Fact: The Decision was the best thing that happened to the NBA in 15 years.
Fact: The year leading up to The Decision spiked TV ratings, boosted Internet traffic, provoked an onslaught of media opinion and generated more mainstream interest than any NBA storyline since Kobe and Shaq had a year-long falling out that was scripted by Vince McMahon, the Lifetime network, and the writers of Law and Order.
Fact: The Decision special drew a better rating than the 2008 Finals, became an iconic moment, turned Jim Gray into a punching bag, gave bloggers a month of free shots at ESPN and turned "Taking my talents to South Beach" into a jack-of-all-trades phrase that meant you were about to leave your job, take a dump or pleasure yourself.
Fact: The Decision's aftermath created the league's most polarizing juggernaut in two decades. The Heat were booed in sold-out arenas across the country even as they were selling more jerseys than any other team. For the first five weeks of the regular season, the constant negativity affected the players; you could see it on their faces. In the words of the great Cliff Poncier, all that negativity eventually made them stronger. They reclaimed their status as title favorites, rolled through Boston and Chicago, made the Finals, and morphed into something of a preening, self-satisfied, overconfident bully — basketball's version of Mike Tyson in the 1980s, so athletically overpowering that it actually seemed to psyche out opponents.1 During that whole time, they never stopped being compelling. Not once.
Fact: If Miami blows this Finals after choking away Games 2 and 4, after everything that happened since The Decision and The Gratuitous Party One Night After The Decision, the Internet might explode. I'm not kidding. You're going to log on the next morning and there will just be a picture of a mushroom cloud.
Fact: However this series plays out, just because of the previous five paragraphs, it's safe to rank The Decision up there with Danny Biasone's shot clock, Auerbach drafting Russell, Wilt's 100-point game, the ABA merger, Magic and Bird entering the league at the same time, Jordan's signing with Nike, the 1984 Finals, and Jordan's quitting baseball as one of the best things that ever happened to the NBA. Because last July's one-hour special made us feel like we were watching Michael Madsen torture the cop in "Reservoir Dogs" (with Cleveland being the cop, of course), no league official would ever be dumb enough to say, "The Decision worked out great for us!" You will never hear those words uttered by David Stern or anyone who works for him. But they're thinking it. Trust me.
Fact: It's better for the NBA that LeBron James melted down in Dallas, disappeared and extended his "Wait a second, what the hell just happened???" streak to two straight years. Now it's threatening to become a late-spring tradition along the lines of Father's Day, the U.S. Open,and MTV cutting a "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" trailer that ends with someone about to be punched in the face. Why isn't LeBron shooting? Why isn't he driving to the basket? Why does his face look like the face of a little kid who just got called in front of the entire class? Why is his performance making me want to google the Wiggles' "Hot Potato" video? Does he realize this game is being televised? You can't call it a meltdown or a breakdown; that would belittle what happened. Call it a LeBrondown.
When LeBrondown 1 happened against the 2010 Celtics (Game 5), we were so perplexed that conspiracy theories started flying within 12 hours. The most popular (never proven): that a teammate slept with his mother. True or untrue, the real reason felt like it had to be THAT crazy. Tuesday night, we learned that you could explain what happened in that Game 5 only if it happened again. Because it did.
I always joke about the Mom Test — when something happens in sports that makes my mom (who couldn't care less) say something like, "So how 'bout that (fill in the major sporting moment or person)?" Can you remember someone hitting the Mom Test more than LeBron these past 12 months?2 It's been an unequivocal godsend for the NBA; no other league ebbs and flows with its stars so clearly that TV ratings can definitively track it. Since they stopped tape-delaying Finals games, in 1982, the league has spiked during the Finals four times:
1987: A 15.9 rating for Bird-Magic III, a number that jumped almost 30 percent from their first battle three years earlier (12.3).
1991-93: 15.8, 14.2,and 17.9 for MJ's first three Finals, with that last number jumping 47 percent from the 1990 Finals (12.3).
1996-98: 16.7, 16.8, and 18.7 for MJ's second three Finals, with that last number jumping 35 percent from the 1995 Finals (13.9).
2010-11: 10.6 and 11.0 (estimated) for the pre-Decision and post-Decision seasons, a 32 percent jump from the 2009 Finals (8.4) and a 75 percent jump from the 2007 Finals (6.2).
Numbers don't lie. LeBron got his wish: The summer of 2010 made him a bigger brand, even if it could have been executed in a smarter way, even if it's been difficult to remain objective about him. Even if you block out the callousness of The Decision itself, forgive him for wanting to play with Wade (instead of kicking Wade's ass), and stop dwelling on everything he should be doing, you still feel you have to have an opinion on him. If only because you never know the next time someone will say to you, "So whaddya think about LeBron James?"
Here's my opinion in four parts:
- a. I think he's one of the greatest athletes who ever lived. I will never forget watching him in person with a full head of steam, blowing through opponents like a Pop Warner running back who's 30 pounds heavier and three seconds faster than everyone else. I am glad he passed through my life. I will tell my grandkids that I saw him play.
- b. From game to game, I think the ceiling for his performance surpasses any other basketball player ever except for Wilt and Jordan.
- c. As a basketball junkie, I will never totally forgive him for spending his first eight years in the NBA without ever learning a single post-up move. That weapon would make him immortal. He doesn't care. It's maddening.
