It's time to forgive LeBron James for "The Decision."
With James, there is no middle ground. He is a polarizing figure. You either marvel at his talent, or you hate him for "The Decision."
James has the size and strength of Karl Malone, the explosive athletic ability of a David Thompson, and the court vision of Magic Johnson. He is a scoring machine, a selfless passer, a terrific rebounder, and an elite defender.
With all of his gifts, James is known for the one thing he doesn't have - a ring.
James is chasing a ghost, because one championship isn't going to cut it. James wants to be on "The List." He wants to be mentioned alongside Bird and Magic, beside Kobe and MJ. Let's keep it real here. LeBron, like every other great player that comes into the NBA now, is chasing MJ and the dynasty that the Bulls had in the 1990's.
Today, I'm taking a look at the decisions that were made after a superstar is drafted. Keep reading along. I hope you enjoy it.
The New Orleans Hornets just won the lottery. This year, the winning ticket is pretty valuable.
There are no guarantees in the draft. Sometimes the number one pick is a Hall of Famer. Other years, the top pick is a total bust.
Some years, you get Shaquille O'Neal. Other years you get Michael Olowokandi or Andres Bargnani.
Of course, sometimes the team picking near the top just gets it wrong. Portland picked Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant. Detroit picked Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. Portland picked Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan.
If a team does get lucky enough to land a great player with a high draft pick, the fact you have to understand is, the clock starts ticking.
That team is no longer going to find itself picking near the top of the draft for very long. So it's important that they start surrounding that young star with talent. You can't miss on the draft picks after you draft a superstar if you want to win a championship.
In 1984, Chicago Bulls were really terrible. They had the No. 3 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, and they caught a historical break when Portland passed on Michael Jordan to draft Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick. Of course, we know the rest of the story. The Bulls pounced on Jordan, and he led the Bulls to six NBA Championships.
As we just discussed, when the Bulls drafted Jordan, the clock started ticking. A player of Jordan's caliber was going to quickly propel them out the Draft Lottery. The Bulls weren't going to be terrible for long, so they had to really nail the next couple of draft picks, or else they might miss out on the full potential of a superstar like Jordan.
Basically, the Bulls had to get it right, or Jordan would become an earlier version of LeBron James - a supremely talented player that just couldn't win a ring.
Cleveland won the lottery in 2003, and they drafted LeBron James, a local high school star. Once the Cavs drafted James, their clock started ticking. They had to surround James with talent as quickly as possible. The cheapest way to do this is through the draft.
Today, I'm going to show you how the Bulls got it right, how the Cavs got it wrong, and why all of this led to "The Decision."
Jim Paxon was the GM in Cleveland from 1999-2005. Rod Thorn was the GM in Chicago from 1978-1985. These two men have something in common. Both men drafted a superstar for the franchise, and shortly thereafter, were out of a job.
Paxon was replaced by Danny Ferry. Thorn was replaced by Jerry Krause. So James and Jordan were both drafted by one GM, only to have another GM come into the picture by their second season in the league. This basically allows us to have a side by side comparison in their early careers.
In 1984, the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan out of the University of North Carolina. Jordan played three seasons at UNC, and entered the NBA as a 21 year old rookie. The Bulls finished that season 38-44.
Jordan averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on his way to being the easy choice for the NBA Rookie of the Year.
In 2003, the Cavs drafted LeBron James straight out of high school. James entered the NBA as a 19 year old rookie. The Cavs finished that season with a 35-47 record. The Cavs had a decent young roster, but in perhaps a sign of future management miscues, right after the 2003-2004 season, the Cavs lost Carlos Boozer in free agency. It was a very strange ordeal, but losing a promising young player like Boozer (15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game) really hurt LeBron's chances of ever winning a title in Cleveland.
So right out of the gate, MJ and his legacy had a head start on LeBron.
The loss of Boozer sent the Cavs into a trading frenzy. This would prove to be a pattern. Over the years, as they missed out on their first option, the Cavs would seemingly try to surround LeBron with cast offs and over the hill stars. At the end of the 2004 season, the Cavs brought in Drew Gooden, Jiri Welsch, Steven Hunter, and acquired the draft rights to Anderson Varejou. Besides Varejou, none of these other players would ever significantly help LeBron in Cleveland.
Stan Albeck replaced Kevin Loughery as the Bulls' head coach for the 1985-1986 season. In the 1985 NBA Draft, the Bulls drafted Keith Lee out of Memphis, and immediately traded Lee to Cleveland in exchange for Charles Oakley. The Bulls also signed John Paxon as a free agent in 1985. Paxon would play a major role in the Bulls first three-peat.
