Hero’s Journey: LeBron Returns to the Cavs

LeBron James resigned with the Cavaliers. You know this. You should know this. Everyone on the planet knows this by now. I don’t really know if it makes basketball sense for LeBron to head back home. He went to four NBA Finals in Miami, won two of them, and won league MVP and Finals MVP twice each, so it’s not as though South Beach didn’t see his talents on full display. Replace LeBron with anyone else in the NBA, even Kevin Durant, and it’s unlikely the Heat would have reached that level of success. That’s not a knock on Durant, or Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh. LeBron is a transcendent talent that would make Milwaukee a favorite in the East. Doubt me? If LeBron can make Boobie Gibson into a legitimate offensive threat, then King James could probably make me a sharpshooter.

This isn’t a critique of his choice of teams. Not exactly. We’ll hear enough of that over the next few weeks. Sentiment will run one way or the other, and while at the moment it’s overwhelming in favor of his return to Cleveland, we’ll soon hear the counter arguments because that’s how these things go. With a player that talented, every team a few salary dumps away from signing LeBron to the max is disappointed right now, and every one of those teams’ fans is now embittered towards him. So it goes. This is more a critique of the system that allows James to earn only 20.7 million next year. That argument has been made as well, and by authors much more knowledgeable than me. I guess what I hoped to see, what I really wished would happen, was that James would decide to make no choice at all. I thought that James best option might be to just say the hell with it all and form his own league, the LBJL, and to make a mockery out of the system that paid him disproportionately to his talents.

Word is James signed for four years and 88 million (after publishing this post, it came out that LeBron’s contract is for 42.1 million over two years), making this contract a bargain. To put that in perspective, Bosh is expected to resign with the Heat for five years and 118 million, or for an extra year and 30 million more, and Bosh is certainly a fine player, but he’s not in the same rarefied air as James. Looking at Basketball-Reference.com, Bosh’s best season in terms of Win Shares (10.3 in 2010-11, the inaugural season of the Heatles) would top only one of James’ (his rookie season in 2003-04), and is within only 3.4 of James next lowest. Over the last six seasons (just an arbitrary number of years), the two have averaged 17.35 for James to 8.92 for Bosh.

I’ve seen various numbers floated around as to James’ true worth. In Forbes, Allen St. John mentioned 28.45 million per, 31 million is another by John Dilley, and Darren Rovell mentioned 161.3 million over three years. Tom Haberstroh even discussed James being underpaid by 250 million (ESPN Insider) over the course of his career. Each author incorporates different means to approach their final figures, but one of the main tenants is that in the NBA a win is roughly estimated to cost 1.65 million, and no one wins as much as James. Think about this: of the four players ranked above James for active leaders in Win Shares, Kobe Bryant is the youngest at 35 and Dirk Nowitzki has played the fewest seasons, 16. James is 29 and played 11 seasons, and he’ll likely be the WS leader by next season’s end.

Other than the greatest basketball player of our generation, what do the Cavaliers get? Another Forbes article estimates James being worth over 400 million to the Cavs and the city of Cleveland. When James left for Miami in 2010, Dan Gilbert’s franchise lost 26% of its estimated worth. If that’s reason enough to write his letter, then I don’t know what is. If you consider that the Golden State Warriors sold for 450 million in 2010 and were estimated to be worth 800 million in 2013, the Milwaukee Bucks sold for 550 million earlier this year, and the Los Angeles Clippers sold for 2 billion dollars, Gilbert’s 375 million dollar investment in 2005 became a lot more profitable with James’ return. So, yeah, 22 million per over four years is like something of a huge win for Gilbert and the Cavs.

So, like I said, this isn’t a criticism of LeBron’s choice. I believe his return is a great thing for the city of Cleveland, and on a personal level, if the day ever comes when James guides the Cavs to the NBA championship, I can’t wait to read Joe Posnanski’s article about it. In a situation like this, where every team is essentially just new laundry, James choosing the Cavs is a win because the story is so good. It’s Gilgamesh returning home with the elixir of immortality, the hero’s journey in all its Joseph Campbell glory. Even so, doesn’t it feel as though the return is a bit anticlimactic? With LeBron, a sincere and honest discussion about why he returned in Sports Illustrated is too understated for a player of his magnitude. It was the right thing to do, but wow did I ever hope for so much more.

The idea of James breaking away from the NBA and forming his own league is a completely ridiculous notion. I know that. Ideas like these, though, aren’t meant to be rooted firmly in reality. Where should LeBron play next year? Houston? Cleveland? Los Angeles? Miami? Why not in New Orleans, paired up with Anthony Davis? Bah! Let Chris Broussard and Adrian Wojnarowski speculate on matters such as those. I kind of hoped LeBron would revolutionize free agency, turn basketball into a true free market, and form his own league with his own teams and with his own distribution of wealth. Why stop there? Why not go all in and form his own television network, showcasing his league to the masses. In 2012, the Big Ten network was estimated to be worth 1.3 billion. How much would LBJTV be worth? It might be the hottest new channel coming to Dish and Directv this fall.

Like I said, this is ridiculous. Well, is it though? With any other player, it’s ridiculous. With James doesn’t it seem as though just about anything is possible? Without any other personnel moves (no Kevin Love in a Cavs jersey just yet), Cleveland’s odds changed to 3-1 to win the championship next year. Name another player that elicits such confidence. It’s not the potential stardom of Andrew Wiggins that’s fueling the championship talk. So, my stance is both ridiculous and completely within the realm of possibility, which makes it interesting to think about. How can a player so supremely gifted maximize his true worth? Not in the NBA. Not how it’s presently governed.

This is more of an aside than anything, but isn’t it interesting that somewhere between The Decision and now James turned from a greedy, self-indulgent megalomaniac to an underpaid, underappreciated superstar? Is this the greatest PR image repair in the history of sports? I mean, this guy was despised in 2010 with fans in Cleveland burning his jersey to nearly every writer in the land calling him weak. Was it the winning that changed things? I’m so confused by all of this right now I feel manipulated in a whole different way. James is now a hero for returning home at a bargain rate; Bosh and Wade are left to pick up the pieces; and now we wait for Carmelo Anthony to sign somewhere so we can call him greedy. This whole offseason in the NBA has just sort of been bonkers.

Anyway, this post sounds as if it’s another critique of LeBron James, which it absolutely is not. On the contrary, this post might be the greatest compliment I could pay to someone else: the ability to perform the improbable. We’ve come to expect so much from him—I’ve come to expect so much from him—on and off the court, that we want more and more, never satisfied. Every championship, every MVP is his for the taking, and if he doesn’t win then we wonder why not. I’m not different. I just expect the impossible from James on a daily basis, so why not one more time?

Could James have turned the NBA on its head and started his own league and television network? I don’t know. I wouldn’t bet against him. If it came out tomorrow that Gilbert and James had agreed to partner a new network with the rights to Cavs games for the next decade as part of an incentive package, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. Actually, I’m still rooting for it to happen.

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