NBA Free Agency 2010: LeBron James' Choice Is To Leave or Leave a Legacy

Casey Mabbott@@oregonsportsguyContributor IJune 30, 2010

BOSTON - MAY 09:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts after a foul is called on him in the second half against the Boston Celtics during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at TD Garden on May 9, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers 97-87. NOTE TO USER: User Expressly Acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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If LeBron James is truly interested in establishing himself as the next great player, his path seems quite clear, despite what you may be hearing.

The sexier rumors have him teaming with Dwayne Wade and/or Chris Bosh to form the next big three, which could happen in at least three different cities.

That would make absolutely no sense when you factor in what kind of legacy LeBron is after, and the kind of following he already has.

If he skips town now, gives up on being the sole leader on a championship caliber team in his home state, to join at least one other superstar on another team, he will always have that held against him.

He deserted his town and his team.

He was not as talented both mentally and physically as we all thought him to be. He could not get it done without some major assistance.

He sold out. He is a 'me-first' player. He purchased glory on a foreign court when he could have earned it with hard work on his home soil.

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Don’t get me wrong, LeBron is facing some tough choices that will help define his career. Many of the NBA’s great champions never faced such a choice. Players like Magic, Bird, and Kobe have all the luck. They all had the talent and were on the right teams at the right times.

Magic was drafted onto a team that won the title his rookie season. He was fortunate enough to play alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabaar from day one. Magic appeared in the finals just twice without Kareem, winning one of nine games in the process. Magic was part of eight finals, winning five.

Bird went to the conference finals in his rookie year. He won his first title in his sophomore season. This was in large part due to the assembling of the original “big three,” which included Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale. Bird was part of five finals and won three.

Kobe won his first title in his third season. He went on to win two more in the next two years, completing a three-peat. He has enjoyed massive playoff success, due in large part to being teamed with dynamic big men Shaquille O’Neal for his first seven years, and Pau Gasol since 2008. Kobe has been a part of seven finals, winning five.

Unlike Magic, Bird, and Kobe, LeBron has never been teamed with a superstar during his career. The closest he has come is when the team traded for Mo Williams in 2008 and Antwan Jamison in 2010. While both are talented players who have had all-star seasons, neither is at the caliber of a hall of fame talent.

LeBron desperately needs a number two to follow his lead and grant him some much needed aid. He cannot be expected to win a playoff series on his own, though he has done it more than once. Anyone who watched the playoffs in 2007 would be sacrificing their credibility to say he had help. LeBron literally carried the Cavs into the Finals. His tean was massively over matched by a Spurs team, if not at their peak, then not very far removed from it.

Last year, he toyed with the Hawks and Pistons, going 8-0 en route to the Conference Finals. There, he faced an Orlando Magic squad that relied heavily on team play on the perimeter, as well as great effort down low from center Dwight Howard. The Cavs lack of size and experience as a team was their undoing, losing in six games.

This year was not much different. After beating the overly tenacious Bulls in five games, LeBron was once again matched against a superior effort. The Celtics' team oriented game plan on both ends sent the Cavs spiraling downward from their perch at the top of the league.

LeBron tried and tried to carry the team. However, his supporting cast seemed reluctant to do anything on their own. Mo Williams was inconsistent at best down the stretch, disappearing at times and being completely unreliable at others. The best example of this came in game six against the Celtics, where he scored over twenty points in the first half and then was held nearly scoreless in the  remainder.

Antwan Jamison and Shaq seemed exhausted by their counterparts. Fans had to wonder why J.J. Hickson did not get more playing time when it became apparent that Anderson Varejao was useless on offense and more foul prone than anything else when it came time for defense, which is supposed to be his specialty.  

As high as we hold our sports figures, we must try to understand why they sometimes behave out of character. LeBron clearly quit on his team and coach in the Celtics series, but it is clear his team quit on him long before that.

He was operating in an offense reminiscent of the movie “Kicking and Screaming,” where Coach Weston and Coach Ditka had a very basic plan once they acquired a pair of very talented Italian boys. It went something like this:

“What’s our gameplan? Pass the ball to the Italians. When? When I come into contact with the ball. No the INSTANT you come into contact with the ball!”

All jokes aside, that actually seemed to be the very gameplan the Cavs were operating out of at several times against the Celtics. I could not believe how many open and near open looks LeBron’s teammates passed up just to pass him the ball.

Then there were equally frustrating times when they got poor looks and shot the ball anyway, which nearly always ended up being defensive rebounds and/or quick scores for their opposition. (Which is exactly what happens when Byong Sun takes a shot at goal despite the angry shouts of Coach Weston to pass it to the Italians…)

The fact of the matter is that either the supporting cast was that bad, or the coaching was dismal. Either way, it looks like poor teamwork, something that cannot happen in the playoffs.

They seemed unaware on offense, unprepared for quick passes that have become a staple of LeBron’s game, something that should not surprise teammates like Varejao, who had too many turnovers at crucial moments of games.

I do not mean to say his teammates are useless or lacking talent. They each have valuable skill sets that make them an asset to a superstar like LeBron. However, none of them stepped up when it counted most.

I cannot fully blame LeBron for quitting on his team when they had so clearly quit on him. Most, if not all of them, leaned on him to carry them when he was under the impression that he was finally on a team and would not be left to carry the load all by his lonesome.