Jordan got hurt and missed most of the 1985-1986 season. Because he only played in 18 games, the Bulls finished 30-52. This is a critical point, because if Jordan had been healthy, there is no doubt the Bulls would have been much better, and therefore would have drafted much later in the first round. Jordan getting hurt actually helped his chances of stockpiling help early in his career.
With the 10th pick in the NBA Draft, the Cavs selected Luke Jackson out of the University of Oregon. Jackson only appeared in 73 NBA games, averaging 3.5 points per game. Picking 10th meant the chances of the Cavs getting an impact player were slim, but there were good players left on the board in Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen, and Kevin Martin. All of these players would have given James an inexpensive sidekick for a few years.
With Jackson not making much of an impact at all, James led the Cavs to a 42-40 record. The Cavs had already gone from terrible to respectable, meaning James chances of getting any more help via the draft were going to be slim and none.
So by his second season in the league, Jordan had Oakley and Paxon, two key championship building blocks, while LeBron had already lost an All Star in Boozer, and the Cavs completely whiffed on their first "post LeBron" draft pick.
Because of Jordan's injury, the Bulls had the no. 9 pick in the draft. They picked Brad Sellers. The Bulls would go on to finish 40-42 under Doug Collins, who replaced Stan Albeck. Collins was Jordan's third coach in three years, and he turned MJ loose. Jordan averaging over 37 points per game that season. The Bulls were a promising young team, but Sellers never made a huge impact for the Bulls. However, he did provide value as part of a trade that brought the Bulls B.J. Armstrong in 1989.
The Bulls would finish 40-42 during the regular season, and get swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Despite all his brilliance, Jordan hadn't been able to really help the Bulls win in a significant way up to this point in his career.
The Cavs didn't have any draft picks in 2005. Their biggest offseason move was bringing in Larry Hughes to be Robin to James' Batman. Hughes, a 6'5 shooting guard, was only 26 years old, and was a 20 point per game scorer. On the surface, this looked like a good signing. A deeper look reveals otherwise.
Hughes was a 41.5 percent career shooter that never started more than 61 games in an NBA season. He was also a 27 percent three point shooter, meaning that he wasn't going to be able to help James space the floor. Hughes was never going to be LeBron's Scottie Pippen. This was a terrible signing.
The Cavs finished 50-32 that season under rookie head coach Mike Brown. However, true to form, Hughes missed 46 games over and he barely shot over 40 percent from the floor. His contract (five years, over $60 million) made it almost impossible for the Cavs to surround James with a second star player as the Cavs' organization moved forward.
This is where Krause gets a ton of credit for building the Bulls, who had two first-round picks in 1987. With the No. 8 pick, which they acquired via trade in the first place, the Bulls drafted Olden Polynice. Then they traded him along with future draft considerations to the Sonics for Scottie Pippen, the No. 5 overall pick. So that's a trade and another trade to land a future Hall of Famer if you're scoring at home. Then with the No. 10 pick, the Bulls drafted Horace Grant. So the Bulls had landed their two starting forwards for the first three-peat.
The Bulls finished the season at 50-32, and were clearly a team on the rise. Jordan averaged 35 points per game, and was quickly becoming the best player in the league. Oakley averaged 12.4 points and 13 rebounds per game. Sellers (he hadn't been traded yet) averaged 9.5 points per game (which is why he would later have trade value). Paxon was starting to find his groove, starting 30 games alongside Jordan while averaging 7.9 points per game. Pippen (79 games, 7.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals per game) and Grant (81 games, 7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) were also both major contributors as rookies.
So for all you LeBron fans who say, "Jordan needed help, too! He had Pippen!!!" It is true that Jordan didn't start winning big in Chicago until the Bulls started to surround him with better talent.
The Cavs had the No. 26 overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, and with that pick they selected Shannon Brown out of Michigan State. Brown would only play one season with the Cavs before being traded. The Cavs did find some help in the second round, where they drafted Daniel Gibson, who would be a key role player off of the bench for the Cavs during James' remaining time in Cleveland.
LeBron was a force of nature during the 2006-2007 season, averaging 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. However, this would be Hughes last full season in Cleveland (he would later be traded), and the Cavs starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskus was already 31 years old. The Cavs were stuck at 50-32, and in a sign of things to come, couldn't seem to get over the hump.
To LeBron's credit, he did lead the Cavs to the NBA Finals that year, where they were swept by the Spurs. However, if you watched that series, it wasn't really close, since you know... they got swept!
James looked like a champion in the making, but looking back, the Cavs were missing several key pieces.
