It was 10 years ago today that the most anticipated free-agency period in NBA history began, culminating on July 8, 2010, with The Decision and LeBron James announcing that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
We asked our NBA insiders to reflect on the show, the fallout and LeBron’s time with the Miami Heat — which produced four trips to the Finals and two titles before he returned to Cleveland — and what all of it meant for the NBA.
1. What do you remember most about watching ‘The Decision’ 10 years ago?
Kevin Arnovitz: The extent to which it was produced. James and his camp had already fashioned his free agency as a competition reality show, and the announcement was the culmination. In many respects, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, The Decision was a pilot for a decade of shows produced by and starring athletes. That night almost seems quaint now.
Chris Herring: I was working for The Wall Street Journal and was sent to a New York bar to cover local reaction to LeBron’s choice. It was a reaction that’s been somewhat fitting for the better part of the last 20 years: Knick fans being disappointed. There was speculation that LeBron announcing the decision in nearby Connecticut would bode well for the Knicks’ chances. It didn’t.
Jackie MacMullan: I happened to be in Bristol doing SportsCenter in the days leading up to The Decision. Even though ESPN was going to broadcast it, most of us thought it was a horrible idea, and I recall saying on the air, “LeBron, it’s not too late. Don’t do this!” I called David Stern a day before The Decision, and he made it clear he would have no comment. But, when I asked him off the record, “Did you try to talk LeBron out of it?” he snapped back, “What do you think?”
Dave McMenamin: I was covering Kobe Bryant’s basketball camp in Santa Barbara the day before, and all anyone wanted to talk about was what LeBron was going to do. I went out to dinner that night with some of the camp coaches, and we watched Chris Broussard say on SportsCenter that Miami was going to be the destination. So, tuning in to the actual show the next day, it was more about looking to see LeBron say it and how he was going to say it. And as soon as he uttered the “take my talents” line, it immediately made me think of 17-year-old Kobe, with a pair of Oakleys on his head, announcing his decision to skip college and go straight to the NBA.
Royce Young: The anticipation. Once it was announced, the speculation machine cranked to hyperspeed. But even with reports surfacing of LeBron leaning elsewhere, the general feeling was no way he’d go on national TV and break his hometown’s heart. The whole thing was uncomfortable, especially the time fill that had to occur before LeBron actually got to announcing his choice. But the 24 hours leading into it was really the birth of the transactional fever era we live in now.
2. Looking back now, which was more surprising: LeBron’s TV special, Dan Gilbert’s letter or the Heat’s “We Did It” rally?
Young: The letter is the most shocking of the three, just because the potential consequences of that shouldn’t have required hindsight to see. It was an emotional reaction, sure, and in the end it didn’t prevent LeBron from returning, but it was certainly a hurdle. A Decision-like announcement is kind of the norm now, and hyping seismic transactions isn’t unusual. But an owner absolutely blasting a player publicly — a franchise icon at that — is a pretty unthinkable thing in 2020.
MacMullan: The Heat rally. The Decision was incredibly ill-advised and self-indulgent, but we all knew it was coming. Gilbert’s scathing reaction was somewhat predictable, since he found out LeBron was leaving at the same time as the rest of us. But that rally was so over the top. I will never forget the look on Pat Riley’s face when they panned to him in the stands. He looked mortified. Riley told me years later he was so busy making sure all the contracts for LeBron and Chris Bosh were in order that he didn’t pay much attention to what the team had planned. It showed.
McMenamin: Gilbert’s letter. The TV special raised millions for charity. The rally was over-the-top and premature, but it was rooted in joy. The letter was hateful and ugly.
Arnovitz: Gilbert’s letter, because it was the only of the three that was a spontaneous event. With a few exceptions, NBA principals are exceedingly filtered androids. The letter by Gilbert was sheer, raw resentment written by someone without the counsel of anyone.
Herring: Probably the rally. There really was no possible upside to having one. Someday down the line, I could see another superstar hyping up his free-agency decision with a cable network. I could see an agitated owner firing off a wild screed. But another rally like that would shock me.
3. Fact or fiction: LeBron James should have won MVP in 2010-11?
Herring: Fact. Narratives and voter fatigue clearly played a role. Derrick Rose’s team won slightly more and had the best record. But LeBron had superior counting and efficiency stats; led the NBA in win shares and value over replacement player; and was far superior on defense, which he showcased by locking down Rose in key moments during the conference finals. Still, LeBron finished third in the voting, behind Dwight Howard, who also had a strong case over Rose.
MacMullan: Fiction. Now, if you want to rephrase and say could LeBron have won in 2011, then yes. He had a better PER than Derrick Rose, and his imprint on the game was indelible. But, I believe in the process of the voting, and at the time, the 22-year old Rose, who had not yet suffered his horrific, life-altering knee injury, was dynamic, exciting, prolific and led his Bulls team to 62 wins. Did LeBron, who finished third behind Dwight Howard, suffer backlash from his unseemly Decision? Very likely.
