LeBron James’ second Cavaliers experience ultimate example of player power
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 has become infamous for its existence more than its content, which understates the extremeness of Gilbert’s words.
Gilbert called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” And then Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”
This was not merely “five great years and one bad night,” as Gilbert tried to spin it. Gilbert defended The Letter as recently as 2014, and it stayed on the Cavs’ website until later that year. The owner reportedly even refused to say LeBron’s name in meetings for years after The Decision.
The significance of even just The Letter wasn’t lost on LeBron – the deeply personal attacks, the racist tones, the lingering effect. It seemed LeBron and Gilbert would never reconcile. Those close to LeBron advocated against it.
Yet, LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.
“How could LeBron play for that man again?” was a common response to the stunning move. But that outlook was misguided.
LeBron didn’t succumb to Gilbert. LeBron used the Cavaliers for four years. He demanded the world from Gilbert and got it. Now, with the Cavs depleted, LeBron is leaving for the Lakers.
LeBron’s four-year run in Cleveland proved his clout.
In order to return, LeBron demanded unconditional spending, and Gilbert obliged. The Cavaliers opened max cap space to sign LeBron in 2014 then paid the luxury tax the same season – overcoming a salary-cap system designed to limit such a rapid rise in payroll. The Cavs ranked second in team salary that year then first the next three, massive luxury-tax bills accompanying.
Cleveland traded young players and draft picks for veterans like Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. When players like Smith and Tristan Thompson – who had other leverage but were also represented by LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul – hit free agency, they got lucrative new contracts. The Cavaliers put LeBron confidante Randy Mims on payroll as executive administrator of player programs and logistics.
Now, the Cavs face an ugly cap situation and already traded a top-10-protected future first-rounder. No. 8 pick Collin Sexton is a nice addition, but overall, this roster stinks sans LeBron and has narrow pathways to improvement.
While he was demanding the Cavaliers ransack themselves long-term, LeBron was getting everything he wanted short-term.
He completed a personally rewarding mission by winning the 2016 title, ending Cleveland’s championship drought. That legacy-altering title entrenched him deeper in the greatest-of-all-time discussion with Michael Jordan. LeBron’s conference-title streak reached eight seasons. He was even better positioned for his philanthropy. And, with those short-term contracts, he cleared the way for a smooth exit as soon as he was ready to depart.
But Gilbert repeatedly obliged LeBron’s demands (and deserves more credit for doing so). After all, LeBron’s successes were mostly Gilbert’s and the Cavs’ successes, too. Gilbert owns the Cavaliers’ 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that championship belongs to all of Cleveland.
LeBron tinkered with exerting this type of leverage in Miami, grumbling on the way out the door about Heat owner Micky Arison’s thriftiness. But by then, it was too late to shape the Heat.
Gilbert felt the full brunt of LeBron’s power from the moment the superstar even considered returning – then thanked him for the experience when LeBron left.
Now, LeBron moves to the Lakers, who – like the Cavaliers in 2014 – have spent years acquiring young assets. Los Angeles has Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and all its future first-round picks. Soon, the Lakers will probably turn those pieces into veterans who can help LeBron win before his prime expires. The Cavs’ pathway to maintaining contender status, even with LeBron, wasn’t nearly as smooth.
As Cleveland provided genuine homecoming warmth and a platform to market that narrative, Los Angeles will serve as a stage for LeBron’s show-business endeavors. LeBron is playing where his interests are best-met, and teams are more than willing to help. It just happens to be the Lakers’ turn.
LeBron’s meltdown on the bench after regulation of Game 1 of the NBA Finals will play as the lasting image of his final season in Cleveland, but the lasting image of his departure came more than a month before he agreed to terms with the Lakers. The Cavaliers had just won another Eastern Conference title, and Gilbert was embracing his players as they passed. LeBron brushed by with a stunted handshake:
Eight years ago, Gilbert belittled LeBron. For the last four years, they truly partnered as no owner and player ever had.
It’s unlikely either admits to how badly they needed the other, but they each brought plenty to the table. Gilbert gave LeBron access to Cleveland, a city the superstar wanted to reclaim, and fronted the money to build the entire endeavor. LeBron provided generational basketball talent and publicity.
Together, they won a championship, claimed four conference titles and built on their prestige.
This is usually the domain of billionaire owners. They built the league for themselves to run it. The benefits Gilbert received over the last four years are completely normal.
LeBron reaping his share is unique and a testament to his awesomeness. He got nearly everything he could have asked for from the Cavaliers.
Now – in a reverse of teams that drop or trade stars when their time has run out – LeBron is wielding his power and keeping it moving.