So while the Bulls spent Jordan's early years surrounding him with young draft picks like Oakley, Pippen, and Grant, the Cavs had drafted poorly, made the terrible Hughes signing, and lost Carlos Boozer in a fluke free agent deal.
The Bulls had a championship core, but to get over the hump, they made a draft trade with the Knicks in 1988. They drafted Will Perdue with the No. 11 pick, moving up from the No. 19 spot. Perdue was not a star player, but anybody that followed the Bulls knows that he was a valuable part of the first Bulls' three-peat.
Perhaps just as important, Krause traded Charles Oakley during the 1988 offseason. Oakley was traded to the Knicks in exchange for Bill Cartwright. This opened the door for Grant to take over as the starting power forward, and Cartwright also gave the Bulls their starting center for their first three-peat.
The foundation for the Bulls first three-peat was almost in place, with the starting five now intact. Paxon, Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and Cartwright were all on the roster and starting to gel together. Purdue was a valuable backup, and Craig Hodges, another key member of the Bulls first three-peat, was acquired via trade from Phoenix in exchange for Ed Nealy and a second round pick.
The Bulls finished that season 47-35, and lost a thrilling six game series to the eventual World Champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Meanwhile in Cleveland, they didn't have a draft pick, again. This marked the second time during LeBron James first five years in Cleveland that the Cavs didn't have a draft pick. As I said earlier, instead of making calculated decisions, the Cavs seemed to always trade draft picks for retread projects. As part of a mega three team trade, the Cavs brought in Wally Szczerbiak, Deltone West, Joe Smith, and Ben Wallace for the 2007-2008 season.
West was a young player, and he was a nice pickup, but Smith and Wallace were aging veterans. Looking back, it's hard to tell if the Cavs thought they were a team that was simply one move away, or if they were delusional making these kind of trades.
Either way, the Cavs finished 45-37, and lost to the eventual champion Celtics in a thrilling seven game series. In my opinion, this was the closes the Cavs ever were to winning a championship.
By now, the Bulls were a title contender, along with the Pistons, the Lakers, the Blazers, and the aging Celtics. They were among the NBA's elite teams, and it looked like it was just a matter of time before they won a championship.
In 1989, the Bulls actually had three first round draft picks acquired from prior trades, and they used them to draft Stacy King (No. 6 overall), BJ Armstrong (No. 18 overall), and Jeff Sanders (No. 20 overall). Sanders was never a difference maker, but Armstrong and King would form the final two pieces of the Bulls championship roster.
The Bulls, led by rookie head coach Phil Jackson, the fourth different head coach of the Bulls during the Jordan Era, would finish the season with a 55-27 record. Playing in Tex Winters' triangle offense, Jordan put up 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game. After MJ, the Bulls had a deep, talented roster full of players the Bulls acquired after they drafted Jordan.
Pippen (16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists) was a star in the making. Grant (13.4 points, 7.9 rebounds) was playing well enough to validate trading Oakley to the Knicks. Cartwright, the man the Bulls received in exchange for Oakley was having a great season (11.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and was their defensive anchor). Meanwhile Paxon (10 points, 4.1 assists), King (8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds), Hodges (6.5 points, 48 percent from three point range), Armstrong (5.6 points, 50 percent from three point range), and Perdue (3.8 points, 2.8 rebounds) were all key parts of the rotation.
The Bulls would fall to the Pistons in a grueling seven game series. Jordan, like James to this point in his career, just couldn't get over the hump. His supporting cast, including Pippen, seemed to shrink from the big moments, and their toughness was questioned.
The Cavs drafted J.J. Hickson, a promising power forward from North Carolina State, with the No. 19 overall pick in the draft. They also added Mo Williams, a scoring combo guard, via trade that cost the Cavs virtually nothing.
James averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game on his way to the MVP award. Zydrunas Ilgauskus, age 33, had his last good year with the Cavs (12.9 points, 7.5 rebounds). The other pieces that Cavs management played well around James, and seemed to highlight James strengths as a player. The Cavs were a great perimeter shooting team with Mo Williams (17.8 points, 43.6 percent from three point range), Delonte West (11.7 points, 39.9 percent from three point range), Daniel Gibson (7.8 points, 38 percent from three point range), and Wally Szczerbiak (7.0 points, 41 percent from three point range) all spreading the floor for James to drive. Meanwhile, Ilgauskus and Anderson Varajeo (8.6 points, 7.2 rebounds) provided muscle in the paint.
The Cavs would finish the regular season with a blistering 66-16 record, the best in the NBA. However, James and the Cavs would come up short in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic, losing in six games.