LeBron has the spent the past seven years in the same hell superstars experience when they are forced to learn the hardest lesson for an athlete’s ego: A team wins a championship. A player wins the MVP.

Just six years ago, Kobe was learning the same lesson. Kobe tried carrying mediocre supporting casts through the regular season and playoffs, suffering bitter defeats in each year Shaq was missing. He even demanded a trade, as things were going so poorly on the personnel side that he was convinced he could not win with his teammates, coach, and GM.

Then, help arrived. Phil Jackson returned as head coach. Not long after that, a trade was made that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers. Quite suddenly, Kobe had a championship contender. It was made even stronger after a loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals.

The team beat a talented Magic squad the following year, the same Magic team that had ripped the red carpet out from under LeBron as the league was ready to crown him.

The Lakers then tempted fate and signed the enigmatic Ron Artest, who was particularly talented at defense and perimeter shooting. The gamble paid off. Kobe was able to exact revenge from the Celtics in a grueling seven game series for the title.

The Cavs clearly were disappointed with their early playoff exit. It is tough to tell if the system was weak or if the players simply did not buy into it. Either way, that ultimately means Mike Brown was an ineffective coach, and it was time to go. The team needs an innovative and creative coach that knows how to handle a superstar.

Byron Scott is available. He has a proven track record working well with star players. His Nets and Hornets teams were well coached and performed well under pressure. He could be the guy who brings the term “TEAM” back to Cleveland, where it thrived in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Brian Shaw is also being considered. I would have to imagine the team would shy away from a candidate with no head coaching experience at any level, despite his great track record as a player and assistant coach.

Whoever ends up being hired will have the toughest task in the league: Get LeBron’s respect and loyalty and win a title for a team that never has.

So it all comes down to this:

Does LeBron think he can win in Cleveland? Does he need a superstar or a pair of superstars to aid him in another home?

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen all tried to capture their first title until they were at least 32, well past their collective primes. Only then did they scheme to play together and in the process help Boston raise another banner to the rafters. Their positioning to purchase a title was not considered selling out. They had tried so hard and for so long to do it with hard work and dedication to their fans.

The main difference between LeBron and Boston’s big three is that he has tasted far more success as Cleveland’s lone star than any of them did on their own. He has been to a Finals and has had success in the playoffs. He has had the best regular season record the last two years. None of the big three ever accomplished these feats solo.

It would be grand if Cavs ownership can find a way to lure Shaq back for one more year. If that is not feasible, perhaps a trade for an athletic big man would be more realistic. “Z” is not a long term option at center.

Anderson Varejao and Antwan Jamison are not great options at power forward until the team has a truly well rounded center. The best option would be to trade a pair out of Varejao, Jamison, and Hickson to a team in need of help at power forward in exchange for a center.

With Stoudemire leaving Phoenix, this might be the best time to try a trade for Robin Lopez. Lopez has shown he can be developed into a stalwart defender and rebounder.

Chris Bosh might be open to the idea of a sign and trade, which would probably make Toronto open to ideas otherwise thought unrealistic.

The Blazers might even be open to the idea of trading Greg Oden for a decent package of players or draft picks, seeing as most of Portland’s new management seems to view him as a disappointment. Then there is Milwaukee big man Andrew Bogut, who may be able to leave if the right “injury prone” card is played.

LeBron has never shunned the Jordan comparisons, but seems reluctant to help build a contender from the ground up. Jordan suffered through seven years of frustrating playoff exits before salvation. Phil Jackson was hired as head coach and Scottie Pippen developed into an all-star. A great supporting cast featuring Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, and John Paxon helped him to victory when those 40 points nights were elusive.

What happened next? Six titles in six Finals appearances. There was not a single full season that Jordan played between 1991 and his second retirement in 1999 that he did not appear in and win the Finals.

This was against some pretty tough competition, featuring the 1991 Lakers, 1992 Blazers, 1993 Suns, and 1997-98 Jazz. He beat them all, never facing an elimination game.

Since the rebirth of the league in 1979, there have been six superstars that played on a different level than their competition.

Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Duncan, and now Kobe. LeBron has the chance to be next in that lineup of basketball immortals. He will even have a chance to top the list if he does it in Cleveland.

LeBron has all the necessary pieces in place or ready for plucking to go on several serious championship runs.

Mo Williams is an above average point guard who excels at outside shooting but needs the coach or LeBron to pull the reigns back at times. Anthony Parker is a very good defensive player who can also shoot the long ball. That leaves the combination of  Ilgauskas, Varejao, Jamison, and Hickson to fit the role of shot blocker and rebounding. If they can do that while LeBron scores 30+ points a game, this could easily work.

Add to that the bench players in Jamario Moon, Delonte West, Leon Powe, and Daniel Gibson, and you are one well rounded center short of being one of if not the best out there.

Kobe kicked and screamed until a hall of fame coach and the league’s best big man came to his aid. No one is saying Kobe did anything on his own, they are merely saying he did it without Shaq. Those are two quite different points.

LeBron has the choice to be the next Jordan and truly lead a team to multiple titles. Or he can go the path of Kobe and whine until someone shoves a bottle in his mouth.

To be great or to be in the discussion among the greats.

That is the path that lies ahead.

The fans and the legacy demand a choice.