Arnovitz: Fact. It’s difficult to find any criterion — other than team wins — that values Derrick Rose more than LeBron James. Was this a narrative-driven vote and/or one that punished James for, in the eyes of voters, stacking the deck?
Young: Fiction. Rose was a perfectly acceptable choice. The Bulls were the top seed in the East, winning 62 games. There may have been backlash to LeBron’s decision, but it’s not as if Rose was undeserving. It followed standard MVP voting: the new, rising star leading a mega-market crown jewel franchise to the best record in the league. LeBron was sensational, because he always is, and we all know he could’ve won pretty much every MVP from 2008 on. But operating under the idea that someone else is allowed to win, Rose was a deserving winner.
McMenamin: Fact. He has four MVPs, which is remarkable, but he should probably have about six.
4. Did LeBron’s Heat teams mostly underachieve, mostly overachieve or mostly meet reasonable expectations?
McMenamin: Meet expectations, which was winning multiple championships. Did we think it was going to start with a loss to the Mavs and end after just four years? No. But we didn’t anticipate that 27-game win streak, incredible comeback against San Antonio or dominant win over the Thunder, either.
Arnovitz: LeBron’s teams will forever be synonymous for coasting through regular seasons with unexceptional effort, but two titles and four trips to the Finals sounds about right. The 2010-11 Heat lost to a team with less raw talent, but apart from that, they shot par.
Herring: If we had known up front that he was only going to spend four years in Miami, then winning two titles — while playing in the Finals all four years — would have been a pretty reasonable prediction. Considering the strain that a run like that can take on players’ bodies (Wade’s struggles highlighted this), or the challenge of trying to continually put talent around an expensive core without ever having any cap room to actually do it, expecting anything more would’ve been unreasonable.
Young: Mostly met reasonable expectations. It’s easy to mock their era because of the “Not one, not two, not three,” proclamations, but look at their four-year résumé: four Finals, two titles, better than .700 winning percentage. They were the most reviled basketball team in the world, but also the most famous. The legacy of the Heat is balanced on a knife’s edge. If their series against Dallas goes their way, they are a dynasty. If Ray Allen’s 3 doesn’t fall in Game 6, they are a failure. So, they fall right in the middle of it.
MacMullan: Considering LeBron insisted the Heat would win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” I guess, in the end, you’d have to say they underachieved. For starters, they should have beaten Dallas in 2011; it was the lowest moment in LeBron’s career, but also a turning point. And as soon as the redemptive Spurs bludgeoned them in 2014, playing nearly perfect basketball to do it, LeBron was On to the Next. Who knows what would have happened if he’d stuck around?
5. What is the lasting legacy of LeBron’s move to Miami?
MacMullan: Player empowerment. Whether you liked or hated The Decision, it was a preview of LeBron seizing control of his own career in ways we’d never seen any other superstar do before. No more could coaches, GMs or owners dictate how long their franchise players stayed. The power irrevocably shifted to the athlete, thanks to LeBron. His NBA brethren should never forget that.
Arnovitz: James’ move to Miami represented a profound shift in power in the way teams are constructed — away from ownership and front offices and toward the superstar. James realized he and other generational talents drove the value of the NBA product, and he leveraged his equity to create a situation that suited his preferences.
Herring: I think it’s pretty clear, and it’s one that was reinforced by Kevin Durant’s decision in 2016 and then again by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this past summer: That in this “rings” culture that’s been deified by so many talking heads and fans, players can flex their muscles and find ways to team up, either creating or joining situations that allow them to win big instantly.
McMenamin: The lasting legacy is NBA front offices planning their moves years ahead of time and making shrewd contract offers to assure their books are cleared to pursue big-name free agents in tandem when they become available like in 2010.
Young: They created the true superteam mentality. There were superteams before, but all of them were assembled in far different manners. The Heat were built behind the independence and strategy of players, redefining the mindset for what a star free agent can do. LeBron’s decision paved the way for Carmelo Anthony to demand out of Denver, which paved the way for Kevin Durant to the Warriors, which paved the way for Anthony Davis to the Lakers, which paved the way for Kawhi Leonard eventually to the Clippers, which paved the way for Giannis…
Phoenix Suns add guard Cameron Payne to roster
The Phoenix Suns made an addition to their roster on Tuesday ahead of traveling to Orlando for the resumption of the NBA season next week.
Phoenix, which had an open roster spot, added guard Cameron Payne to its roster. Payne, who was the 14th pick in the 2015 NBA draft, has yet to play in the league this season.
Instead, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard briefly played in the Chinese Basketball Association before joining the Texas Legends in the G-League. With the Legends, Payne averaged 23.2 points, 8.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game in 15 games.
In 153 career games, Payne is averaging 6.0 points, 2.6 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game.
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka — Orlando bubble will be ‘mental test’
LOS ANGELES – Sometimes, when Los Angeles Lakers vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka sits with his daughter, Emery, he’s reminded just how daunting the NBA’s planned restart in Orlando really is.
