The long forsaken sports city betrayed by its favorite son. Fans taken to streets with $100 jerseys and cans of gasoline. A public-relations nightmare from which its principal player was recently redeemed, absolved, it seems, only by the sheer grace of his game.
Even four years later, "The Decision"—its conception and its execution—continues to haunt LeBron James. For many, it remains the single-most pernicious pock on what has otherwise been a colossal career.
The Decision was, in the simplest possible terms, a terrible idea.
And yet, there's a risk that just that will happen, especially if you believe reports that the trio aren't on the same page.
Though teams struggled initially to arrange a meeting with LeBron, that appears to have changed.
Apparently some of the interested parties have already met with James' agent.
The headlines are, by now, omnipresent: As first reported by ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, James expects to receive no less than the league’s maximum salary as the four-time league MVP fields offers during the NBA’s free-agency period.
As a pure economic exercise, James’ demand is entirely logical: In the 11 years that he’s been in the league, the 29-year-old has yet to rake in the league’s highest one-year salary. That he deserves it goes without saying.
As a political maneuver, LeBron’s gambit couldn’t be more Machiavellian.
This isn’t about whether James deserves the max. He absolutely does. Nor is it about having the freedom of movement—however limited—afforded by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. If anything, it should be less restricted.
Rather, LeBron’s power play represents a nefarious nexus between a superstar’s disregard for past transgressions on the one hand and a flippant willingness to jettison one’s recent success—not to mention the relationships wrought from said success—on the other.
Lest you claim such a judgment broaches the boundary between analysis and moral projection, let's take stock of what's at stake.
We root for players and teams because we want those players and teams to win. Players, on the other hand, operate according to an altogether different calculus, one where pay, place and personal relations are all brought to bear on one's decision-making.
The further afield players trend from winning for the sake of itself, the more closely sports begin to approximate a business—not just in practice, which they most certainly are, but in spirit as well.
LeBron certainly wouldn’t be the first player in NBA history (or in any other professional sport, for that matter) to demand what’s his and let the subsequent chips—of roster fit and franchise prospects—fall where they may.
He is, however, the one player whose legacy could lose or gain the most depending on how he approaches the coming days.
The claim isn’t that LeBron should take a pay cut just to stay with Wade and Bosh, to more effectively and sustainably retool a now blank-slate franchise. His max demand could be a red herring for any one of a million reasons to leave Miami.
Instead, it’s worth asking whether what we once believed to be James’ understated humbleness—wielded through many a post-Decision interview and in his initial Big Three pay cut itself (via ESPN.com)—might’ve been a mirage all along.
And while Heat president Pat Riley probably wouldn’t put it in such accusatory terms, his comments at a recent press conference underscore something of a generational rift between James and his front-office overseers, per Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk:
This stuff is hard. And you’ve got to stay together if you got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it. We’ll find out what we’re made of here. It’s not about options. It’s not about free agency. There’s just looking around the room now and finding out who’s going to stand up. This is time that you go home and take care of yourself and look at yourself and what are you going to do to come back and make the team better? Because we have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success. But don’t think we’re not going to get beat again. So, just get a grip, everybody. That’s my message. That’s my message to the players.
That Riley’s remarks didn’t succeed in swaying James outright only proves just how serious the King is about controlling the discourse.
Per Windhorst’s report, only seven teams boast the cap space necessary to offer LeBron the max: the Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic.
Of the five remaining teams outside of Miami with the necessary cap space, not one currently has a roster that would guarantee LeBron a better shot at a title than with the Heat in 2015.
What James’ insistence on a maximum payday amounts to, then, is either a statement of his long-neglected worth or—as Windhorst reported back in June—a way of ratcheting up the pressure on Heat owner Micky Arison to retool the roster. Even if that means forcing Wade and Bosh to take their own pay cuts:
[James] follows the league closely. He talks to people. He knows the salary cap and is intelligent and business savvy. He has been through this before. He's not afraid to make big changes. He badly wants to win more titles and is concerned about his legacy. He thinks long term about money. He thinks short term about winning but is also extremely pragmatic.
And nothing about basketball scares him.
Most importantly, he doesn't care what anyone says or thinks anymore. He is simply going to do what makes him happy and gives him the best chance to win. He was strong in 2010. He's much stronger now.
“Pragmatism,” in this case, may refer to a recent report by Windhorst suggesting James may be looking for a shorter deal, albeit for max money.
At this point, one can’t help but wonder whether LeBron’s idea of flexibility isn’t akin to championship carpetbagging—of taking his talents wherever the winds are most favorable.
That logic might yield him an extra championship or two, but as a far as his legacy’s concerned, it’s hard to imagine LeBron doing more damage—or assuming a more polarizing place in the NBA pantheon—than with this fair-weather philosophy.
By abandoning his South Beach brethren, knowing whichever team he chooses will have to fortify on the fringes, LeBron risks coming off as a blatant opportunist—the very notion he’s spent every sweat-soaked second of the last four years trying to bury.
There's nothing inherently wrong with James chasing championships, riding the carpool lane all the way to Springfield. In a way it's what we, obsessed as we are with rattling off ring counts, have tacitly demanded of him.
Just don't be surprised when going it alone gets him pulled over by the public.