It wasn’t always this good. LeBron James is deeply committing to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the foreseeable future — in one year stints, anyway — thanking the City of Cleveland for its support after carrying its basketball franchise to the brink of a championship, praising the city on national talk shows, bringing movie premieres to Akron, promoting Northeast Ohio’s burger joints, and even donning a Cleveland Indians jersey at an NBA summer league game when most of the team’s fans regard the team with either righteous anger or weary disappointment. In short, the relationship between LeBron James and Northeast Ohio seems about as happy and healthy as it’s ever been.
And “relationship” is the appropriate word to describe the … deeply weird association between the two. Northeast Ohio’s1 connection to LeBron James is nuanced and complex like few between a region and an athlete. It’s a connection marked by deep passions and tragic flaws. There’s a long and complicated history filled with wondrous memories, intense affection, hurtful acts, forgiveness, reconciliation, and, perhaps, a profound realization of a greater purpose beyond oneself. Both are a little crazy: James once broadcast his infidelity on national television, and Cleveland responded by burning all of his shit in the house. The fates of Northeast Ohio and James are seemingly inextricable, and the two are inseparable in that nearly every “big picture” thing written about one or the other in the next ten or more years will allude to its companion in the opening paragraph.
For these reasons, the bond between LeBron James and his home region functions much like a long-term romantic relationship. James even joked about it in his new movie, getting all mushy when Amy Schumer’s character identifies her love interest Bill Hader as “her Cleveland.” Last year, a love letter from James reunited him with Northeast Ohio — think of it as the our equivalent of the John Cusack “In Your Eyes” boom box moment from Say Anything. And so, over a year after coming back to Cleveland following a four-year breakup, the honeymoon continues for LeBron James and Northeast Ohio.
But it might not always be this good. Fans shouldn’t be paranoid that James has intentions of ditching them again or cry, “Don’t you leave me!” while sobbing every time James says something nice about New York or is caught looking at Miami’s butt. The 2014-15 Cavs season was long (both figuratively and literally) and turbulent, and the Northeast Ohio-James relationship is several orders of magnitude stronger for it.
But forever is a long, long time — and relationships require devoted effort and maintenance.2 And just like your girlfriend’s upcoming semester abroad in Spain, or your boyfriend’s leaving for medical school in California when you’re stuck in Columbus for two more years, or Thanksgiving dinner with her kooky grandmother who frequently mentions that “you’re not good enough for her,” or the upcoming debate over what color to make the bathroom drapes, there are ongoing and looming issues that will need to be confronted and navigated to preserve the relationship between James and Northeast Ohio. Even though all the hurdles can be overcome — it’s still not fun going to pick out those drapes. (Seriously? Pink? In the guest bathroom? That’s asinine.)
Will James fully support David Blatt?
James has always had mysterious and confounding relationships with coaches. Things always appeared congenial but distant with James and Mike Brown in Cleveland. James reportedly rebuffed Erik Spoelstra at first, then became more accommodating after the Miami Heat won a championship — but there was never any affection on James’ end. James is famous for keeping coaches and management at arm’s length — generally appearing obedient but always leery and self-interested.
Last season was no different. The Cavaliers hired David Blatt as their head coach before James trumpeted his return to Cleveland. And if James was never one to purr and roll over for coaches before, that definitely wasn’t the case with David Blatt. Many of the individual stories about James’ perceived insubordination of Blatt were certainly overblown — such as the fuss over James calling his own plays (this is newsworthy) or James scrapping Blatt’s inbounds play in Game 4 of the Chicago Bulls series (yawn).
But even if a lot of the individual stories were much ado about nothing, there’s no question that James’ interactions with Blatt demonstrated a dismissive attitude. I’d prefer that the Cavs potential dynasty not be derailed by awkwardness. Even though James’ public comments dating back to the spring have been complimentary and supportive, the media was able to convince itself that the front office was going to fire Blatt only about five weeks ago — only to have Blatt show up to his supposed execution with a grin fit for a kid who just ate the whole cookie jar. That actually happened.
Much of the ongoing Blatt controversy may be the residual fallout from his initial sassiness with the media. But Blatt’s praise of James has been effusive even as people openly suggested that James was undermining his authority. Whether Blatt is simply disregarding James’ supposed insubordination or is employing an elaborate zen tactic to win James’ favor is unclear.
