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Wednesday, December 15, 2010
LeBron James and Dan Gilbert, Part II

By Howard Bryant

Last week I wrote a column suggesting that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert needs to take some responsibility for the current state of his franchise and his role in the events that led to LeBron James' departure instead of blaming James entirely for what has transpired with the Cavs over the last six months.

For the record, I am not particularly enamored of James, on or off the court. If he is the greatest physical talent to enter the game since Wilt Chamberlain, he is also a difficult offensive player to admire. He is a scorer, not a shooter, and yet he has an ongoing love affair with an erratic, unattractive jump shot. James has improved his shooting percentage since his rookie season but not necessarily his overall game -- not in the mold of Magic Johnson (who entered the league with a poor outside shot but left a competent 3-point shooter), Larry Bird (who developed a devastating low-post game late in his career), Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant (both entered the NBA as dunkers but could soon score 30 points a night on jump shots).

LeBron James
He's very good, but there are arguments to make that LeBron James isn't as good as he could be.

He presents a mismatch for virtually every defender in the league, but despite a 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame he has no low post game and after nearly a decade in the league seems to have little interest in developing one.

On offense, he does not move without the ball and is not a threat unless he is initiating the action from the top of the key. When he is not handling the basketball, he often stands languid on the wing and does not draw defenses with movement or pressure them with positioning. In the midst of his eighth season in the league, James has never been a presence on the offensive or defensive boards, which is a must for a great player. His offensive and overall rebounding averages have dropped over the last three years -- 1.2 offensive rebounds per game for his career shouldn't wow anyone. In fact, Rajon Rondo, who is seven inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter, is developing into a better offensive rebounder than James - the numbers back that up -- and, for his size, Rondo is far more competent on the defensive end.

For all of his physical gifts, James has yet to find players who complement his game over the course of a full season and vice versa -- Allen Iverson-like.

Of all active players compared to James in their primes (of course, at 25, James might not yet be in his prime, depending on one's measure), I would select him for my team no higher than fifth, behind Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade. At present, James isn't even the best player on his own team.

And yet, James is a hugely-significant figure in the NBA and sports world today for what he represents. He is the first mega-athlete to emerge in the 24/7 multimedia age that has been able to successfully navigate and capitalize on the shifting power dynamics that come with it. He is the perfect storm of 20th century battles: player freedom and control; free agency; the bypassing of the college game (those players were once called "hardship" cases); and the athlete as a corporation backed by a bigger one -- in LeBron's case, Nike.

Other modern athletes, including Tiger Woods and Jordan, have straddled varying elements of change during their times. No one has enjoyed the benefit of each of those developments in his prime as James has.

Dan Gilbert
Dan Gilbert had better options to deal with LeBron's possible departure, and didn't take them.

So it perhaps isn't surprising that during the summer when he chose to leave Cleveland the focus was directed toward him rather than Gilbert. The culmination of all of these dynamics -- not simply that he left Cleveland -- is the reason, I suspect, that readers in their emails to me still have so much to discuss. On the day the Cavs make their first visit to Miami to play LeBron's heat, a sample:

Q: Hey, Howard, I can honestly say that was the worst article I have ever read. Have you done any research? Gilbert spent MILLIONS upon MILLIONS to keep Lebron and his friends happy. LeBron told no one in the organization about his decision; he kept Gilbert in the dark. How much did Maverick Carter and LeBron pay [you] to write this article?

Brett Gallo, Faithful Cleveland Fan

A: There is much about the negotiations we will never know: Who made what promises to whom; how James convinced Gilbert he was staying; or whether James even tried to convince Gilbert he was staying. And so much of it feels like old news now, except for one component: control. James used his power. I fault Gilbert for not using his.

If management believes a player is going to leave via free agency and truly fears being left out in the cold without recouping some value in return for his departure, the front office should have the guts to either trade the player or move forward with the anticipation that the player will likely leave, winning as many games as possible along the way, and accept the departure as the price of doing business.

Gilbert did neither. He wanted it both ways, avoiding the bold step of trading James to receive value for his superstar but not hesitating to call James a traitor when he left.

If Gilbert truly believed James wanted to leave following the 2008 Olympics and wanted value for the future, he should have had the courage to package the best deal he could and traded James, telling the public, essentially, "We did everything we could to keep him. We want him. He's the greatest player this town has ever seen, but we want to be a good team now and tomorrow, and he gave us no indications that he wanted to commit to the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers. We felt we had no options."

