follow suit. Or else.

LeBron James is 25 years old. He has played seven seasons -- 548 regular-season games and 71 playoff games. There's a feeling that he can still get better and, with better teammates, maybe he could. But fundamentally, to paraphrase Bill Parcells, he is what he is at this point -- a gregarious, larger-than-life, supremely gifted basketball player who's better at making us say "WOW!" than anything else. If he owned that cutthroat Jordan chromosome, or Magic's leadership chromosome, it would have surfaced by now. In Wednesday's column before Game 6, I mentioned how there comes a point in every great player's career when you have to pour the cement, let it harden and see what you have. We poured the cement for LeBron in this series. It hardened last night. We know what we have.

And last night, LeBron's DNA finally made sense to me. Throw Jordan out. Throw Magic out, too, except for the "controls sections of a game with passing/rebounding" part. Keep Bo. Now, add this guy … Julius Erving.

I will explain.

Doc was one of the 20 best NBA players of all time. (In my book, I ranked him 16th.) Like LeBron, he did things on a basketball court that nobody had ever seen before. Like LeBron, he made the court shrink with a full head of steam. Like LeBron, his peers revered his talents. Like LeBron, he was articulate and thoughtful. Like LeBron, you watched him from afar and thought, "He seems like a good guy." Like LeBron, he was a small forward who rebounded bigger than his size (at least the first few years). Like LeBron, his durability was almost unparalleled. (Doc played in 1,277 of a possible 1,395 games, including seven seasons of 95-plus games). Like LeBron, women and children loved him. Like LeBron, he was extremely savvy about his image (and how to cultivate it). Like LeBron, he was an incredible, once-in-a-generation athlete. Like LeBron, his faulty outside shooting plagued him, so teams laid off him, packed the middle and prayed he would miss 20-footers. And, like LeBron, he was a nice guy.

(Hold that last thought for a second.)

Doc at age 26 (ABA, 1975-76 season, his fifth): 29.3 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, 50.7% FG.

LeBron at age 25 (this year, his seventh season): 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 50.3% FG.

Doc in the '76 playoffs (13 games): 34.7 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 4.9 APG, 53.3% FG.

LeBron in the '10 playoffs (11 games): 29.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 7.6 APG, 50.2% FG.

The big difference: Doc captured two ABA titles (in '74 and '76). LeBron hasn't won anything. Of course, the ABA played right into Doc's wheelhouse: The league didn't have enough big guys, nobody played defense, a school-yard-type game carried the day, and the league was diluted enough that someone as gifted as Doc could run roughshod. When the ABA and NBA merged in the summer of 1976, Doc switched teams (to Philly) and the big question became, "When will Dr. J win an NBA title?"

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.

(Sound familiar?)

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.

Wilt: Numbers.

Oscar and Barry: Perfection.

Shaq: Fame.

Kareem and Elgin: Pride.

Moses: Rebounds.

Malone and Garnett: Work.

Barkley: Fun.

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.