Some have even suggested that James’ treatment of Blatt is “unbecoming” for the ordinarily likeable superstar. I’m not close enough to the situation to say how pernicious James’ treatment of Blatt is for the Cavs — but I do know that a more complete endorsement of the coach would go a long way in bolstering Blatt’s credibility. If things go sideways this season or next and Blatt is ousted, will it be seen as an act of sabotage by James? If so, then will it diminish his local prestige? James appearing to be chummy with Blatt at the Summer League is a step in the right direction, but there’s apparently a lot of repair to be to restore credibility to their relationship. No one expects LeBron and Blatt to develop their own elaborate handshake or go play pinball together. But whether the man who compared his profession to that of a fighter pilot’s has the right stuff will largely depend on whether James wants to act as Blatt’s wingman or hit the eject button.
— NBA Summer League (@NBASummerLeague) July 17, 2015
How long will LeBron insist on having a max salary? And will he do so even if it hurts Griffin’s ability to build a team around him?
It’s important that I begin this discussion with a big disclaimer: It’s actually impossible to overpay LeBron James. Consider what James is worth to a basketball team: his talent, his production, his leadership, his ability to improve his teammates, etc. We’ll be generous and say that five percent of the Cavs’ improvement from the end of 2014 to the end of 2015 is attributable to coach Blatt and that another ten percent is attributable to the non-James roster changes (including the acquisition of Kevin Love).
After neutralizing such external factors, then James took the Cavaliers from profound lousiness to relative dominance. He elevated the Cavaliers from the league’s cellar to its penthouse. James is an offense unto himself and the team’s entire success is predicated on the way he controls the offense and warps the opposing team’s defense as they try to invent ways to stop him. James is probably worth 15 wins or so based on his indirect value — James makes every NBA roster a championship contender immediately.3
And that’s only the basketball part. James also brings the Cavaliers national attention only a handful of athletes in history have ever commanded. James is a hot mountain spring from which several otherwise nonexistent revenue streams burst forth, nourishing the city and Dan Gilbert’s already vast fields of wealth. One could justify paying James $100 million a year. Instead, James is set to set to make $22.97 million next season — a pittance compared to what he’s worth.
FiveThirtyEight did a study of what players are actually worth based on their production.4 Projecting WAR over the course of contract life,5 James is projected to produce 28.1 wins over a replacement player in the next two years (say, hypothetically, Earl Clark or Alonzo Gee?). Or, put another way, James is supposed to give the Cavs $104 million worth of wins. Comparing that to his contract salary in 2015 and 2016, the Cavs would be underpaying James by $57 million, which means James’ salary is underpaying him by 121 percent of his actual worth. But because of the rules on max contracts, he can’t realize that value. Even with only a two-year contract, he’s the third most underpaid player in the NBA6
Sure, these are based on flawed projections.7 But no matter how you slice it, James will be underpaid for the foreseeable future. And beyond that, I will never fault a player for extracting as much money as he can from his employer — and I would encourage you to do the same with your employer.8
But a lot of this is besides the point. The point is that what’s best for LeBron James may not always align exactly with what’s best for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that at some point — maybe five years from now or seven years from now — James will not be a max contract player.
For example, would James be willing to take a slight discount for even one season to help owner Dan Gilbert avoid paying the dreaded repeater tax? Gilbert’s proving himself not to be stingy, but there has to be a ceiling on taxes for even Deep Pockets Dan. Gilbert’s going to be paying over $150 million in taxes alone next season! Will he balk when that number creeps to $300 million in taxes?
And when James’ abilities decline — even if ever so slightly — and he settles into playing less minutes in the twilight of his career, will he still demand over $35 million in salary, as he’s going to be capable of making once the salary cap rises?
To ask a player to take less than he’s worth is totally unfair — it’s asking them to make a sacrifice that most people would be totally unwilling to make. But that’s the standard players like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have set, by consistently taking less money than they could earn on the open market for the benefit of their organizations, their basketball teams, and (by proxy) their fans.
Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant has been pilloried for getting paid what he deserves but which has cost9 the Los Angeles Lakers some flexibility to build a winning team around him. If the Cavs lose Timofey Mozgov next offseason and the Cavs fail to win a championship as they rely on veterans making the minimum like James Jones or Richard Jefferson10 or an Inanimate Carbon Rod to make a three-pointer, will there eventually be any acrimony when James demands the max — throwing Gilbert into the $300 million tax range and hampering David Griffin’s ability to add a key bench component to a locked-in roster as James’ overall production and minute totals decline? Probably not. But, it’s a potential bumpy part ahead.
Will James run the actual offense, and allow it to work through its growing pains?
The Cavs offense was a (relative) debacle on offense during the first half of the season, with only semblance of coordinated plays emerging in the second half of the season. Even in the second half, it was still a predominantly James-driven offense, and all the ball movement that led to a more potent offense was predicated on James generating it. Which isn’t really a bad thing. It almost resulted in a championship.
