Steph Curry has completed his coup d’état. But was the end of LeBron’s reign deposition, or was it abdication?
Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote in The Prince: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” King James has never quite mastered either.
Here we are in the third phase of LeBron’s career, and we are neither having fun nor fearing for the safety of the NBA’s 29 other teams. Instead, malcontent grips his literal and figurative court as the league’s crown passes to the fun and terrifying Steph Curry-led Warriors.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. When LeBron went home to Cleveland, it looked like we had a wildly entertaining basketball story ahead of us. But, after the Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love deal, a deal I still believe to have been the wrong decision, it became clear that LeBron was expediting the process of building a contender, trading a beautiful struggle for the weight of expectation. Even so, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving apologists thought the team would be dominant as well as fun.
It’s been neither.
Last year’s Finals was tragic basketball bushido. What looked like it might have been a glorious Spartan last stand became something akin to the ravings of a mad monarch. That wasn’t fun. That was morose.
This Cavaliers team is depressing, not enough fun to watch, laborious to follow, and, ultimately, doomed.
After losses to the Raptors and Wizards had the Cavs doing some soul-searching, the team came back and won three in a row, including two routs in which they exhibited a small ball game plan and then some true grit. But then, just as quickly as it looked like they might have been figuring something out, they lost in tremendous fashion to a team missing its three best players. They let the Grindfather score 26 points on them. And now we’re engulfed in Cavalier concern again – what’s wrong with them? Does LeBron believe in his teammates? Do Kevin and Kyrie want to be there? How should they incorporate Kevin into the offense? Is Tyronne Lue making the right moves?
Most things we hear from the Cavs are gloomy. Every winning streak is shattered by every disappointing loss. And all this bellicose drama is augmented by the Sword of Damocles that hangs over whomever makes it out of the East to face the Warriors or Spurs. The Cavs can’t win it all this year. Or at least it will be damn near impossible.
And so, by extension, LeBron isn’t having fun. He isn’t fun to watch – not only because he doesn’t do the amazing LeBron things like he used to, but because there isn’t the rampant joy that now makes the Warriors so lovable.
The lack of fun would be okay if LeBron and the Cavs were terrifying. We can’t expect all of our champions to be lovable. In English football, last year’s Chelsea team was unlikable, and their success came with snarls as often as smiles. But good gracious me did they play fine soccer. They were a beast to reckon with, and that made them worthy EPL champions, even if they were villainous whiners. Fun as Michael Jordan must have been to watch, his demeanor was thoroughly mirthless, right?
But the Cavs aren’t terrifying. They’re rather tame. They got beat at home by the ‘effin Grizzlies and then moped about the state of their team.
This is a premature end to LeBron’s reign. Even though he’s at the end of his prime, this feels so much more like the twilight of his career.
Now we must consider how unsatisfying his reign was. To say that it began anytime before the 2008-09 season would be a reach. Even as he was winning that first MVP award, Kobe was leading those Lakers to the first of back to back championships. But from that season through 2012-13, LeBron won four MVPs and won two out of three trips to the Finals. And even if you extend his reign into the next two seasons, in which he appeared in two more Finals, in neither season was he the MVP. In fact, last year, there were three or four players more deserving of the MVP than LeBron. And, of course, Stephen Curry is going to win the award again this year. So even a generous estimate of LeBron’s reign would reach from 2008-2014.
That reign was full of controversy, failure, pressure, scrutiny, villainy, and treachery. Even as LeBron had the best seasons of his career, he was slow to make himself loved or feared.
But, for a small window of time, in the midst of Miami’s back to back championships, it looked like everything was coming together. LeBron was dominating. His team was owning the East and had bested two Western Conference champions in a row. He was having fun. His team was having fun. And, finally, we were having fun. The haters were quiet. LeBron had, after a long journey, arrived at the place an NBA monarch is supposed to live. I think the world of the NBA breathed a collective sigh of relief.
And then it crumbled so quickly in the wake of that Finals rematch with the Spurs. Before that, it looked like we were headed for a few more years of blissful Miami Heat basketball teams. I seriously thought the rest of LeBron’s career would be a breeze, in which he won a few more MVPs and a couple more Finals, all while having tons of fun with D-Wade and Bosh.
Leaving Miami didn’t destroy the chance for a happy future, but it did change the game. And, like I’ve already said, this new phase of LeBron’s career has not contained the fun it could have had and it certainly has not struck fear in the way that I think LeBron must have envisioned as he and David Griffin built this roster.
I think we missed out on something special. The time to really enjoy LeBron was all too short. NBA fans of the last 30 some odd years could enjoy the greats like Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Magic, and Bird in clearly defined eras of dominance. And while LeBron’s first years in Cleveland playing for bad teams were fun, and while he was an ascending star, the definitive years of his career were cut short so soon after it had stabilized into something magical. All things considered, for a player who will be in anyone’s top five or ten when it’s all done, it was a brief and unremarkable stay atop the NBA.
The rest of his career may very well be filled with joyless regular seasons, Eastern Conference championships by default, and losses in the NBA Finals, all while posting a high PER but never again getting serious MVP consideration. Even if he, individually, is a very great player well into his 30s, he won’t be the king of basketball ever again.
Trust me – I hope I’m wrong.
But it’s so rare that a deposed ruler reclaims the throne.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria