Jim Rogash/Getty Images
The final seconds ticked off the clock, and the most mind-boggling playoff series in recent memory came to a close. LeBron James stuck around this time to shake hands, facing disappointment head-on. And now for the first time in his career, there is palpable uncertainty about his future. The “LeBron James image” has taken a big hit after the pedestrian performance he turned in against Boston.
His “legacy” has not been determined by any stretch of the imagination. He has plenty of years left, and many opportunities to prove his doubters wrong. He’s dominated in the playoffs before, and will again. Everyone struggles at one point or another in their careers, but it wasn’t the fact that James struggled, but how he struggled.
As game 6 wore on, the Cavaliers continued to tread water. They never fell too far behind, but there was a wait to see when the LeBron outbreak would occur. Surely, he would unleash his wrath at some point, pulling the Cavs back in the game and the series.
Except it never happened.
Early in the fourth quarter, back-to-back threes by James pulled Cleveland to within four points. Was this the barrage everyone was expecting? As it turned out, no it wasn’t. But there was still plenty of time and a much closer game. Then the Celtics started pulling away, a big three here and a big defensive stop there spurring them on to a larger cushion. And America waited for LeBron. And waited some more.
James didn’t play by bad by any means, recording a triple double with almost 20 rebounds. Yet, it was a quiet performance and sans a few short bursts, he never took control of the game. The numbers were good at the end, but it was a rather non-descript 27-19-10, if that’s possible. Everyone kept waiting for him to seize the game by its throat and get the Cavs over the hump, but it never materialized.
The big picture is that the Cavaliers were once again not good enough as a team to win the championship. Boston was the better team in 5 of the 6 games, and controlled the series. So although LeBron had his most disappointing performance of his career, Cleveland was not going to win anything anyway. The supporting cast was mostly dormant, and hyped addition Antawn Jamison proved his Washington doubters right as he was exceptionally underwhelming in the spotlight. And Mo Williams, was, well.... playoff Mo Williams, other than his scoring outbursts in Games 1 and 6.
Add that to the fact that Mike Brown did a terrible job coaching his team (playing Shaquille O'Neal extended minutes, playing Zydrunas Ilgauskas at all) and it was a recipe for disaster. LeBron was mediocre at best in Games 4, 5 and 6, and the Cavaliers team was not top-heavy enough to cover up the blemishes. They needed LeBron to be spectacular night in and night out, which was a rather unfair burden and a surefire formula to lose.
Even Michael Jordan never won until he got Scottie Pippen. Kobe Bryant walked into a perfect situation in Los Angeles, and up until last year had never won as alpha dog (he had some pretty good teammates last year nonetheless). No one can win a title all by themselves (even you Dwyane Wade, you had the refs, even though it wasn't your fault and you still played phenomenal in the Finals). So, the question remains: what is LeBron to do this offseason?
New York is the destination on everyone's mind, but it doesn't make much sense from a winning standpoint. Unless he, Chris Bosh, and Wade all have a pact to take pay cuts and play together, the Knicks don't have enough secondary pieces to win, no matter who is the star of the team. But his image as the world's biggest sports star would grow larger, despite the notion that the size of the market doesn't matter anymore because of national media.
Playing at Madison Square Garden in front of great basketball fans, and every Knicks home game would be an event .
We all know LeBron is a savvy businessman, and wants to develop the "LeBron James" product. But even though New York would catapult his image even higher, it would only be temporary. Especially if the Knicks don't win.
See, society is obsessed with winning. No matter what we do, we want to be better than someone else and prove we are the best. So although New York might seem like a savvy business move, if James doesn't win there it won't matter. That's what "The King" needs to understand.
We still don't know how much of a "winner" he is. He's thrived in the playoffs before, taking his team to the NBA Finals, but that was as an underdog. This year was the first year with real expectations of a championship, and LeBron didn't deliver. How seriously does he take winning? Hopefully very seriously, for the sake of his career.
Look at Alex Rodriguez. Labeled a "loser" after his first few years with the Yankees, his image took a huge hit (the steroids story and other "situations" notwithstanding). Imagine if LeBron goes to the Knicks and can't deliver a championship. New York fans love their teams, but they also expect greatness. Don't think for a second that his image won't be irrecoverably damaged if he fails in his quest to bring New York a title.
In essence, winning and bolstering the LeBron James brand are one in the same. We know LeBron cares about his image, so he better care about winning. Michael Jordan didn't do anything extraordinary for his image other than win. Winning (and clutch performances) bred success in the business world for Jordan.
So LeBron has one of two choices: stay in Cleveland, or go to Chicago. The Bulls have the best supporting cast of any team with cap space, but does LeBron want to follow in Jordan's footsteps? The comparisons to MJ would be non-stop, and maybe LeBron wants to create his own legacy rather than ride the wave of someone else's.
That's why staying in Cleveland might be the most logical choice. Before it is even considered, Mike Brown must be fired (obvious). And despite the attempts by Danny Ferry to get LeBron his Pippen, he hasn't succeeded. Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams are nice players, but nowhere near good enough to the #2 option on a title contender.
No matter were LeBron goes, the goal has to be to win. Otherwise, he will be questioned forever. Winning is all that matters, and there is nothing more disappointing than someone with great potential failing to utilize their talent (Hello Karl Malone).
If LeBron wants to forever be known as "The King" he better win the crown. The drama that will unfold in the next couple months will be the greatest the NBA off-season has ever seen.
We are all witnesses.