At this point in their careers, it is scary how similar the career paths of LeBron James and Michael Jordan was. Both players had already won an MVP. Both players had played for multiple coaches, and under a different GM than the one that drafted them to their respective franchise.
Year Seven is where the career paths of James and Jordan diverge, and this is where "The Decision" starts to come into focus.
After getting beat in the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row, the Bulls entered the 1990-1991 season with the exact same core of players. They drafted Tony Kukoc with the No. 29 pick of the second round! Kukoc would be a crucial part of the Bulls' second three-peat, but the 1990 NBA Draft didn't really help the 1990-1991 Bulls team.
The Bulls finished with an NBA best 61-21 record that season. Armstrong was a much better player, and Pippen was now a bona fide star. Jordan was clearly the best player in the world, and the Bulls crushed their competition, going 15-2 in the playoffs on their way to the NBA Championship.
Jordan had finally gotten over the hump. He was the best player alive, and he had the ring to prove it.
Feeling the sting of getting beat in gut wrenching fashion two years in a row, the Cavs, unlike the Bulls, shook things up. They traded for an aging Shaquille O'Neal, a desperation move intended to counter Dwight Howard in Orlando. Granted, the Cavs needed help at center, with Ilgauskas getting older. However, O'Neal (12 points, 6.7 rebounds) was a shell of his former self, and only appeared in 53 games that season.
Feeling like they needed to make another move to win a title, they traded for Antawn Jamison (33 years old) and his massive contract (he is finally in the last year of that contract, making over $15 million this season). Jamison played well during the regular season (17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds), but he was badly outplayed by Kevin Garnett in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Despite having the best record in the league (61-21) for the second year in a row, the Cavs came up short again. I'm sure LeBron looked at the aging, overpaid roster around him and asked himself "can I ever win a championship here?"
The Bulls would keep that same core group of players together as they won three consecutive NBA Championships in 1991, 1992, and 1993. When Michael Jordan retired prior to the 1993-1994 season, there was some turnover on the Bulls' roster.
When Jordan returned in the middle of the 1994-1995 season, Horace Grant was a member of the Orlando Magic, the team that beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Paxon was gone, Cartwright was gone, and Stacey King had been traded for Luc Longley.
I can't overstate the importance of Bulls' GM Jerry Krause, as the trade for Longley helped the Bulls win their second three-peat. Prior to the start of the 1995-1996 season, Perdue was part of the trade for Dennis Rodman, a Hall of Famer who was also a major part of the Bulls second three-peat.
This is a crucial point that you have to consider when you're trying to understand LeBron James. Jordan's Bulls won "not one, not two, not three" NBA Championships, but six NBA Championships. The Bulls, because of Krause, were able to consistently make terrific personnel moves during the Jordan era. They never overspent for a free agent player. They never brought in an aging star trying to chase a ring.
The Bulls built through the draft, and they surrounded Jordan with a team that would continue to improve as he entered the prime seasons of his career. Michael Jordan, in my opinion, is the greatest player that has ever played the game. However, he owes a giant 'thank you' to Jerry Krause for not making the awful personnel moves that LeBron James' GM made.
The Cavs had no room to make any major moves under the salary cap. LeBron James had to make a choice, a really tough choice. Would he stay with Cleveland, his "hometown" franchise, the organization that drafted him? Or would he leave and incur the wrath of his loyal fans?
The real "decision" in front of LeBron was very simple.
LeBron knew, based on NBA history, that he had a realistic six-to-eight year window in front of him to win an NBA championship. With the Cavs history of making awful personnel choices, and no flexibility to change the roster around him, James made the tough decision to leave Cleveland.
You can beat James up for teaming up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. You can vilify him for the way it all went down, on ESPN, the whole "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" bit. Any ill will that LeBron catches from the way that went down, he deserves it.
However, it's time to let him off the hook for leaving Cleveland. It's time to stop rooting against LeBron. He is the best player in the world right now, apologies to super scorer Kevin Durant. We need to appreciate what LeBron James is doing. His career isn't going to last forever.
James knew that. He saw the window closing, he heard the clock ticking, and he took the leap. He might not ever win an NBA championship. The Thunder are poised to be very good for a very long time. Dwight Howard is still a one-of-a-kind talent, a game changer. Derek Rose has a talented roster around him in Chicago. Kobe is still breathing.
LeBron will get his chance to win a ring over the next two weeks. If history teaches us anything, the Heat are still a year away. You can't build an NBA champion overnight. Then again, half of the Thunders' roster is barely old enough to buy alcohol, so who knows?
Me, I'm rooting for Kevin Durant, but I wouldn't bet against LeBron James.