CHICAGO - When you declare yourself the king, as LeBron James did and Henry VIII in England, and it looks like Donald Trump in the United States these days, then you’ll probably act like the world is your kingdom — heck, LeBron calls it the (his?) Land — and your actions will be erratic and often damaging or dangerous, but your courtiers will be quick to respond supportively to your megalomania.
So it was little surprise to see Cavs general manager David Griffin, who by the way has done a terrific job supplying James with an endless procession of supporting players while destroying the team’s post-James future, quickly say he was “grateful” for James’ additional input on the roster last week when James demeaned management’s efforts.
Yes, James is a heck of a ventriloquist, also.
But let’s also remember sports is generally and often selling your soul to the devil, a modern version of the Faust legend, the exchange for earthly riches. For fans of long title-starved Cleveland, where their baseball, football and basketball teams had not won a championship in more than a half century, the exchange was worthwhile.
For the Cavaliers, too, and just about every organization in sports would have done the same: You get (or in the Cavs case, get back) the best player in the sport who will guarantee you at least to be the favorite or co-favorite to win the championship every year and then you just hope he isn’t the devil.
LeBron James isn’t quite that, but he’s also not what you would hope he would be because, after all, he says he is a king.
Last week, James looked down on his subjects, which include the coach of the Cavs (whom he gave the job to last season when the Cavs were 20 games over .500), the general manager and the owner and decided they weren’t doing quite enough to please him.
Forget the regular tithings. The king was not happy.
The Cavs had been losing, six of eight, and kings are not responsible for failure, just success. So James gathered the few reporters who regularly travel with the team and told them management had not done enough to improve the team and hoped they were as serious as he was about pursuing success and it was about time they started doing more.
Of course, this is the franchise with the highest payroll in the NBA, which had paid a record $54 million in luxury tax penalties last season for having such a rich payroll, which lost, according to Forbes magazine, $40 million last year even after winning the NBA title because of that massive payroll, and the franchise that way overpaid for two of its role players, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, because they were represented by James’ buddy he set up in the agent business.
Gratitude extends toward kings; not away from kings.
Of course, it’s no secret what this is about.
James is never, ever, never going to forget or let Cavs owner Dan Gilbert forget that open letter to fans after James announced in 2010 he was leaving to sign with the Miami Heat.
Cowardly, betrayal, deserter, selfishness, shocking act of disloyalty, opposite of the lessons for our children, heartless, callous. That covers much of it.
Yes, James was coming back because he likes being the king, and Pat Riley is the king of Miami. Pat didn’t need any assistant kings, and LeBron doesn’t take orders well.
In fact, many in Miami still believe James sabotaged the 2014 finals, the Spurs sweeping the last three for the title, because James knew he couldn’t return to Cleveland and take over the franchise if Miami was working on a four-peat.
I’m not sure I believe that, but I’ve heard that many times in Miami.
James isn’t a quitter or loser, and he’s one of the best players in the history of the game, an incredible talent.
But he also insists on being the king.
James made it pretty clear from his arrival he had no use for David Blatt, and that change was inevitable. You could see James in basically every game talking with assistant Tyronn Lue instead of Blatt. Lue is good, by the way. Which helps. Magic Johnson ran out his coach (Paul Westhead) after winning a title.
Stars have done that before. It’s hardly new in sports. Griffin has pretty much done everything for James. Griffin understands it’s impossible to win in the NBA without a star, and stars don’t last forever. So you do whatever you can while you have them. So he’s mortgaged the team’s future. Big deal.
Griffin traded yet another No. 1 pick for Kyle Korver this season because James wanted more shooting. Korver’s as good as you can get in that area.
Great move. The Cavs are so hamstrung now they cannot trade another No. 1 pick in 2021. Again, so what.
Heck, James may own the franchise by then.
Now, it’s also midwinter and that generally means in Cleveland by the Great Lakes it’s dark for about four straight months and you could get depressed. Though it also has been a tough month for James’ so-called Banana Boat Crew, his buddies who famously rode a banana boat on vacation.
Chris Paul had thumb surgery and is out a few months, the Knicks want to trade Carmelo Anthony (LeBron doesn’t want him) and Dwyane Wade ripped his teammates and got ripped back. That Wade’s curious condemnation came two days after James did the same about the reserves and young players on his team suggests they are still plotting together.
Look, the Cavs are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and by far.
They’re going to be in the NBA Finals again unless James is hurt. They have three All-Stars in James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Part of the problem is James’ flawed view of building a roster. The Bulls had this issue with Michael Jordan, though did their best to ignore his demands when he wanted Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant traded and Bill Cartwright left in New York.
Great players need to stay in their lane, to paraphrase Portland’s Terry Stotts about George Karl recently. They are too fast to have that sort of patience, and careers go fast. James sees the finish line.
Yes, the Warriors added Kevin Durant, though also because Steph Curry didn’t have an agent buddy they had to deal with to pay their role players.
LeBron doesn’t want to be the main scoring option anymore, and that’s understandable and he does like to facilitate. But when you surround him with shooters like Love, Korver and Channing Frye, well, who’s stopping anyone?
No one, and so the Cavs give up a lot of points, and are now in the bottom half in team defense.
LeBron has made it fairly clear that he has two goals: championships and Dan Gilbert losing more money every time the Cavs win a championship.
Now LeBron wants more facilitators off the bench, more size, and like from the Woody Allen movie “Bananas” about the crazed dictator, he now wants everyone to change their underwear four times a day.
And so he knows they did, everyone now will have to wear their underwear on the outside. I’m waiting to see if Dan Gilbert begins to wear his underwear on the outside.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”