Immediately following "The Decision," LeBron James appeared to have torpedoed his brand in an unparalleled fashion. By announcing his intention to take his talents to South Beach on a national, primetime TV special, LBJ went from hero to hated in the course of one night.
Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan joined the fun, neglecting the fact that some of their former teammates were leagues better than anyone LeBron played with in Cleveland. Magic Johnson jumped in too. (Again, neglecting that Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison aren't exactly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.)
Some bloggers, like ESPN's Henry Abbott, have been quick to refute the legends – pointing out the very fact that Johnson, Barkley, and Jordan all played with all-time Top 50 players, while LBJ treaded water with Drew Gooden as his starting power forward.
But to this point, there have been far more vitriolic "LeBron torched his legacy!!" opinions than the calculated responses like Abbott.
Is a sea change afoot?
While the fans in Cleveland will likely never forgive LeBron —and really, who can blame them from feeling betrayed?—a growing number NBA fans elsewhere appear ready to defend the King once more.
Did we go so overboard in bashing King James that he's become a somewhat lovable villain? (Think Dexter.)
Now, let's make one important distinction. The way James and his new Miami colleagues have conducted themselves since July 8—throwing a welcome parade for themselves, saying they're going to win seven straight championships—has been arrogant, narcissistic, and downright unlikeable, at best.
Off the court, James jumped from beloved to detestable, and outside of Miami, the public adulation won't return any time soon.
But just because you hate James and the SuperFriends off the court doesn't mean you'll hate them on the court.
As CBSSports.com's Matt Moore points out, it's not like the animosity towards the SuperFriends has affected the Heat's bottom line any. In fact, Moore says it's quite the opposite—the Heat's chief marketing officer claims that Miami has jumped to number one in retail sales, and that LBJ's new Heat jersey is the best-selling jersey in the league.
Clearly someone is buying these jerseys.
Moore also makes the salient point that once the Miami Big Three win start winning championships, "all the talk about [their] tarnished legacies will be reformed into praise for their sacrifice. We like winners, and we're not particularly stuck on how those wins are made." (See: Bryant, Kobe, post-2004.)
These weren't Moore's only thoughts on the issue recently. Last Friday, Moore also crafted a comparison between the career arcs of Kevin Garnett and James, openly wondering how K.G. could be lauded as a hero for heading to Boston while LBJ gets vilified for deciding he wants more help from his teammates too.
Yes, Garnett was traded from Minnesota to Boston, and yes, LBJ turned his back on his adopted hometown. But again, those are off-the-court factors that lead you to judge the respective superstars separately.
Moore writes, "You don't have to like how James pulled off this career correction. No one does. But to question his legacy opens up a Pandora's Box that is linked throughout some of the greatest players in the history of the league. "
So, there goes the "legacy" question. But, let's be honest with ourselves…that was a ridiculous argument to begin with.
If James wins multiple (more than two) titles with Miami, it won't matter that D-Wade and Bosh stood next to him on the championship podium.
And, really, couldn't we argue that James' "Decision" special cemented his legacy, one way or another? No matter what, LBJ will be remembered as "the guy who screwed Cleveland on national TV" from here on out.
Either way, James' legacy now rides on Miami. If the Heat win the seven titles they're predicting, LBJ goes down next to Jordan as one of the greatest to play the game. If the Heat epically flame out, LBJ goes down as the next T-Mac, a guy who's immensely talented, but couldn't get his team over the hump when it mattered.
Something tells me an epic flameout isn't the way this Miami train is headed.
Jeff Van Gundy recently stoked those flames, declaring that the Heat can win 73 games this year to break the 1995-96 Bulls' single-season record for wins. A number of statistical analyses don't go that far, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an analysis that projects the Heat for less than 60 wins this coming season.
And that all leads back to LeBron. The Heat may still be "D-Wade's team," but if LBJ
Hate them off the court. It's deserved, given their two-month long premature celebration.
But if you're swinging barbs questioning LeBron's manhood, legacy, or basketball talent…well, I wouldn't want to be you in the next few years.
You're going to be eating your words. A lot.