It may have been a conscious decision to take the night off, or a subconscious acquiescence to an inexorable force that he simply didn’t think was worth fighting. Whatever happened in Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in 2010, however the hell it went down, LeBron James, at some point, decided that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play his best.
That choice, that decision, that night dogged him. In Cleveland, he was a quitter. In every game he lost after that, he was a choker. He “couldn’t close” or simply chose not to, ceding things to some other less-talented teammate. He was afraid to force the action and get fouled because he couldn’t hit free throws under pressure. He was afraid to take the big shot. He couldn’t make the big shot.
This was beyond Skip Bayless carnival barking on the set of First and Ten. This was the narrative that dogged LeBron James. To the media and general public it served, it became a part of his existence as a basketball player, just as much as his incredible athleticism and statistical output.
Dan Gilbert made a choice. The Cavaliers owner decided to write a comic sans screed, taking dead aim at his former franchise player and looking to move the spurned hometown faithful. It’s often said that he wasn’t writing that letter for a national audience, to throw his name in the story; but rather, he was writing it for the fanbase of his franchise, a letter intended for Northeast Ohio zip codes only.
No matter the intent or audience, that letter will dog Gilbert for the duration of his public life in the NBA. The perception and narrative have been set, the die is cast.
There’s no need to re-litigate the merits of the letter. But the letter had and continues to have consequences. Whether the perception it has created is accurate or not, it’s the top-of-mind item that will color everything as soon as his name is inserted into a discussion.
Why is this relevant now? Because every time you hear the Cavaliers brought up in trade rumors either in a report, or an opinion inside the report, things are almost always extrapolated out to some point weighing Dan Gilbert’s perceived effect on the rumored deal.
This was most acute during the speculated three-team trade between the Cavs, Magic, and Nets. It’s applicable every time the Cavs come up — but what about Gilbert, what’s the consideration or angle we should give him on this one? With the cornucopia of draft picks and cap space, the Cavaliers are continually rumored as a trading partner. And Gilbert is a constant consideration.
A couple highlights from this month, as the Cavaliers were thrown into the Dwight Howard whirlwind. Adrian Wojnarowksi, perhaps the most well-known and respected NBA reporter, inked this during the Nets-Cavs epoch of the Dwight saga:
Several league executives with knowledge of the negotiations believe the small-market Cavaliers had become sensitive to criticism they were contributing to the construction of another big-market super power.
In the same week, Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio fired off this tweet:
When asked who nixed potential deal on Cavs’ end, agent said: “Dan Gilbert.” When asked if certain, agent said: “No. But I bet I’m right.”
— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) July 10, 2012
Wut? That’s somewhere between an equivocation and a blindfolded throw at a dartboard.
This is not necessarily unique to Gilbert. Plenty of owners have their reputations — Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, Chicago’s Jerry Reinsdorf, New York’s James Dolan. It’s just that the perception of Gilbert lords over everything they do, and the perception, by and large, stems from the comic sans missive.
There was plenty of hand-wringing and worry when Gilbert first bought the team — fears that a slickster hands-on owner would squander the LeBron James experience with a series of reactionary and hasty moves, much like another pro sports owner named Dan who presides over the NFL franchise in Washington. Gilbert came on the scene somewhat loudly and cleaned house, shipping off Paul Silas. But he generally stayed out of things and by all accounts, tried to model his franchise after the San Antonio Spurs, hiring Danny Ferry and Mike Brown.
But now everything is viewed in comic sans font. He’s definitely acted out beyond the original letter, getting into unbecoming Twitter tiffs with bloggisists. Then there was last year’s letter, where he denounced the Hornets trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, calling it a “travesty” and invoking the Washington Generals. He was largely seen as one of the driving forces perpetuating the lockout, playing hardball and stalling a season — another perception he had to combat.
The Cavaliers are trying to move on from the messiness of all this, and the loss of the greatest player in franchise history. They’re generally a well-run franchise and in great shape, with a new hope and a new face. But that narrative surrounding their owner will remain.
LeBron had a far greater ability to control or change his narrative. Dan Gilbert can take on onerous contracts in an attempt to add assets (which basically worked out as well as it could in the Baron Davis trade). Unfairly or not, Gilbert will have to live with the consequences of the perception that’s stuck over the past two years. The discussion of LeBron’s “legacy” prompted much of his narrative. Gilbert is an owner, and his legacy doesn’t matter all that much outside of Cleveland, so winning won’t necessarily change how he’s viewed.
What’s hard to swallow, however, is if that persona and perception start to negatively impact trades. Jason Lloyd, who’s about as plugged-in as you can get on the Cavaliers side, brought a tempered perspective and threw some cold water on the notion that “super team” considerations affected the rumored Nets trade:
I have tremendous respect for @WojYahooNBA, but completely disagree #Cavs were sensitive to criticisms over trade. They simply didn’t like the deal in front of them. Period.
That’s almost certainly closer to reality than some league executive’s speculation. For LeBron, the reality was that he won countless games in the final minutes of his career, most of them wearing a Cavs uniform and pushing them across the finish line with a W. But the narrative and perception became something wholly different, zoning in on every little thing that would fulfill the preconceived notions and fill out the story.
In reality, Gilbert is likely not affecting potential trade scenarios. But it helps fill out why rumored deals with tons of obstacles never get beyond a reporter’s Twitter feed or Sulia thingy. The outside perception, however, in both the media and executive offices around the league, will remain. Here’s hoping that doesn’t actually become a reason why a team won’t, or can’t complete deal. If it is, those are just some of the consequences Gilbert will have to live with for his choices.