By Jason Keidel
When LeBron James orchestrated the fairy tale finish to his career, he became the one thing he couldn’t buy – beloved. His two-year, $42 million deal – or 30 pieces of silver, if you’re in South Beach – with his hometown Cavaliers capped one of the more refreshing journeys in the history of American sports.
We too often confuse victory with virtue, as if LeBron became a better player in Miami simply because he won two titles. By that same logic, he’s less of a player after the Spurs shredded his Heat in the NBA Finals. It also ignores the reality that he took the 20-win Cavaliers to over 60 wins and four wins from a ring. The Cavaliers instantly returned to 20 wins upon his departure. And they will likely push the 60-win needle with King James back in his lair.
There was always a sense that LeBron was a rental in Miami. Even if he checked off the one empty box in his bejeweled career, there was an air of unfinished business to his bio. Returning to Cleveland just feels right, because of his native soil and his inelegant departure from it.
Since this has become LeBron’s summer of love we can turn this into a campy double-entendre, with the lights squarely on Kevin Love, who is supposedly LeBron’s 7-foot bridge to bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Cleveland.
And it does raise a fascinating question. Do you give up Andrew Wiggins – whom some see as LeBron’s Scottie Pippen – for the wildly gifted big man who can play all corners of the court? If Wiggins indeed morphs into an all-word wing man then LeBron could have lost a chance to play his hardwood iteration of Batman and Robin.
But we know how good Love is, a walking double-double and three-point threat who has the inherent hunger to win after six losing seasons in Minnesota. So is now the time to unload Wiggins, while he lights it up in the Las Vegas summer league? What if he bombs his first ten pro games and the Timberwolves lose the gumption to unload their only bona fide star and best player since Kevin Garnett?
If Wiggins shines in his maiden season, then the Cavaliers will be more likely to keep him in the fold. So you could argue that Cleveland has all the leverage with LeBron and two dynamic young players (Wiggins & Kyrie Irving) at his side.
But according to a report by Yahoo!, King James has revealed his preference, reaching out to Love to gauge his interest in flying a few hundred miles east, to play for a rather forlorn franchise that hit the lottery twice this young century – landing LeBron in the first place then accidentally creating the very climate that made him want to return.
A friend who used to write for Associated Press once told me that prospects are just that until they prove otherwise. In other words, there’s almost no such thing as a sure thing, even the acrobatic guard from Kansas, whom Cleveland took with the top draft pick. So the safe move is Love, even if it doesn’t turn out to be the best move.
But the endless genius of LeBron’s return to Ohio is the insulation that comes with two rings on his hand, giving him instant and infinite gravitas. So no matter how it ends, he wins. If they bring the town their first title in 50 years, he is a certified savior. If he falls short, it’s because the Cavaliers either couldn’t surround him with sufficient talent or were unable to overcome the morbid karma of Cleveland.
Not that losing is an option. Part of LeBron’s burden is his orbit well above basketball mortals. He brings almost any roster 50 wins and the souped-up expectations that come with his wizardry. He can speak in the corporate cliches about patience and process, but the moment LeBron loses before the NBA Finals, he will be squarely in the crosshairs.
But either way, it’s good to be the King, even if there’s no Love in the summer of love.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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