1. Good Returns: Last week the biggest story in the NBA was LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. The questions about how LeBron would deal with the pressure, while compelling, were ultimately less important than one would think. Sure, Cavs fans reigned down boos so loud that you could feel them on television. But what were we really expecting? Well, we were going to see, potentially, the answer to two somewhat interesting questions: (1) how would LeBron deal with the particularly palpable hatred from his former hometown fans? and (2) how would the reactions from Cleveland fans affect LeBron’s own emotional reactions, regardless of the outcome of the game?
Before going forward with these questions, we should remind ourselves that neither question really matters to James or the Heat long term. But basketball fans (and sports fans in general) embrace these raw emotional confrontations. To some extent, our fandom is driven by these little pieces of humanity that occasionally crop up, even if they don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. Like the rest of the world, I was certainly curious but my curiosity was tempered by a few things. The first and most obvious factor was that the Cavs are a bad basketball team. The Cavs have been respectable in their badness so far but they can’t score. 60% of their starting lineup is made up of definitive non-scorers. Anthony Parker is second on the team in minutes played but only has 7.7 ppg and really shouldn’t play major minutes on any decent team. Anderson Varejao can help teams as a role player but he is leading the team in minutes and has only 8.2 ppg. Finally, LeBron has been replaced, mostly, by Jamario Moon, and has the worst per-minute scoring rate of anyone on the team. Basically, the Cavs must shoot perfectly to keep up with the fire power of a good scoring team.
To pit this group against the Heat is a serious mismatch and undermined our ability to see LeBron in a true pressure situation. That being said, LeBron was ridiculously good and was impressive as he has been all season. This underscores the larger issue for Miami, that they need James and Dwyane Wade to play like they have before this season. Those interested in seeing LeBron’s ability to handle serious pressure will get their chance come playoff time but the playoff atmosphere wasn’t quite there in Cleveland the other night.
As for the second question as to what we would learn from LeBron emotionally, he seemed affected a bit on the court. After the game, however, he was nonchalant. James told Craig Sager that his time in Cleveland was: “[s]even great years. Loved every part. Loved every moment. From the growth when I was an 18 year old kid to a 25 year old man. We tried our best, as a team, we tried our best to bring a championship to this city and just try to play hard every night. I have the utmost respect for this franchise, utmost respect for these fans, and just continue the greatness for myself here in Miami and try to get better everyday.”
James also didn’t change his view of whether the circus he created around leaving Cleveland: “I don’t want to apologize….I think my intentions was not to hurt anyone. My attention was solely on kids in the whole process. I’ll always say, the decisions I’ll make, I live with them. There’s always ways that you can correct them, or ways you can do them better. But, at the end of the day, I live with them. I’m satisfied and I’m happy right now.”
The announcers on TNT (particularly Reggie Miller) immediately pounced on LeBron’s continued lack of contrition for jilting Cleveland the way he did. It’s funny that I had the same visceral reaction to the comment. He acknowledges implicitly that he acted like a jerk off but can’t contemplate even a scintilla of regret. Also, who the hell are the “kids”? I assume he’s referring to the charity he donated the proceeds for his televised decision to but I’m not sure what that all means. He couldn’t donate his own money to charity? He had to act like a egotistical schmuck on television to raise money to pay them? Do we really want to go down that road?
I also found some part of me boiling when I read some of the pre-game articles detailing how James has been a prima donna in Cleveland and Miami. But then I caught myself. Obviously, James is a self-absorbed but who really cares? There are plenty of other great players, and even much worse players, with the same problem. This return was fun for a few minutes but will be quickly forgotten. The issue will be wins for James and it is still early. I do know that I’d take James on my team and so would everyone else in the NBA (including the Cavs). His personality and personal growth just aren’t important.
2. Other Returns: Just for context, I thought I’d compare LBJ’s return to Cleveland with that of other more recent instances of stars (or perceived stars) who fought with management/signed with another team in such a way that they forced their way out of time under less than ideal teams and how such players fared in their returns to their old stomping grounds (note that we do not count the player’s first game at home against his old team), only the first return game to the player’s former city because that is presumably the most pressure packed one):
|Player||Year||New Team||Old Team||Mins||FG||FGA||3s||3As||FT||FTA||Reb||Ast||Stl||Blk||TOs||F||PTs||Result|
|L James||2010-11||Mia||Cle||30||15||25||2||7||6||9||5||8||1||1||0||1||38||Won, 118-90|
|A. Iverson||2007-08||Den||Phi||43||13||24||3||5||3||5||2||8||3||0||2||3||32||Loss, 115-113|
|A. Mourning||1995-96||Mia||Cha||40||10||15||0||0||6||8||9||4||1||3||2||2||26||Won, 116-95|
|S. O’Neal||2004-05||Mia||LAL||39||11||19||0||0||2||7||11||3||0||3||11||6||24||Won, 104-102|
|V. Carter||2004-05||NJ||Tor||40||8||25||0||3||6||10||7||4||2||1||4||2||22||Loss, 100-82|
|A. Hardaway||1999-00||Pho||Orl||40||5||15||0||2||11||14||4||4||0||2||4||4||21||Won, 117-113|
|S. O’Neal||1997-98||LAL||Orl||34||8||16||0||0||4||7||10||2||0||2||1||4||20||Loss, 96-94|
|S. Nash||2004-05||Pho||Dal||42||7||15||2||8||1||1||6||18||0||0||10||4||17||Won, 107-101|
|C. Webber||1994-95||Was||GS||23||5||12||1||3||3||3||7||3||3||0||3||1||14||Loss, 107-87|
|L. Sprewell||1999-00||NY||GS||43||6||17||0||0||2||4||6||5||0||0||4||4||14||Won, 86-79|
|P. Ewing||2000-01||Sea||NY||32||6||14||0||0||0||0||5||0||0||1||3||3||12||Loss, 101-92|
We have excluded players like Kevin Garnett, who didn’t force his way out of his old team. Of this group, James had clearly the best game. This is notable as few of these players felt the antipathy James did in his return to Cleveland. In fact, some were treated as returning heroes (AI, Shaq to L.A., Nash, and Ewing). The others on the list did feel some serious bad vibes. Carter and Webber were arguably treated worse than James and the crowd rattled them much more too. Unfortunately, we can’t get a game log for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s return to Milwaukee because the trade he forced in 1975, mirrored the LBJ situation so well on so many levels (Kareem returned to Milwaukee the third game of the season and his team won).