Carmelo Anthony
The Nuggets appear to be playing a harder brand of ball with Carmelo Anthony than the Cavs did with LeBron.

It for this reason that I have no problem with the tougher stance the Denver Nuggets are taking with the impending free agency of Carmelo Anthony, who much like James is the most talented player in that organization's history (save, possibly, for David Thompson) yet faces the possibility that he might be traded each day. It takes courage to trade a great player, but being proactive is better than complaining that you were "betrayed."

Q: Your article was extremely poor. It seems that you are simply continuing the trend of ESPN absolving No. 6 of any blame. True, Gilbert could have handled things better through the entire soap opera, but James' refusal to admit to Gilbert and the rest of the front office that he was leaving until minutes before the decision put them all between a rock and a hard place. Dan Gilbert is a passionate, ethical leader and deserves every bit of love he gets from the die-hard fans of Cleveland.

Nicholas J. Taege

A: Howard Bryant Rule No. 1 in all sports: If a player reaches free agency, all bets are off. You have to expect him to leave because now control is out of your hands.

I blame James for many things in Cleveland. He seemed curiously detached from his teammates, always setting himself apart as though he were tolerating their limitations. He never took real responsibility after losses and even today does not seem to have any real allegiances. Anecdotally and statistically, James' game has not improved or changed much since he entered the league in 2003, a curiosity for so talented a player. He has rarely publicly supported any of his coaches, despite winning 127 games in his final two seasons under Mike Brown along with an NBA Finals appearance under Brown in 2007. In watching James play in the Miami offense, it is a little clearer that perhaps Brown's offensive scheme wasn't the problem, after all.

But I do not blame him for leaving, and I suspect much of this narrative would be different had James not been a hometown kid, surrounded by the unrealistic magical thinking that being from Ohio bound him to Ohio for life. He isn't a traitor. He did not become a citizen of North Korea. He changed jobs. He was free to go, and he left. He grew up in Ohio and then spent the first half or third of his professional life there. He'd never been in control of where he played; last summer was the first time he had a choice, and he exercised it. He was 25 years old when he left home. That's what young people do.

Q: You are 100 percent correct about Dan Gilbert, in that he never should've given LeBron seniority over anyone in the franchise. But without LeBron, Cleveland is not selling out, having nationally televised games and most importantly not worth the $400-500 million that Forbes claimed. Cleveland had no choice but to grant every one of Lebron's wishes in fear of him leaving. But we the fans and media are at fault. We wanted him to be like Michael and when he made an anti-Michael Jordan move and changed the NBA forever, we turn our back on him and want to bring him down any chance we get.

Michael Lewenz, Detroit

LeBron James
All he did was exercise a choice the first time he had control of his future.

A: There is another discussion to be had at a later date regarding control and leverage. Again, James had it and used it, while Gilbert could not quite decide if he was mad at James, Brown, Danny Ferry -- or himself. Gilbert made a money deal. Having James was better than not having James, even if cutting ties with him -- by trading him early or signing other free agents before the infamous "Decision" -- might have made the Cavs a continuously competitive, if less sexy, team.

There will always be debate about whether the front office could have acquired better players. Charles Barkley had it right that the "complementary" players Cleveland brought in for James were really not very good at all, and James likely realized that. (The words Barkley put in LeBron's mouth: "You guys suck.") And there will always be debate about whether James' dominant personality (Iverson-like, again) prevented him from sharing the stage with true Hall of Fame-level talent in their primes.

Coddling the star is as old as locker room towels. Having James in Cleveland increased the value of the franchise, made Gilbert a richer man and, for a brief moment in time, put an indistinct franchise on the map. That, as well as not becoming known as "The Man Who Traded LeBron James," made the calculated gamble worth the possibility of losing James via free agency, and the owner wouldn't have to accept as much blame.

In the end, it appeared then as now that James was always leaving town; that LeBron, the Nike creation, did not seem particularly tied to his teammates or his coaches or anyone else. He played the Jordan game early, wearing thousand dollar suits after games, looking the part and saying the right things. But when the fašade melted and James became himself, no one much liked it.

Gilbert didn't trust his own instincts and pandered to the fans' anger. He might have fallen for the gift of James' talent, but he also profited from it. There are no victims here.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at He can be followed on Twitter at