“Would fear of being a villain keep LeBron James in Cleveland?”
I saw this topic being debated earlier today in the fallout of the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ latest drubbing at the hands of the Boston Celtics. James’ team, once looking like a sure bet to make another Finals appearance, is now down 2-0. As is the case anytime the Cavs look vulnerable, the talk of his possible departure has only gotten louder.
However, there’s no point in James worrying about another exodus turning him into an NBA heel again. After all, you can’t be the bad guy when your team spends the entire season greasing the wheels for your departure.
It’s difficult to see last night as anything but more proof James could leave the Cavs and still be seen as a sympathetic figure. He wouldn’t be viewed the same way he was when joining the Miami Heat in 2010. He wouldn’t be a league-wide antihero, a player everyone unanimously decides to hate. Hell, he wouldn’t even deal with anger from his hometown.
At least, he shouldn’t have to worry about any of this. Look what his team has been doing during what could be his last year in Cleveland.
Start with the Kyrie Irving trade, which was officially cemented as a disaster during last night’s draft lottery. In exchange for dealing an NBA superstar, the Cavs received the eighth overall pick and a handful of ineffective role players. They only landed the latter after dealing Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the original pieces of the trade. James lost a fellow All-Star who could help carry the offense, and in return was given three young bench players who’ve yet to prove they can handle the postseason.
In the grand scheme of things, there may be no bigger reason for James to bail than what’s unfolded since Irving was traded. Thomas and Crowder were useless in Cleveland, with the former salting the wound by constantly calling out his teammates. When these two were dealt for Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, optimism returned, albeit for a minute or two. Throughout the postseason, all these three have been able to do effectively is play themselves out of the rotation.
Even if James were to ignore the Irving trade, there still isn’t much people can point to as obvious reasons he should stick around. For all but one round of this postseason, Cleveland’s issues outside its best player have been glaring.
James’ coach — Tyronn Lue — spent the bulk of last night’s crucial Game 2 making more countless mistakes. This included the laughable decision of opening the fourth quarter with the following players – Hood, Nance, George Hill, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green. The Cavs were only down seven at this point and, believe it or not, this lineup didn’t close said deficit. Once you top it off with Lue’s decision to reinsert a woefully ineffective J.R. Smith late in the fourth only to watch him promptly help Boston seal the victory, you can add “questionable coaching” as a reason James could leave without scrutiny.
The same could be said about the “LeBron gets no help” narrative, which continues to pick up steam the further we get into the postseason.
Last night, James and Kevin Love combined for 66 points. The remaining three Cleveland starters combined for eleven. The bench added a total of 19 points, and only eight of these didn’t come from Korver.
Outside of the previous series against the Toronto Raptors, this has essentially been the gist for the bulk of the playoffs. There have been far too many nights where James spends entire games trying to win all by himself while his supporting cast just stands around to watch.
When you think about it, what could be said about James departing the Cavs which could effectively paint him as a villain? Outside of leaving his hometown again, he’s a player nearing the back-end of his career and is currently expected to win a title with a questionable coach and minimal support. He’s attempting to do so despite the front office decimating the roster over the past year, with only the eighth overall draft pick to show for it.
James wouldn’t be the bad guy if he left the Cavs. Instead, he’d easily be able to say he did what he could despite those around him constantly shooting themselves in the foot.