Could LeBron Have Kept His Talents in Cleveland?

In the “microwave society” we live in today, expectations for instant greatness and achievement seem to be at an all time high.  We are not satisfied with steady, gradual gains.  We demand exponential growth or else our patience wears thin.  Perhaps sports are the epitome of this unfortunate reality.

While watching the NBA Finals, it became more evident to me that LeBron James failure to deliver a championship to the city of Cleveland during his seven-year reign was an unfair blemish on his resume.  After all, he entered the league as an eighteen year old kid and took them as far as he possibly could.

Many people are quick to point out that LeBron had zero support while playing for the Cavaliers.  His supporters defended his decision to leave Cleveland for the chance to join forces with fellow stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  Making this move was a no-brainer if he was going to position himself with the best chance to win a championship.

If you watched the NBA playoffs you would have realized that the Miami Heat actually struggled at times against formidable opponents.  There were moments when it appeared that the Spurs and even the Pacers had a chance to eliminate the defending champions.  The Big Three looked vulnerable, as Bosh provided virtually no offense and a hobbled, ineffective Wade seemed to limit the floor spacing.  The sports media likened this situation to the final years in Cleveland, when LeBron had to do it all himself.

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Wasn’t this supposed to easy?

Credit Erik Spoelstra for making the difficult decision during moments of crisis and reduce the minutes of two-thirds of his Big Three in Wade and Bosh.  Most coaches would feel obligated to run their highly paid stars out there and be prepared to go down with the ship if they didn’t produce.  In doing so, Spoelstra found his most productive, cohesive units in James, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller.   These combinations surrounded James with shooters to space the floor and an energetic big man to defend the post and finish in the paint.

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If you look back at LeBron’s last year in Cleveland, in which the Cavaliers won 61 games, the roster didn’t have another superstar to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman.   Instead the team had a proven scorer, yet on the downside of his career, in Antawn Jamison, a capable point guard in Mo Williams, and a few good role players in Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, and Delonte West.  Hardly a championship roster when looking at it now, right?

The criticism at the Cavaliers’ management when looking back at those teams was that when they brought in proven players, they were a shell of what they once were.  This list included the likes of Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Shaquille O’Neal, and the aforementioned Jamison. Consecutive sixty win regular seasons ended in disappointment with playoff exits prior to The Finals.   As the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the handwriting was on the wall that LeBron had played his last game in Cleveland.  It was time for him to move on to greener pastures at the age of 25 years old.

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Perhaps the problem wasn’t the supporting cast that surrounded LeBron in his final season in Cleveland.  Watching LeBron during the Heat’s consecutive championships has shown that he is a different player now.  The development of a consistent outside jump shot and a legit post game has made James practically unstoppable.  No other player in the league has the combination of size, speed, strength to defend him.  It has gotten to the point where only LeBron can stop himself.

What had plagued the Heat’s offense periodically during their championship reign had been the sudden incompatibility of their star players.  In shaking up the supporting cast, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with an average point guard, two great shooters in the twilight of their careers, and a high-octane center that provided the necessary spark on both ends in the paint.

Does this type of cast sound familiar?  If you look closely at who was complementing LeBron in Cleveland, the names may be different but the skill sets and statistics are similar to what made the Heat offense efficient and unstoppable in the playoffs.  Consider some of the regular season game statistics from some of those key role players:

FG%

FT%

3P%

MIN

PTS

REB

AST

BLK

3PM

M. Chalmers

43

80

40

27

8.6

3.5

1.6

R. Allen

45

88

42

26

10.9

1.8

M. Miller

43

73

42

15

4.8

1.2

S. Battier

42

84

43

25

6.6

1.9

C. Andersen

57

68

15

4.9

4.1

1

U. Haslem

51

71

19

3.9

5.4

0.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FG%

FT%

3P%

MIN

PTS

REB

AST

BLK

3PM

M. Williams

44

89

43

34

15.8

5.3

2.3

A. Parker

43

79

41

28

7.3

1.3

D. Gibson

46

69

47

19

6.3

1.3

D. West

45

81

33

25

8.8

0.5

A. Varejao

57

66

28

8.6

7.6

0.9

The bottom line is, LeBron’s Cavaliers did not win a championship because the game’s best player had not reached the level that he is currently playing at.  On average, athletes do not reach the prime of their careers until they reach their late 20’s.  Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas did not win their first titles until they were 28 years old.  Hakeem Olajuwon was 31.  There are some exceptions where players won earlier in their careers (Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant); however those players were in unique situations where the core group possessed more than one great player.

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Coincidental that once MJ added long range shooting into his arsenal, the Bulls evolved into a dynasty?

There is no way to change history, but looking into the numbers shows that perhaps LeBron had sufficient support during his Cleveland tenure.  The problem was that he wasn’t the complete player that he is now.  In the end, the most physically gifted talent added skills that raised his game to an unthinkable level and in the process he developed a tough-minded, killer instinct.

