The King Without a Ring: Two Tiers of Legendary in the NBA

Anthony PierroCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 19:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks next to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a break from the game at Staples Center on January 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

I decided to start doing this segment where every now and then I’ll offer my unsolicited thoughts on interesting topics in sports, sort of like A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes. Then I realized how similar Andy Rooney is to a wet blanket; so, instead, let's just say these are my rationalities on hot topics happening on the big stage.

First, I want to say that I will be referring to LeBron James by his first name; not The King, not LBJ, not The Chosen One, simply by his god-given name. To be called The King, one must first win some jewelry in the form of a Championship. That is not to say that LeBron isn’t a great player and one of the best ever, because he is. I just find it irrational to call someone who is not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant “The King” of the NBA.

Anyways, I tried really hard to stay away from LeBenedict—I mean LeBron—speculation, but it recently hit me that this entire state of affairs is far more telling and important than I originally anticipated. The events and opinion that followed “Decision 2010” should not have been geared towards the simple fact that LeBron let down the Cleveland fan base, and apparently Dan Gilbert, in what was seemingly a marvelous display of egotism and self-interested media-hype.

LeBron’s move to Miami, and his subsequent souring in Cleveland, says as much about him as it does the new attitude and culture of the NBA. That is, the new outlook garnered from most big-name athletes (and various commentators) is that statistics no longer illustrate legendary status—putting up big numbers year in and year out simply isn’t good enough—and this view was fostered by the media.

The new stance around the league, which is strongly and ever-so pathetically affirmed by the media, is that rings, championship rings to be more specific, are the new degree by which players’ careers are judged.

There used to be a fine line between those players that have won a championship and those who have come up lame (or never came close in the first place); now, that line is etched in permanent marker and it has created two tiers of legendary players—legendary, and almost legendary.

When was the last time you’ve heard the names Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, or even the great Reggie Miller ranked in the same tier as Jordan, Bryant, Bird, or Magic?

Switching gears for a minute, the reason why the LeBron fiasco is different from previous NBA free-agent maneuvers is that it is the first time in NBA history that money wasn’t a factor. LeBron wants a ring, he was going to get a max deal wherever he went. When Robert Horry left the Lakers for the Spurs, he did it for the money. The same goes for Shaq leaving Orlando, as well as various other players who left their teams for greener pastures.

LeBron’s decision, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing to do with money. He left Cleveland because, regardless of how the Cavs burned out of the playoffs this year, Dan Gilbert failed to build a championship team around him, one that didn't force the outcome of every game to rely solely on LeBron.  

Take Kobe Bryant, for example. Kobe is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players ever; and he, like LeBron, was unhappy with his team and the organization back in 2007. How did the Lakers respond? They went out and constructed a team that carried Kobe to two more rings. When I say carried, I mean physically carried. Kobe’s performance in Game Seven of this year’s NBA Finals will speak proof to that claim.

Now, for reasons of comparison, let’s place LeBron in a similar scenario: If LeBron goes 6-for-24 in a Game Seven of a Cavaliers-Lakers final (like Kobe did against Boston), the Cavs lose, period. Why? Not because of LeBron, but because of Dan Gilbert. And I am only placing blame on Gilbert because, in any loss, the media and sports fans alike must peg someone to blame.

When Kobe fell short, his supporting cast picked up the slack. I hate to sound cliché, but even Jordan had a Pippen and a Rodman. LeBron, on the other hand, had nothing of the sort, and that is why he left Cleveland. And can anyone honestly say that he isn’t better off in Miami?

And now LeBron has in South Beach what he was lacking in Ohio; he doesn’t have to be “the guy” 100 percent of the time—he’s got D-Wade and C-Bosh to take on that load now.

Dan Gilbert failed LeBron, not the other way around. He indirectly drove LeBron out of town and he deserves the blame from Cleveland fans. The only reason he wrote that letter was to act like he is as pissed off as the fans, only to divert the blame away from himself and onto the shoulders of a “selfish” LeBron.

It’s like the guy who farts in a room full of people and then acts pissed off about it so no one will think to blame him.

LeBron’s move to Miami is tantamount to the reason that led him there, as well as why he had those reasons in the first place. He wants a Championship ring, and the reason why is because, for the past five or six years, the media has constantly said that he will only be great once he wins a Championship(s).

The media made a villain out of LeBron for the same reason that it said he wouldn’t be counted among the greatest ever to play the game. He left Cleveland because the media hounded him for not yet winning a ring, and then the media hounded him again for doing what they harped on him to go out and do.

LeBron would have been hated on for leaving Cleveland regardless of how he decided to spill the news.

Dan Gilbert is a clown for writing that letter. He could have shown a little class, but he decided to take the lower route. Being the owner of an NBA team, he should've realize LeBron’s desire to win a ring above all else; and he either didn’t care, or didn’t communicate with LeBron to express the sentiment.

The same goes for Byron Scott, who met with LeBron for less than an hour. This is your star player and the face of your franchise for the next decade and you only meet with him for an hour? Come on now.

LeBron is a great player, even if he never wins a single ring (which is highly unlikely now). What it comes down to is which great players are lucky enough to play on a championship team.

Kobe Bryant is a great player and he was certainly a large part of the reason why the Lakers made it to the Finals in 2010, but it was the Lakers as a team that won that championship. Kobe was lucky to be a part of an organization willing to build a bitchin’ team around him.

LeBron, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. And no, Antawn Jamison, Big-Z, and Mo’ Williams are not the same as having Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest, and a veteran in Derek Fisher. Not to mention you have to worry about Delonte West sleeping with your mom in a Cleveland hotel.

This situation is quite telling of the “new-age attitude” in the NBA—that players will never be considered among the likes of Jordan and Bird without winning a ring, and Dan Gilbert and all of Cleveland should understand this about LeBron, and understand that it’s not his fault, but the media’s for making him believe that he couldn't be great in Cleveland.

The media circus surrounding “Decision 2010,” however, is another story. People can, and should, talk smack on that for years to come.

The overarching theme here is that it seems a bit irrational to automatically categorize players like Barkley and Ewing in a lower tier of legendary because they simply weren’t lucky enough be on a team that was able to go the distance. Just as it seems silly to say that LeBron won’t be considered great until he wins a ring. He is great, and anyone that’s ever watched him play should say the same.

If only someone had told him that in Cleveland, he might be still be there, instead of chillin’ on a beach somewhere in Florida.