After their lone victory in the 2014 NBA Finals, Erik Spoelstra dubbed it "theater of the absurd." He was speaking of the clamor that surrounds LeBron James and his decision to occasionally defer in crunch time.
Spoelstra's comments were in response to a question that pointed out the similarities in two plays spearheaded by James earlier in the NBA Playoffs. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, James powered his way into the lane, drew a crowd and passed to Chris Bosh for a corner three. Bosh missed, the Heat lost, and criticism of a player that failed in the clutch rained down.
The criticism though wasn't directed toward the NBA All-Star that missed the shot, but toward the man that passed him the ball. CBS Sports National Reporter, Gregg Doyel had this to say regarding James and his affinity for making the "right basketball play."
Sometimes, the right basketball play is the best player in the world trying to finish at the rim. LeBron is a 6-foot-9, 275-pound monster. From a running start, his vertical has to be in the 40-inch range. Hibbert is 5 inches taller but plays well below the heights that LeBron can reach. This was LeBron's moment to ignore the right play and get selfish and get nasty, but LeBron doesn't have that particular gene. Jordan did, as you know, but LeBron does not -- and that's one of the most unique, even beautiful things about his game. As good as he is, he's happy to share the ball, even to a fault.
And that finish, that was his fault.
Now fast forward to Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals. It was again crunch time with the Heat trailing by one with just under two minutes to play. James initiated, drove and drew Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard into the lane with him. It is in this moment that he could silence his critics with a finish strong at the rim either for an emphatic slam, drawn foul, or quite possibly both. But James again made the right basketball play: a dish to Bosh in the corner who this time nailed the three and the Heat prevailed.
Following the game SB Nation's Tom Ziller was effusive in his praise.
And that was just a sliver of LeBron's fantastic night. At the end of the game, he did what James always seems to do: he trusted his teammates, setting up Chris Bosh for the go-ahead corner three. That's what makes him the world's best player. He's not just a scorer who gets hot at the right moments, or a shutdown 6'8 defender you can stick on one of the quickest point guards in the NBA in the fourth quarter. He's those things and maybe the league's smartest playmaker. He's everything, the platonic ideal of an NBA player. And when he's on, he's just an incredible thrill to watch.
The same play with two different outcomes and James only served as the facilitator in each. It's peculiar that more attention is paid to the man that passed the ball than to the man that ultimately decided the fate of each game. But that's the world in which LeBron James lives. That's his quandary.
So now we are once again in the DMZ of NBA free agency. The country has lost days of productivity while a large percentage of its workforce hits refresh at LeBronJames.com throughout the day. And the NBA is frozen, waiting for James to make his move, proving again that this is his world.
A few weeks ago Heat GM Pat Riley launched a preemptive strike in an attempt to keep James in Miami with a compelling press conference where he angrily challenged those that came together four years ago to stick around and finish the job. While he didn't name names, it is obvious that he was for the most part speaking directly to James. And on Wednesday he met privately with James in Las Vegas where he presumably took a less combative tone.
The decision now comes down to two teams. Either James remains in Miami or returns home to Cleveland. I contend that James will remain in South Beach to answer Riley's challenge, but if he makes a move back to Cleveland the negative chatter will only grow louder. And that's a shame.
Because while he remains the best individual basketball player on the planet he is also quite possibly the most unselfish player to ever wear the crown. He is crucified when he defers and his teammates falter, but he does so again and again. He is not Michael. He is not Kobe or Larry or Wilt. And there isn't anything wrong with that.
He has held up his end of the bargain since joining the Heat while the other pillars on which such grand expectations were built crumble around him. Dwyane Wade is an 18-minute max guy now. Chris Bosh can still dominate inside, but has stated he has no desire to face double teams. Ray Allen is an athletic anomaly who has extended his career beyond what anyone could reasonably expect, but his end has to be near.
So as he scans the landscape inside the Heat locker room what future does he see? Shabazz Napier? Does being considered one of the game's greats require him to stay on a team that shows no signs of substantial improvement, even after his team's complete dismantling at the hands of the Spurs?
During the Finals James spoke with thinly veiled reverence about the style of basketball he saw from the Spurs. "That's team basketball and that's how team basketball should be played," James said. "It's selfless. Guys move, cut, pass, you've got a shot, you take it. But it's all for the team and it's never about the individual. That's the brand of basketball, and that's how team basketball should be played."
And despite all its flaws, and Dan Gilbert's ill-advised letter, perhaps he sees that opportunity for team basketball back at home in Cleveland.
In their close-out loss in Game 5 of the Finals James had 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists with only one turnover. When asked about his performance he said only, "Obviously I didn't do enough."
The man with two rings had his body fail him in Game 1 and then watched as his teammates failed him repeatedly in the games that followed. The league's smartest playmaker was unable to muster the magic in those around him, yet he alone shoulders the majority of blame.
Now he is once again faced with a decision. And while the world watches I'd only ask that instead of debating whether James will take the easy way out and run, perhaps we should consider the possibility that his decision will reflect his play in crunch time.
And while this decision won't be made in a split second as he's charging the lane, he nonetheless has to decide if staying with the Heat is, in the end, the right basketball play.