LeBron James is the most powerful athlete in the history of team sports in a league that enables its athletes more than any other. There’s a bit of chicken-egg debate going on because LeBron helped to create the current climate of the league with his decisions over the years. The bottom line is that I support LeBron to handle his business however he wants. For me, he’s earned that right.
There is a flip side, however, that must be acknowledged. Part of being the most powerful athlete in all of sports is realizing the ship you captain puts off one hell of a wake. While I don’t stand with those who are critical of James and his lack of commitment to the Cavaliers, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand it.
As powerful as LeBron James is, Dan Gilbert is one of the least sympathetic figures in professional sports. He has shown a willingness to spend money, but like most obscenely rich billionaires, even when Gilbert spends money it’s in service of adding gold doubloons to the pile of money he swims in like Scrooge McDuck. His ego is infamous and played out miserably this offseason with his refusal to grant David Griffin the power he desired and earned over his tenure running the Cavaliers. Regardless of how James’ actions impact Gilbert’s ability to make moves for his team, it’s impossible to be on “Team Dan.” Make no mistake though, LeBron’s actions make the trade deadline almost impossible for Gilbert and GM Koby Altman.
Part of being LeBron James — The Most Powerful Athlete in the History of Professional Sports — is realizing that you are the market maker. Sure, LeBron’s gravity didn’t stop Kevin Durant from joining one of the greatest teams of all time to form a Supernova of All-Stars in Golden State, but his gravity probably caused it. As the Cavaliers approach the trade deadline in LeBron’s potential walk year, many Cavs fans on Team LeBron find it perfectly acceptable for him to sit back and see what Gilbert and company can do to prove to him it’s worth staying. This is a bit of a fool’s errand, however. Without LeBron helping, the Cavaliers don’t land Kevin Love. Without LeBron, Dwyane Wade isn’t on the team. Who knows if J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson have the deals they have without LeBron?
Let’s pretend for a minute that there are five potential trade partners for the Cavaliers right now. There are another five teams that could be potential trade partners except they might have dreams of getting LeBron to come to their team this offseason. The fact that there’s a LeBron James sweepstakes at the end of this season in free agency has a chilling effect on the Cavaliers’ ability to make a deal. If everyone knew that LeBron was staying in Cleveland and they better make other plans, the Brooklyn pick would have more value. If the Brooklyn pick had value to the prospects of keeping James, it would be a variable to keep him in Cleveland. According to all the reporting available from every NBA reporter I’ve seen, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
None of this is a defense of Gilbert and his handling of the roster, his front office, or anything else. It’s to acknowledge that the Cavaliers can be a dysfunctional mess because Gilbert’s ego and management style create that culture, and James’ lack of commitment to the future limits the ability of the Cavaliers to make the team better right here, right now.
Much like the idea that both Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson could be disasters in their own way despite the Twitter hordes picking sides, James hurting the Cavaliers personnel department and Gilbert hurting his own cause are not mutually exclusive. What’s wrong with the Cavaliers? Yes. Everything. Dan Gilbert. LeBron James. Ty Lue. The Kyrie Irving Trade. Isaiah Thomas. All of it.
It’s LeBron’s right to serve out his contract before deciding on the next one. He just has to know that there are implications with that. Not all fans have to be happy about it. Gilbert doesn’t have to be happy about it. That’s not an indictment of LeBron anymore than it absolves Dan. It’s just the way things are.