Thoughts from the Editor: LeBron’s cult of personality

In yet another annual installment of the thrilling NBA trade deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ general management took a lighter to the piece of paper that presented the NBA’s best roster…in 2012.

It was the Quicken Loans Arena equivalent of a brightly advertised “Everything Must Go” sale, the type usually found at a dusty discount furniture store. Scour the internet and it is easy to find other self-righteous writers with their own apocalyptic declarations for the Cavaliers’ roster overhaul.

“Cleveland’s best impression of a drunk and stoned college student set loose in a gas station convenience store,” wrote Jack Hamilton in Slate. “This might be straight sabotage,” declared Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take.

On a first take, the trades seem borderline comical. The moves look desperate, and unprecedented in the worst ways. Never before had a team still near the top of their conference given up on half of their roster. Never before had a front office so obviously pandered to their best player. Never before had an MVP-caliber point guard been so quickly devalued.

“I’m tired of being traded,” said point guard Isaiah Thomas, a day before he was traded (Slam, “Isaiah Thomas: ‘I’m Tired of Being Traded,’ ” 2.08.2018).

Laughing at Cleveland had been the flavor of the month at dinner tables and pundit desks, with the Cavs being profiled as fatally unstable. LeBron James looked visibly unhappy in his own home state, frustrated with hobbled teammates that were underperforming their names. A championship season seemed like a lost cause. Most reporting coming out of Cleveland only linked the King to one improbable landing spot after the next.

Something needed to be done. And it was Cavs General Manager Koby Altman who finally pressed the big red button. With one fell swoop, gone was LeBron’s washed-up all-star team, and in came a collection of athletic, yet unproven talent.

In a league that has suffered from so much predictability at the top, the trades are a gamble that only creates uncertainty. Can Cleveland be competitive with such a new look?

Last Sunday’s matchup against the Celtics might be the testament of hope so desperately needed for Cavs fans. In a dominating performance, the Cavs ran away with a 121-99 road win over divorcee Kyrie Irving. The new players added new dimensions to the team, with improved outside shooting and a greater athletic presence around the rim. The win is yet another reminder that the current state of the game demands youth and athleticism over IQ and experience.

And above all, Cleveland looked like LeBron’s team again. “He’s the Batman, and we’ve got to be all Robins. We’ve got to figure it out,” said new acquisition George Hill about James before the game (ESPN, “New Cavs practice for first time as Ty Lue rolls out starting lineup,” 02.11.2018).

This sentiment seemed to resonate. From the top down, the Cavs were willing to play through the King, letting him go to work at the top of the key while they spaced the floor, patiently waiting for him to give them a turn to score. It is a refreshing change of pace. For the first time in a long time, LeBron does not have to compete with another star for touches. It’s a real throwback to his first stint in Cleveland.

On one highly documented play, newly acquired Jordan Clarkson knocked down a transition three with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the final dagger in the decisive victory. LeBron, in a welcoming sight, was grinning from ear to ear on the bench, pointing dramatically at his new teammate. It was a much-needed reassertion of his status. The King was in control, and he had the pieces to back him up.

The moment is just another symbol in the dichotomy of LeBron’s coverage. If James had an approval rating, his chart would look like a heart rate monitor. When he is winning, the public loves to embrace him as the savior of a city, an indestructible and unstoppable force. During more trying times, James’ character is questioned, and the media clings upon his every word.
Sports culture loves to build up and break down its superstars. It’s our way of pushing them to become better players, our way to search for humanity in unfathomable athletic feats. LeBron, more than any modern athlete, has embraced this atmosphere. He builds his cult of personality through his highly publicized personal drive, and by means of his unprecedented candor with the media.

In a locker room, this can make him an extremely polarizing figure. Isaiah Thomas attempted to use the same brand of candor as James, but LeBron did not respect him as a fellow superstar. As a result, Thomas ended up only straight-talking his way out of town, making statements that upset James and threatened his alpha-dog role.

“I feel like I got my powers back,” said Thomas on his new Los Angeles Lakers, an upstart team of  which he clearly is now the leader (Bleacher Report, “Isaiah Thomas on Scoring 22 in Lakers Debut,” 2.11.2018). The abrasive statement goes to show that Thomas did in fact feel undermined by Lebron’s personality.

And it is not just high-status teammates like Thomas that LeBron finds himself in conflict with. His drive, and his endless commitment to chasing excellence, can create a hyper-demanding environment for his surrounding teammates.

“I got back to having fun playing basketball with a great group of guys,” said Jae Crowder after his trade to the Utah Jazz (Complex, “Did Jae Crowder Shade the Cavaliers?” 2.12.2018).

Playing with the modern LeBron can be difficult. As the King sees it, either you are with him, or you are against him. The real question is now, for how long will his new guys buy in?

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