Fact or Fiction: LeBron James Had to Leave Cleveland to Win an NBA Title

Tom DelamaterAnalyst IAugust 26, 2010

LeBron James chose the sure thing by going to the Miami Heat.
LeBron James chose the sure thing by going to the Miami Heat.Larry Busacca/Getty Images

After LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in July, media pundits, bloggers, and fans on Internet forums began what has become an ongoing post-decision analysis of the move.

One premise that has been voiced frequently, and seems to be widely accepted, is this: LeBron was never going to win anything in Cleveland. He had to go elsewhere to fulfill his dream of winning an NBA championship.

Is that true? Or is it just a rationale employed after the fact to justify his decision?

His decision needs no justification, of course. It was his to make.

However, it seems likely, from the perspective of time, that he and his team of advisers did not anticipate the backlash that ensued following his announcement.

Like most people—particularly those in Northeast Ohio—I can’t imagine what they thought would happen, but it’s a good bet that jersey-burning and a near-unanimous sense of loathing weren’t at the top of their list.

Part of Cleveland’s wrath stems from the notion that James had to leave the Cavaliers in order to win a title.

There’s no question that LeBron was the straw that stirred the team’s drink, perhaps moreso than any other single athlete in American team sports. There is credence to the argument that without him the Cavs would have been lucky to make the playoffs at all.

However, that points to a problem with philosophy, not just with talent. Mike Brown, despite a Coach of the Year award two seasons ago, never figured out a way to incorporate LeBron’s transcendent talents into a team-first approach.

James likes to say that he’s all about making his teammates better, and we like to believe him. The truth is, however, that the Cavs were often guilty of standing around and waiting for LeBron to do something, and he was guilty of requiring them to do so.

The now-famous practice of LeBron dribbling down the shot clock and then passing off when it was too late for a teammate to do anything with the ball was permitted, if not encouraged, by Brown.

It was mystifying. You have a thoroughbred like James—the most unstoppable force in all of basketball—on your team, and you resort to a slow-down, stand-around offense?

It made no sense, to Cavs fans or anyone else.

It stifled the team’s creativity and limited its effectiveness. As a result, when James played poorly, so did the team.

Even worse, when a seasoned opponent like Boston focused on limiting James’ effectiveness, the Cavaliers came unglued. As a result, the Celtics’ triumph in the Eastern Conference semifinals was relatively easy—just as the Orlando Magic’s victory in the conference finals was the previous year.

So, if the Cavs’ system was lacking, didn’t LeBron have to leave in order to find one that worked?

Maybe—but not certainly. Brown was dismissed in June, after another head-scratcher of a playoff performance by his team.

His firing was probably a knee-jerk reaction by Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert, who is quickly gaining a reputation for that kind of thing. GM Danny Ferry walked shortly thereafter, and word on the street was that Brown’s firing had something to do with it.

Even so, James chose to leave a team that led the league in regular season wins two years in a row. Call it a mirage all you want, but ask Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers if that’s an easy thing to do.

That many wins means there are pieces and parts of a possible championship puzzle. In Cleveland, that promise went unfulfilled, but it didn’t have to be that way.

Gilbert has been criticized, and Ferry with him, for not surrounding James with enough talent.

It’s a straw man argument, really. You say potato, and so on.

There’s no question, however, that adding players like Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and, yes, Shaquille O’Neal represented a major upgrade over a Cavs team that made it to the NBA Finals in 2007.

The fact that players did not perform as well as hoped is not just a commentary on them. It points to a flaw in the system, a system that relied too heavily on LeBron to do this and LeBron to do that.

After James announced his decision to leave the Cavaliers, several NBA legends weighed in. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan all suggested that they would not have done the same thing had they been in LeBron’s shoes. Their point of agreement was that they had wanted to beat each other, not join each other.

The suggestion, then, is that James could—maybe should—have stayed in Cleveland and gone about the business of beating, not joining, the likes of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

Times have changed, however. With them, so have priorities. James seems unfazed by what others think, or want.

His choice was clear. Nonetheless, it appears that he didn’t want to leave Cleveland as much as he wanted to team up with his buddies and try to collect rings.

In other words, Cleveland was the bridesmaid to Miami’s bride.

So leave, James did, and he saw nothing wrong with it. However, he miscalculated the repercussions that were, to the average observer, inevitable.

Did he have to abandon the Cavaliers, the winningest team in the NBA in recent years, in order to one day win a championship? No.

Did going to a team stacked with talent increase his chances of doing so? Absolutely.

Like so many people do in life, James chose the sure thing. In so doing, he thrilled a fan base in Florida, and alienated another one that, to his surprise and dismay, stretches from the shores of Lake Erie to both coasts—and points in-between.

And so, the plot thickens. It’s a strange chapter in NBA history, and the story isn’t over yet. What remains promises to be a real page-turner.


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