When Lebron James and his Super Friends embarked on their team-building exercise in Miami, they created the squad that everybody loved to hate. From the poorly planned "Decision" announcement to the arrogant prediction of multiple rings, non-Heat fans across the nation enjoyed cheering for whoever was playing the Heat. In the Heat's first Finals appearance they faced the Dallas Mavericks. Even though that team was owned by Mark Cuban, who was widely unpopular, and starred a big German, most of America wanted the Mavs to win. This antipathy toward the Heat in general, and Lebron in particular, largely grew out of the idea that Lebron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh had somehow "gamed the system" by conspiring to create the Big Three.
Fair or not (after all the Spurs have their own Big Three), this dislike of Lebron continued for many. In the last two Finals, much of America rooted for a team many had found "boring" over the years - the Spurs. Of course, the "boring old Spurs" reputation did not apply to this version of the Spurs. (Well, maybe the "old" part.)
In many ways, it is somewhat sad that the transcendent talent in the league carries this burden. Unlike other superstars who were considered difficult teammates (Michael Jordan and Kobe, for instance), players love to play with Lebron. He plays hard and unselfishly, and enjoys hitting a teammate with a pass as much as scoring the basket himself. Not only is he unselfish on the court, he is good at it. He knows when to deliver the pass, and his strength and vision allow him to actually deliver the ball from virtually anywhere on the court. For this reason, shooters flock to play with Lebron.
On defense, Lebron is willing to cover anyone on the other team. And, like his passing, he does it extremely well. He has shut down opposing point guards and power forwards, and everyone in between. As just one example, in both of the last Finals, he was the Heat's best defender on Tony Parker. Further, Lebron's ability to chase down and block what looks like a break-away lay-up is unprecedented. From a coaching standpoint, having your best player also be your hardest working player is a rare and wonderful gift. From a fan's standpoint, Lebron is exactly the type of player you should be rooting for -- supremely talented, extremely hard-working, unfailingly unselfish. Yet we did not. The hubris of the Big Three made it impossible for most of us to root for this wonderful player.
All of that seemingly changed with his "second" decision. When Lebron announced this summer that he was opting out of his contract, and going home to Cleveland, even the Grinch's heart softened towards Lebron. The decision was not announced in a fake "interview" like the first one. It was an open and well-written letter announcing "I'm Coming Home." The letter talked about Lebron's desire to bring a championship to his home state, and mentoring Cleveland's young players while doing it. He talked about the challenge and how nothing is given to you - you have to earn it.
Talk about "unselfish" - he gave up South Beach for Cleveland! Yes, the same Cleveland whose river famously caught fire. Even long-time Lebron despisers could understand wanting long suffering Cleveland fans to finally win a championship, something denied them in every sport since 1964. That is a long time ago - LBJ was president, we were five years from landing on the moon, and the Beatles were the hip new band.
However, something happened to change those good feelings towards Lebron. People started to notice that the "I'm Coming Home" letter announcing his return - and promising to mentor the young Cavs -- failed to mention Andrew Wiggins, the first pick in the NBA draft. It also failed to mention last year's number one pick Anthony Bennett. Something smelled fishy in Cleveland - and not just the river.
Then, it happened. The Cavs traded those two unmentioned number one picks for uber power forward Kevin Love. Rumors abounded that this was all pre-arranged, and part of the decision to "come home" was instead a repeat of the prior decision. The more people looked at it, they more they decided Lebron had made the selfish decision to simply create a new Big Three. Instead of being saddled with an aging and overpaid Dwayne Wade, an overrated and overpaid Chris Bosh, and an aging Heat roster, Lebron looked around for the best situation for Lebron.
Lebron surely remembered Game Five of the Finals. After being blown out by the Spurs in Games Three and Four, Eric Spoelstra shook up the starting lineup - by starting 38-year old Ray Allen. When the Heat changed their line-up to start the second half of Game Five, Spoelstra replaced Rashard Lewis (34) with Chris "Birdman" Anderson (35). And after the Heat's hot start, the Spurs out-scored the Heat 59-22 from 5:04 remaining in the first quarter until 5:01 left in the third.
Lebron has a brilliant basketball mind. He saw what happened in the Finals, and must have known that Miami's roster was not getting younger or better. The Cavs roster was. And while Lebron's letter talked about taking on the "challenge", that challenge was much easier knowing Kevin Love was on the way.
So he decided to walk away from his Miami Heat team, his Miami Heat teammates, and a Miami Heat fan base that had showered him with adoration when the rest of the country was treating him like a villain. His escape from Miami happened to take him "home", which was convenient and made for a good story. But it appeared to many, including this writer, that the driving force behind this second "decision" was his ability to re-create what was fading in South Beach - a new and younger Big Three, with Kyrie Irving already there, and Kevin Love on the way.
With his newly created Big Three, Lebron is trying to "go home again." Unfortunately, the way he did it left the same sour taste as his first Big Three. If "going home" includes the NBA fan base cheering for him, Lebron may never make it there.