 It is unfortunate that we live in that “microwave society” where everyone demands instant results and greatness overnight.  The Cavaliers were on their way to that elusive title assuming LeBron continued to develop as he entered his physical prime and the management filled out the roster with the similar parts.  It just wasn’t his time in a sport where one player can single-handedly dominate a game and carry his team to victory.  Now that LeBron is in his prime, Ohioans (especially those Clevelanders) can only wonder what could have been.

Making the Case for Jason Kidd

Professional sports can be a funny business sometimes.  We celebrate and copy innovative approaches to the game when successful. However, during tough decisions teams generally lean towards the conservative, “safe” option.

The Brooklyn Nets made a bold move in hiring Jason Kidd to lead their team next season and beyond.  Hiring a first time head coach with zero experience in that role is certainly a sign of an open-minded organization.  Many have mocked this decision by the Nets’ ownership and have predicted failure. Some felt that they would have been better off with candidates like Brian Shaw or Lionel Hollins.

I feel that the underlying doubt and criticism in the hiring of Jason Kidd is due to the close mindedness of many involved in sports: the owners, general managers, media, and fans.  Critics point out that Kidd was playing across the East River for the Knicks this past season.  How can he possibly make the leap from player to coach in just a few months?

Jason kidd Deron williams brooklyn nets press conference

Kidd’s championship experience can only help Williams elevate his game.

It is not common to see a player make the instant transition to head coach, but where does it say that he must serve under another coach?  Obviously, it would be beneficial to be an assistant to gain experience, but is it mandatory?  Wouldn’t a well assembled, experienced coaching staff expedite the learning process for a rookie head coach?

I have heard many in the sports media suggest that Kidd should have worked in broadcasting before seeking a coaching position.  After all, this is what Mark Jackson did prior to becoming the head coach of the Golden State Warriors.  The pundits insisted that a broadcasting job would help distance Kidd from being a player so that his team wouldn’t view him as a fellow peer.

If credibility is a concern, then perhaps we should look at Kidd’s resume as a player on the court.  He led his teams to 17 playoff appearances in his 19 year career.  As the point guard, he was the one orchestrating the offense and serving as an extension of the coach on the court.  He knew how to bring out the strengths of his teammates and instilled a winning attitude.

No example is better than his transformation of the New Jersey Nets during his seven year tenure with them.  Prior to that deal, the Nets had been consistently one of the worst franchises within the league.  The only exception to this was the brief success experienced during the Chuck Daly era.

Kidd’s arrival led to the Nets doubling their win total from the previous year and ultimately reaching The Finals.  Under his leadership as a player, the culture of the once laughing stock franchise changed almost instantly.  Players that experienced nothing but failure at the professional level developed excellent team chemistry and the mental toughness to be successful.  The Nets were the Eastern Conference Champions in his first two seasons and were consistently a winner. Remember that he was also a big part in helping the Mavericks reach their title, when for years they were labeled an underachieving, soft team.

Nets slam magazine

Natural born leader? The same supporting cast with Stephon Marbury won half as many games the previous year.

We have all heard the argument that former superstars never make good head coaches. Yes, Jason Kidd is certainly a future Hall of Famer, but what makes him unique compared to other stars of his generation was that his game was predicated on getting his teammates involved and making everyone better.  He was, in essence, the ultimate team player.  His success and impact didn’t always show up in the box score.  How many other players could dominate a game with a 5-point, 8-assist performance?

He was also a flawed player that earned him the nickname “Ason” early on for his poor jump shooting.  His work ethic over time made him a much improved shooter.  Were you aware that he has the third most 3-point field goals in NBA history?

This quality is an important one, because it shows that he was humbled early on and worked diligently to overcome this shortcoming in his game.  I expect that Kidd will be able to relate well to his players and understand their limitations, because he too had his imperfections.  It also shows that he has tremendous work ethic and will be motivated to learn all of the intricacies of being a head coach.

To dismiss these attributes because of his off the court troubles is somewhat foolish.  Was he a model citizen throughout his playing days?  Of course he wasn’t, but so are some of our elected leaders in government. At the end of the day, Kidd’s job is to lead this team to the next level.

Certainly there were motivations to steal the headlines, but Billy King and company went against the grain for other reasons. Kidd was a genius on the court and his basketball acumen could very much lead to success as a coach. This is a case of thinking “outside the box” and people mock it because it goes against the common practices in sports.  Would they have ridiculed the hiring of a coaching retread like Scott Skiles, George Karl, or another “safe” choice?

george karl

Even the “proven” coaches can’t always get their teams over the hump.

In the end, certain people are leaders and this characteristic of a person cannot be taught.  The real questions are can Kidd help Deron Williams elevate his game to the next level and can he change the team’s “gutless and heartless” identity that the Bulls mocked during their playoff series? Doubters may be inclined to say no, but the one thing we have learned from watching Jason Kidd for the past 19 years is that he is a proven winner and leader who has defied the odds once before.