As the playoffs approach, the drama in Cleveland spreads and the pressure ratchets up, there is a familiar and troubling haze starting to inundate the Cleveland Cavaliers and their superstar.
Call it the The Fog of LeBron James, where the only thing that isn’t murky is the fact that something is wrong.
This is the blessing and curse of being teamed with the game’s most important player. It is its own kind of war, with enemies, real and imagined, and a vague but present threat seeming always capable to come from any and every direction. Even friendly fire. Every moment is scrutinized. Every failure, so called, is magnified. And there’s no guarantee that as the going gets tough LeBron won’t get … well, it depends on the day: Focused. Petulant. Gallant. Angry. Unstoppable. Remarkable. Troubled. Problematic. The solution.
Or just a fascinating combination of the above.
In this haze it’s hard to know who’s to blame for the drama and angst emanating out of the Cavs organization. But there’s too much smoke not to be fire. And we’re past pretending everything is fine.
There are clear chemistry issues on this team. The locker room is not working as it should as we approach the postseason. And now the team’s most important player and leader has, in a matter of weeks, drawn an inordinate amount of attention to everything but his game.
There’s the joke LeBron directed at a heartbroken college program when he said if he were on Northern Iowa’s team he “would quit basketball.” The I’m-in-playoff-mode-early mantra that means less pregame music, less social media, a few more scowls and breathless sources insisting LeBron is just so very locked in right now. The talk that he would like to, you know, sooner or later take a pay cut to play withCarmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.
Who, last we checked, play for other teams and are, you know, not his actual teammates.
And, of course, the National Emergency of LeBron James unfollowing his own team on Twitter.
There’s context necessary here: All of this comes after the head coach, David Blatt, was fired exactly two months ago despite having a conference-best 30-11 record; after Kyrie Irving and LeBron either did or didn’t take to Twitter for a subtle feud that sure seemed like some modern-day passive-aggressive public squabble; after talk bubbled up in NBA circles and with sources that LeBron has been far from happy with the culture and professionalism of his team and teammates — and that, at times the reverse was also true.
The Cavaliers need more moments like this between LeBron and Kyrie Irving. (USATSI)
There’s even more important context here: This is LeBron James we’re talking about, a transcendent basketball figure who knows what his words, his tweets, his deeds and his actions mean to basketball, to American culture, to the media, to his teammates. Few stars have a larger grasp on their power and impact than the Chosen One. He chose to say and do these things knowing full well that drama would surely follow. LeBron is as much like a president as any player on earth, and he surely knows any off-hand remark matters, any action reflects not just on him but on what and who he represents.
Does that make him a bad teammate, a bad dude? Does that mean he bears the brunt of criticism here?
It’s hard to say. And winning, as time and LeBron have taught us, heals all things. But whether it’s the Spurs or the Warriors, that’s going to be easier said than done if LeBron and his team make the NBA Finals.
Certainly, this drama doesn’t help Cleveland in getting there. Such things only undercut camaraderie. Blame blunts belief among teammates. And LeBron’s very real need for attention — which, for Cavs fans, I hope is what’s really going on here — can sometimes call down on teammates a level of distraction they may not be as ready to face.
Let’s talk straight. LeBron unfollowing the Cavs is no accident, not by a long shot, but it’s also far from a big deal. A joke directed toward UNI isn’t some sign of issues with the Cavs, but it’s also a real misstep for a guy who learned his lesson five years ago about his every move and moment being highly scrutinized.
Even the talk he would love to play with his friends, on the surface, doesn’t seem like the end of the world. But it’s worth noting that LeBron isn’t the only human being in this equation, not the only guy who’s allowed to feel how he feels about the things bubbling up around him and expect those he’s in the trenches with to be sensitive to how you build a winning, championship culture.
A few conversations with former NBA players told me what I already suspected: Most guys, were they Kyrie, wouldn’t love LeBron praising CP3 and talking about teaming up while they were sharing a locker room with the guy. It’s not cool, at best, and it’s disrespectful and tone deaf at worst, even if it’s not some grave and awful basketball or social sin.
That’s the thing with LeBron. We can give him the benefit of the doubt. We can blame him. We can blame ourselves, or the media, for overreacting. We can point to his first season in Miami as proof he can be oh-so problematic, and point to what came next as evidence of depth of character and an ability to own his mistakes, to learn from them and thrive.
It’s all true.
But so is this.
LeBron isn’t like everyone else, and he knows it. He lives it. The fog that descends for those fighting alongside LeBron blots out easy answers, clears only when the confetti falls for him or his adversaries, and makes him as interesting and compelling a figure as he is complicated and, day to day, so very hard to read.
Yet the starkest truth is that LeBron, and LeBron alone, long ago learned how to clear that mist if he so chooses for himself and his teammates. He now owns and works the media with the same Svengali ease as Kobe, and the same star power as Jordan. LeBron may have a harder road to travel when it comes to his actions and scrutiny, but no one knows how to navigate it like he does. No one understands its turns and bumps like him.
LeBron called this haze down, with every little thing that wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t connected to him. Which he knows. Why he did so is key. Was he being petulant or insensitive or selfish? Trying to shape a Cavs culture he’s struggling to fix, using coach-like mind games and signals? Are his teammates, or that organization, the problem? Or writers like me or fans like you who are overreacting?
Regardless, it all misses a more important point.
LeBron knows what he’s doing. And until we know why he’s doing it anyway we can’t know the most important thing of all: Whether LeBron’s second stop in Cleveland will be the beautiful return — or just a return to that former, unfortunate ugliness.
Source Cowan: CBS Sports