But at some point, James is going to need become more comfortable with relinquishing control of the wheel. In fact, while Mike Brown and Byron Scott seemed to craft intentionally vanilla offenses, Blatt’s reputation entering the league was that he was offensively imaginative, with lots of ball movement and off-ball action. What the Cavs ran in summer ball last year didn’t resemble the stagnant morass that predominated for much of November and December last season.
Losing patience, James took the reins of the offense and never relinquished them. It resulted in a lot of wins in the second half of the year and some brilliant offense. But it also resulted in a lot of inelegant isolation basketball. When things got challenging, James always went back into smashing mode, taking the offensive equivalent of a battering ram (presumably named “Smashy”) to the enemy’s gates.
And here’s the thing: with the offensive weaponry already on this roster (seriously, even Golden State should be in awe of the offensive power of a complete and healthy Cavs team), James has an opportunity to morph into an absolute off-the-ball terror. When Kyrie Irving returns from his injury, he needs to greatly improve his ability to lead an offense for James to take a more deferential role. (Irving has been known to hijack the offense and take a turn straight into Iso Town as well.)
But even late in the season, Irving challenged James to set better picks for him to get the offense running. With Love and Irving and James’ ever-improving post game, James shouldn’t have to pilot the offense all the time — but allow it to find him in the ordinary course of the game. It doesn’t even have to be anything overly complicated or exotic — some off-ball screens and simple two-man games such as pick-and-pop with Love setting a screen for James and pick-and-roll with James setting a screen for Irving. This isn’t rocket appliances.
But this requires James to allow the offense to actually run, to voluntarily take a more deferential role on offense, and become more active in off-the-ball action that may not result in him getting the ball.
Will James allow his off-court distractions to become actually distracting?
It’s no mystery that James has ambitions that go beyond the game of basketball. He’s a sneaker pusher, a fashionista, an aspiring movie star, a producer, and an active business man. His role in Trainwreck was charming, endearing, and slightly relieving in that he didn’t embarrass himself onscreen or on the publicity circuit — even when he was playing faceketball. It’s all fun now, but what about when the distractions become bigger, more plentiful, and less successful?
No one will care when LeBron tweets out a picture of a pair of the eventual LeBron 20’s or if he plays a game of HORSE with Will Ferrell for a Funny or Die sketch. But what about when he spends the majority of an offseason making Space Jam 2 (I obviously wholeheartedly support this),11 or makes an ill-advised rap album (Straight Outta Akron?), films “Uninterrupted Goes to the Proctologist” for Bleacher Report, or states his intentions to run for Congress? What if, while all this is going on, the Cavs start 2-5? I can already hear the radio phone calls say how James should “stop worrying about his Holly Wood [said with as much disdain as possible] movie career with Amy Schpooner and focus on basket-ball.”
Will James lead an NBA work stoppage related to his role with the NBA Players Union?
Whispers of a big lockout in the NBA have been looming ever since the last one ended before the start of the 2011-12 season. Basketball media members are already stoking the flames on their “potential lockout hot takes” with columns and podcasts. Everyone will have an opinion on who’s to blame.
Now that James is vice president of the NBA Players Association, some of the blame will fall on James’ shoulders if there is a big work stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is up again in two years. How active will James be, and how far will he go, in promoting player solidarity? The initial signs point to “very.” Would he be willing to sacrifice a whole season in which the Cavs are expected to contend for a championship? Recent history seems to show that the public doesn’t support labor in employment disputes — and that would seem especially true in a blue collar place like Northeast Ohio. There’s only so much sympathy lunch-pail and hardhat folks have for people who get paid millions of dollars to bounce a ball off things. How much resentment will engender with Cavs fans if it’s perceived that James helped “squander” a few months or a full season of the Cavs “prime” championship-getting time?
Cavs fans and LeBron James will likely be very happy together until death (er, retirement) do us part.
Even if James stays with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the rest of his career — and that’s the most likely scenario — what will the quality of the relationship be going forward? Both James and Cleveland (I’d like to think, anyway) have grown a lot since their first torrid love affair. Where does the relationship go from here?
This post isn’t meant to be speculative about what will happen in the future; just to point out that (like in any relationship) there are ongoing and upcoming significant issues that could either be minor or major depending on how they are managed by both James and Cleveland fans. In all likelihood, James and Cleveland will continue to unconditionally accept one another despite one another’s flaws. After all, James nearly turned water into wine and gold in the NBA Finals just last month. But just because we’ll be together until the bitter end, it doesn’t mean it’s fun to go pick out those drapes.
Maybe it’s time for Northeast Ohio to change its relationship status from “It’s complicated” to “Married.” But like that semester abroad in Spain or Thanksgiving at Aunt Millie’s, it’s best to see these issues coming up on the horizon and be prepared to deal with them before someone says the wrong thing and ends up sleeping on the couch.