When he conceded defeat in the final seconds in Cleveland, when he embraced Steph Curry and then walked to the visitors’ bench to shake Steve Kerr’s hand, LeBron James was a sympathetic figure. For three games, anyway, he had frightened the hell out of the Warriors by controlling the pace, imposing his aura and singularly dominating the NBA Finals like no other player in history. I actually felt bad for him, knowing he had zero shot to win a championship without his All-Star teammates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, once Kerr (and Nick U’Ren) figured it all out by playing the Andre Iguodala smallball card.
Today, I am disgusted by James.
Most media people aren’t seated close enough in an arena to see the inner workings of the team huddle. But ESPN’s Marc Stein observed the Cavaliers directly during timeouts, from his courtside perch as a sideline reporter for the network’s radio side, and what he reported makes James look like a dictatorial monster in his bullying of coach David Blatt. Stein wrote that James “openly barked at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like.” He wrote that James “essentially called timeouts and made substitutions.” He wrote that James regularly circumvented Blatt by ignoring him and conferring instead with his favored assistant coach, Tyronn Lue.
Continued Stein: “There was James, in one instance I witnessed from right behind the bench, shaking his head vociferously in protest after one play Blatt drew up in the third quarter of Game 5, amounting to the loudest nonverbal scolding you could imagine — which forced Blatt, in front of his whole team, to wipe the board clean and draw up something else.”
It doesn’t take a basketball savant to realize that a hybrid of Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden wasn’t going to beat the Warriors with the weakest supporting cast ever in a Finals. Yet James decided that bashing Blatt in public would make the situation better when, in fact, it could serve only to further wear down teammates who had no juice left. Maybe Blatt is in over his head. Maybe he never would have been hired last summer by owner Dan Gilbert if James hadn’t announced his return to Cleveland weeks later. Maybe James will have him fired at some point next season, with Tom Thibodeau available and Lue and John Calipari well-regarded by the James camp. But eviscerating Blatt in huddles and behind the scenes does nothing but damage James when measuring where his legacy stands now, in sports and life.
The idea that James ever would be comparable to Michael Jordan ended four years ago, of course. That’s when LeBron, after becoming a pariah amid his mercenary move from his native northeast Ohio to Miami, delivered a wobbly performance in the Heat’s Finals loss to Dallas. It took the Chicago Bulls several years before surrounding Jordan with a title-worthy cast, but once they did, he batted 1.000 in the Finals: Six appearances, six trophies, six MVP awards. Such perfection never will be approached in any sport, but James certainly grabbed the world’s attention when he threatened to achieve something even Jordan never did: win a title with a Dellavedova, a Timofey, a Shumpert, a Smith, a Jones, a Thompson not named Klay and a coach who came from Israel. But when the task became too imposing, James stooped to weenie sideline politics in playing Blatt against Lue. Shame on him. If Jordan had pissy moments with coaches earlier in his career, he never did with Jackson, who wouldn’t have stood for any backlash and commanded his superstar’s respect.
The only coach James has respected in his career was Erik Spoelstra, with whom he won two championships in Miami. And that bond came only after grudging episodes, such as the night James appeared to intentionally bump Spoelstra on the court. When the Heat were blown out last summer by the Spurs, James knew the title window was shut in South Beach, so he ran home to Cleveland, hatching a warm-and-fuzzy story when, in truth, he’d still be in Miami if he thought the roster was worthy of him. Though the media had blind spots this time in praising the decision, the “homecoming” was another mercenary move.
Seeing a pattern? Every time LeBron loses, he deflects the blame elsewhere. He runs away, disses a coach, points at a teammate. This time, it’s Blatt’s fault. Next year, if he somehow loses with a healthy Irving and Love, I’m figuring he blames Love, whom James politicked into outsider status during the regular season. Sensational and inspirational as he was in leading his team to a 2-1 lead in the Finals, his treatment of Blatt largely offsets the fond memories.
LeBron is now a LeBum.
He is 2-4 in the Finals, and while he had no real chance in the two bookend Cleveland appearances, his two defeats in Miami are killing him in all historical judgments. The talent undeniably was title-worthy there, but if Jordan made everyone around him better, would you agree that Chris Bosh regressed in the No. 3 role on Team James just as Love, curiously, regressed in the No. 3 role last season? James’ career is beginning to channel that of Peyton Manning, and if you think not, forget Jordan for a moment and consider that Magic Johnson won five titles in his first eight years and Larry Bird won three in his first seven. LeBron is a top 10 player all-time, but if he doesn’t win another as he enters his 13th season, he won’t reach the top five. Ever hear of Bill Russell? Ever see all of his trophies?
When we refer to James as the best player of his era, we should consider that his era largely is filled with selfish players who don’t know how to be champions. Curry and the Warriors defied that generational stigma with the very definition of a selfless, team-first triumph, symbolized not only by the willingness of Iguodala and David Lee to accept off-the-bench roles but by Curry not giving a damn — sorry, a darn — when Iguodala won the Finals MVP award. There were times in the playoffs when the Warriors could have cracked the way James cracked. Their leadership core — Kerr, his assistants, Curry, Iguodala — wouldn’t let them.
“I thought the Memphis series was the most difficult moment, being down 2-1 in Memphis,” general manager Bob Myers recalled. “You had everybody staring at each other thinking, ‘Wow, is this how it’s going to end?’ People weren’t necessarily voicing that, but it was a real challenge. It was a moment where it was not certain we were going to come out of that series. If anything, a lot of people were probably thinking we weren’t, and that’s when some doubt crept in. Certainly, it did with me, and I’m glad it didn’t with our players. But you start wondering, ‘Wow, is this where we meet a team that exposes our weaknesses or a style we can’t conform to?’ “
Like all of his players, Myers never had been to a Finals. So he spoke to Kerr, he of the five championship rings as a player. “We’ll be OK,” the rookie coach said, typically.
Said Myers: “You have to persevere. Our players have been saying it was a testament to the character in that locker room. A lot of times in that situation, when your backs are up against it, people start pointing fingers. But in that moment, nobody was saying those things. They were all saying, we’re fine, we’re going to figure it out. We never splintered as a team, and if we ever were going to, I thought it might have been then. Not only did it not happen, I don’t think it even tip-toed in that direction.”
LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, maybe the best athlete in the world. But he is far from the greatest champion in the world.
For some lessons in that regard, he might want to study the Warriors. They did not splinter. They did not point fingers.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.