“Have I had nights at dinner where I’ll look over and my 10-year-old daughter has tears in her eyes and I ask her why and she says, ‘It’s because daddy could be gone for 3-and-a-half months’?” Pelinka, who is also the Lakers’ general manager, said on a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Yes, that stuff is part of this. But I think she understands the bigger picture.”
It’s the full context that comes with the bigger picture, however, that puts the league’s attempted undertaking in proper context.
The Lakers, in the middle of a pandemic that’s already claimed nearly 129,000 lives in the United States, are preparing to fly 2,500 miles away from home to stay in a state where new coronavirus cases have spiked from less than a thousand a day earlier this month to nearly 10,000 on June 27, and set up camp there until mid-October. And they’re doing so with a 17-man roster — including two-way players and the planned addition of JR Smith to replace Avery Bradley, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski — that’s comprised of 16 black men, while the country is in the middle of an unprecedented national movement to correct social injustice and racial inequality.
It’s a lot to take in. And as such, Pelinka believes that the Orlando bubble will challenge his team’s brains as much as it does their bodies, as they attempt to get back into game shape with a week-long individual training camp that opens Wednesday following a 3-and-a-half month hiatus.
“I think Orlando itself is going to be as much of a mental test as it is a physical test just because of the extraordinary circumstances there,” Pelinka said. “I think a team like ours that has such a strong togetherness component will have an advantage at that part. This team of guys love being together and love playing together. I think that’s the significant part of the (first) 63 games.”
The last time anyone saw the Lakers on the court, they were surging. L.A. went 8-2 after the All-Star break, including impressive back-to-back wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers, and held the No. 1 record in the Western Conference at 49-14. With everything that’s happened since — from the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 prompting Bradley to bow out to be with his family, to the team waiting on Dwight Howard‘s decision on Orlando as he continues to mourn the death of Melissa Rios, the mother of one of his sons who died from an epileptic seizure in March, Pelinka is trying to steel his team for the stress ahead.
“We have,” Pelinka said, “put a ton of thought into the mental part of this journey. It is going to be as much as a physical grind as it’s going to be a mental grind. And I think the mental component might even be more paramount. And so, yes … we have mental wellness people on staff here and we’ve been working with them on developing a protocol to address some of the concerns that are going to come up from an extended time away from family or an extended time living in a city that’s not your home.”
Pelinka cited former Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s unconventional approach featured in ESPN’s The Last Dance — specifically embracing yoga and meditation with his teams — as ways the current Lakers can tackle the Florida restart.
“Just keeping guys fresh, keeping life interesting,” Pelinka said. “Keeping everyone’s passions sharpened, I’m sure there will be many, many stories coming out of Orlando about some of the different practices that evolve once we get down there.”
Still, the Lakers GM let it be known that he thinks his group is up for the task. Whether that be leaning on the franchise’s history (Pelinka said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently spoke to players on systematic injustice) or even by cribbing some of Jackson’s coaching methods, he says the team is preparing for its future — as murky as the next few months might seem.
The close bonds the Lakers have already established this season, Pelinka said, will aid them when they are far away from home — whether that be as big picture as navigating the winds of change in the U.S. or as granular integrating three guys in Smith, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris into the lineup who’ve combined to play just eight games for the purple and gold this season.
“I think that we’re in a unique situation where we’ve had a such a strong chemistry, such a strong team chemistry, that I think that platform is going to be seamless in terms of guys jumping on and being part of that identity and chemistry that we already had formed,” Pelinka said. “I don’t see that changing at all with the new additions, just because it’s such a strong identity. “
Joe Borgia, NBA’s vice president overseeing referees, retires
NEW YORK — Joe Borgia, who spent 32 years in the NBA as a referee and executive, announced his retirement Tuesday.
Among the highlights of Borgia’s tenure with the league is the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, which opened for the 2014-15 season and has become a fixture as part of both in-game reviews and analysis of the league’s referees.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to officiate at the top of our profession and then transition to a role committed to the advancement and improvement of our officials,” Borgia said. “I am especially proud of the NBA Replay Center. Its continued evolution in improving our game is an example of the dedication the NBA’s Referee Operations department has to excellence and innovation.”
Borgia was hired to the NBA referee staff in 1988. He officiated 10 seasons before an injury forced him to stop in 1998. He joined the basketball and referee operations department in 1999 and retired Tuesday with the title of senior vice president for referee operations.
“Joe’s imprint on the NBA and contributions to a multitude of officiating platforms will be lasting,” NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell said. “We thank him for his leadership, passion and committed service to the game, and wish him the best in his retirement.”
Borgia’s officiating career included two of the most famous games in NBA history — the highest-scoring game, a 186-184 win by Detroit over Denver on Dec. 13, 1983, and a quintuple-overtime game between Seattle and Milwaukee on Nov. 9, 1989.
Borgia’s father was Sid Borgia, who worked in the NBA from 1946 through 1966 as a referee and then the league’s supervisor of officials.
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