Let’s put aside all the lines about the prodigal son returning home and the speculation about how good the Cleveland Cavaliers may be this coming season or in years to come. LeBron James’s announcement Friday that he’s returning to Cleveland after four years in Miami comes down to this: He knew he left home with the job unfinished.
Even if James had won “not five, not six, not seven . . .” championships in Miami, he would have retired knowing there was a hole in his résumé. James grew up in Akron. He went to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, which is exactly 39.6 miles south and east of Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. During his seven seasons in Cleveland, he transformed the Cavaliers from one of the NBA’s least-respected franchises into a championship contender. The Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals in 2007 and won 66 games two seasons later.
But they didn’t win an NBA title. One of the reasons James left Cleveland was because he was concerned that the team was going in the wrong direction, and he didn’t want to become Charles Barkley or Dan Marino — Hall of Fame athletes who retired without a championship ring.
James got his ring in Miami — two, in fact — but anyone who knows James will tell you he has never had Michael Jordan’s cutthroat mentality, on or off the court. James not only cares what people think about him, he also can admit a mistake, which very few superstar athletes or coaches can.
James knew “The Decision” was a disaster, probably before the TV show was over. Former NBA commissioner David Stern begged James and his “people” not to turn that decision into a circus. They didn’t listen. James knew that the over-reaction to his departure in Cleveland was as much about how he left as that he left.
It bothered him to be thought of as a traitor in his home state and his home town. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s angry, vindictive letter to the team’s fans was bad enough, but having the Gilbert-owned Fathead company, which sells life-size vinyl wall graphics of star athletes, reduce the price of a James Fathead to $17.41, probably hurt more.
Why $17.41? That was the year Benedict Arnold was born.
James’s decision to go to Miami was vindicated: He went there to win — not for the money — and he won: four trips to the Finals and back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
The Heat’s five-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s Finals might have played a role in this decision. James has a high basketball IQ, and he could see that time was running out on Miami’s “Superfriends” — James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade was clearly out of gas against the Spurs and will be an oft-injured 33 in January. Bosh had evolved into a soft jump shooter. The Heat had no depth, no point guard, and not much future beyond James. Its presence in the Finals was due to the weakness of the Eastern Conference more than anything else.
Even the most durable athletes — James has never missed more than eight games in a season in 11 years — hear the clock ticking. James will be 30 in December, hardly old for someone built like a tank, but this will be his 12th NBA season. If he was going to go home to finish the job, this was the time.
If the Cavaliers can swing a deal to add Kevin Love to James and Kyrie Irving, they will go into next season as the favorites in the East. If not, it might take a year or two for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett and Irving to mature to the point at which James can lead them to a title.
The Cavaliers badly underperformed this past season, going 33-49 after promising to make the playoffs. In James’s last season in Cleveland, the Cavaliers were 61-21 before an upset loss to the Celtics in the conference semifinals; the year after James departed, they were 19-63. That’s how big a difference he can make.
Clearly James believes the Cavaliers will be able to put enough good players around him to win a title. Most of the moves made by Cleveland management since James took his talents south have not worked out very well. Now, the Cavaliers have a general manager, David Griffin, who has been an NBA general manager for about 15 minutes. They have a coach, David Blatt, who has been an NBA coach for 15 minutes less than that.
Which could be a good thing since those who have come before them haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. The good news is James makes everyone better: owners, GM’s, coaches, players, trainers — even reporters. The Cavaliers got a lot smarter Friday. Whether they will be smart enough to get the pieces needed to win their first title ever — the franchise debuted in 1970 — remains to be seen.
This much we know: Even if he does not win a title in Cleveland, James can retire sometime years from now with a clear conscience and the knowledge that he did what very few great athletes do: He accepted the apology that was due him from Gilbert and Cleveland and, in response, added those three magic words, “I’m sorry, too.”
James went home for one reason only: It was the right thing to do. In a very real sense, we should value that more than winning a title. That can come later. And what a wonderful story it will be.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.