- d. In pressure moments, he comes and goes … and when it goes, it's gone. He starts throwing hot-potato passes, stops driving to the basket, shies away from open 3s, stands in the corner, hides as much as someone that gifted can hide on a basketball court. It started happening in Game 3, then fully manifested itself in Game 4's stunning collapse, when he wouldn't even consider beating DeShawn Stevenson off the dribble. Afterward, one of my closest basketball friends — someone who has been defending LeBron's ceiling for years — finally threw up his hands and gave up. "It's over," he said. "Jordan never would have done THAT." 3
If you want to defend LeBron's Game 4, start here: That was his 99th game for Miami, each doubling as a playoff game for the other team.4 Because the Heat realized in training camp that their defense would determine their title hopes, LeBron reinvented himself as Pippen 2.0 on that end — defending four positions, covering more of the court than anyone since Scottie, roaming much like an All-Pro safety would. He did it with a bull's-eye on his back, with every opposing crowd killing him, with a slew of new teammates and a depleted roster for much of the season. During Rounds 2 and 3, he did things that frankly, we've never seen on a basketball court before. His last two Chicago games rank among the greatest two-way games ever played: He did anything he wanted offensively and destroyed the league's MVP defensively.5 Including these first four Finals games, he's missed 49 minutes total in the past 13 games (including two overtimes), playing 587 of a possible 634 minutes at warp speed. Maybe he's just wearing down. From everything. That would be the defense.
The counter: Pre-baseball Jordan thrived with that same bull's-eye, logged those same minutes, and never wore down. He also made us feel like he would commit multiple murders — not one murder, multiple murders — just to win an important game. On Miami's team, only Wade makes you feel like that. It's true.
A sneering Wade came out firing in Game 3, undaunted by a frenzied Dallas crowd, as if he were saying, "This is MY game tonight, a-holes." Everyone else fell behind him, including LeBron, who threw on a Pippen costume and deferred his butt off. Technically, it was the right move: Wade could score on Jason Kidd anytime he wanted, so that's where they went offensively. But LeBron seemed a little too eager to take a backseat. There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant.6 The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem … name a great player other than Wilt, it just wouldn't have happened.
Look, anyone who ever played basketball knows that teammates can get testy from time to time. It's rarely, if ever, personal. There are three types of teammate-to-teammate screaming: Either you're expressing displeasure at a specific decision ("I was open, how could you miss me?"), you're trying to fire someone else up ("Come on, we need you, let's go!"), or you're challenging someone's manhood. Wade was doing the third. He was clearly telling LeBron (I'm paraphrasing while removing all the swear words), "I CANNOT DO THIS BY MYSELF! YOU ARE THE MOST TALENTED PLAYER ALIVE! STEP IT UP! I NEED YOU!!!"
LeBron was drifting toward a LeBrondown; Wade sensed it and acted accordingly. After Miami escaped with a dramatic victory — fueled by LeBron's pretty pass to Bosh for the deciding basket — the crisis had seemingly been averted. I hung out with a few basketball junkies later that night; we spent much of the time marveling at Wade's brilliance, how he imposed his will and refused to let Miami lose. We wondered if an inspired LeBron would come out guns blazing in Game 4,7 fueled by the memory of Wade's tirade and a postgame question about him "shrinking" at the end of Game 3. We thought Dallas would switch Shawn Marion to Wade and dare LeBron to take over offensively. We thought LeBron would make them pay. We though LeBron was headed for something like a 37-11-13. We really did.8
As it turned out, Wade provided the MJ impression: doling out hard fouls, crashing the rim, fighting on every possession, and staring down fans after baskets and blocks.9 Meanwhile, LeBron was swinging the ball like a frightened fat guy in a pickup game, his face slowly starting to look like Marcia Cross and Teri Hatcher had attacked him with a Botox needle. His insistence on being LeDecoy, or whatever he was trying to do, dwarfed a fairly incredible Dallas comeback; sitting in the stands, I was more interested in LeBrondown II than the actual game.10
There's a curse that comes with limitless potential: Everyone judges you against only that limitless potential. We crave Game 4 and Game 5 of the Chicago series from LeBron every time. When it doesn't happen, we feel like he failed us, just like fans in the 1960s always felt like Wilt was failing them. This definitely isn't fair. Once upon a time, Russell couldn't win titles unless Sam Jones (and later, Havlicek) took and made the biggest shots of every close game. Did that make him weaker in anyone's eyes? Nope. They valued the things he did do. Some writers made that case for LeBron after Game 3, and it was a good one … until Game 4 ruined it.
Of course, the Celtics were always Russell's team. They belonged to him. Everyone knew this, just like the Spurs belonged to Duncan, the Rockets belonged to Hakeem, the Bulls belonged to Jordan, and the Mavericks now belong to Nowitzki. If you watched Games 3 and 4 in person, you knew Miami belonged to Dwyane Wade. That was the hardest thing to shake. We made so much fuss about LeBron these past two years and he's not even the most important dude on his own team.
Maybe he realized that, once and for all, during Game 3. Maybe that's why he wanted to sign with Miami in the first place; maybe he didn't want his own team. Maybe Wade's Game 3 tirade affected him spiritually, broke him down, made him question himself. Maybe he's more exhausted than he's letting on. Maybe 13 months of intense scrutiny is finally starting to break him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I couldn't possibly tell you how LeBron will respond in Game 5, just that you couldn't keep me away from that arena with a Taser. I have to be there. I have to be there.
Who are you, LeBron James? What's inside you? And why do I care so much?
Whatever the answers, I will spend Thursday night just as riveted as everyone else. It couldn't be a better outcome for the NBA, which doesn't need LeBron to match Jordan's greatness, just his ability to keep people watching and thinking and talking and wondering. Mission accomplished. The Decision made it happen. Somewhere behind closed doors, David Stern and Adam Silver are high-fiving. Don't tell anyone.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33 and check out his new home on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/billsimmons.