LeBron James and the moral dilemma of free agency



Obviously, most everyone in Cleveland is elated with the return of Lebron James. Equally obviously Heat fans are bummed and feel let down. LeBron didn’t have another “The Decision” and he didn’t have a pep rally to tally up expected championships in front of Cavs fans in The Q. Both of these things are massive improvements since 2010, but did LeBron James still cause some unnecessary injury to the Miami Heat? Are Heat fans justified in feeling upset at all with how LeBron handled his business this time? One half of Dan LeBatard’s show in Miami, Stugotz, does think so. He wrote an interesting perspective on it and I felt it was a worthwhile discussion for the WFNY crew.


Craig: I actually think this warrants discussion. I think LeBron handled his business better this time, but I still think it’s pretty wrong how he goes about it. He waits. He builds drama. He holds the rest of the league’s off-season hostage.

And all that secrecy and so much of what he goes through is self-serving so his moment can be huge and important for himself. Yes, Cleveland fans were the beneficiaries this time, but when Windy told me this week on our podcast that LeBron’s people were using mis-direction to protect the SI essay release on Friday, that seems pretty morally iffy.

I mean it’s just sports, but is the fact that this is “entertainment” enough to justify the very real playing LeBron does with fan emotions? Does the overall desirable story arc of a boy returning home justify the means with which LeBron enacted for those ends?

It’s degrees obviously, but I can see Miami’s point. I’m not crying for them and their championships over the past four years, but it’s at least worth the discussion I think.


Scott: I read that op-ed a couple days ago and wavered back and forth between the scent of sour grapes and one which made me think a bit. I think anyone from Miami is in absolutely NO position to chastise national media — this is the same group of people who are trying to make us believe that Shabazz Napier is worth tracking while he’s hitting four of his last 24 shots while averaging just under five turnovers per Summer League game. And for anyone in Miami to think James was going to spend the rest of his career there … come on. You were always a rental.

Do I wish that the entire situation was wrapped up a bit quicker? Sure. It certainly would’ve been easier on my iPhone battery. But do I understand why it took as long? Absolutely. James’ team had to meet with potential suitors, which, if you recall back to 2010, took a good chunk of a week. Secondly, there had to be a meeting between James and Dan Gilbert — something that was integral to the decision, but an extra meeting which didn’t have to happen the last time. Factor in the schedules of everyone involved, and the logistics muddy things up. Thirdly, should we be surprised that there’s a dramatic element to anything a professional athlete (or celebrity in general) does? I feel like James does so much good — philanthropic, global, has nary a rap sheet — that we have to search for something to cling to in the way of negativity. If “dramatic” is the worst thing about someone, I think we’re in good shape.

Why do the Heat fans deserve better than Cavalier fans? You can argue that both situations have a bit of dirt on them — I’d listen to that. But LeBron James, like it or not, carries more power in the NBA than Adam Silver. He generates the most money for a league and has never been the highest paid player on his team. He doesn’t owe anyone anything. He controlled the message, just as he always has. To answer Stugotz’ closing question — yes, I would be surprised if James left Cleveland again. I think there’s a level of selfishness to every business decision. I think there has to be. But I don’t think there’s any vindication. Not at all.


Jacob: “Morally” iffy seems like a bit of a stretch to me. It is again just sports. You can say they handled it poorly, but morals gets into a tricky situation.

But yeah, I’d pretty confidently say that LeBron’s camp consistently orchestrated and fed into misdirections for weeks and weeks leading up to the announcement on July 11. Recall as well, The Decision was on July 8, 2010. So it was three days earlier and at an announced time, so fans were much less on edge. Cleveland (or at least the Twitter version of it) was mighty angsty this month.

Is that the end of the world? Is that enough to say it’s not worth the process, both for Miami in 2010 and now Cleveland in 2014? Nope. This is the best basketball player in the and world and this isn’t a moral situation. He can act generally however he wants to act within the laws and framework of the institutions involved.

LeBron – and thus, LRMR and Klutch – have handled this business in a outwardly funny and slightly off-putting way. This is twice now. We can kind of expect it. We’ll likely have similar rumors and chaos this coming summer with his opt-out. To me, it doesn’t necessarily change that much. Of course, we have the slight confidence he’s finishing his career with Cleveland now, but that’s not his style to withhold the suspense.


Joe M: Even the Decision was awesome for the NBA as much as Cavs fans hated it. It created so much intrigue around the season and cast LeBron as a villain which every good narrative needs. I honestly don’t find it all that off-putting. These owners get away with much worse in terms of how they conduct their business. LeBron is just always in the spotlight.


Craig: I don’t know how you can remove the morals from it Jacob. I mean you can say you don’t care, but clearly the reactions to “The Decision” back in 2010 indicate that morals do matter to some people. Even if it’s not life and death, there are stakeholders and people involved and impacted by LeBron’s actions. To think that this situation where many people’s real futures – financial and geographic to name just two – hang in the balance, of course there are moral implications.

And Joe, I don’t think a relative comparison to the owners is all that relevant here. While Stugotz defended Micky Arison in his post, that’s not a stance I care about. I always consider it from the fans’ point of view and to me there are some similarities to the way LeBron handled his business in both 2010 and 2014 which in a vacuum seem to take liberties for the sake of drama.

Again, that doesn’t mean anyone has to care, but I guess I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t see the similarities at all. LeBron got a pass because his end choice was “morally superior,” but many of the same hallmarks in “how he did it” were there. Obviously he skipped the two biggest offenses between the TV show and that ridiculous pep rally.

But one thing I’m done with in my life as a sports fan is being blinded (or at least totally blinded) by my fan bias. I love that LeBron chose Cleveland and is coming back. I love that he wrote that essay and didn’t do a TV show or pep rally, but I see some of Stugotz’ points.


Colin: Miami must be running the gauntlet of emotions right now. Certainly, they have to be thrilled that LeBron chose them in 2010, bringing along Chris Bosh and a multitude of cheap, productive veterans. The Heat reached the Finals in all four years of LeBron’s reign in Miami and won two titles that would never be possible without The Decision. Despite all this success, I can understand a level of animosity.

Had LeBron chosen to re-sign with the Heat, Cavaliers fans would have been justifiably angry due to this being the second time he led Cleveland fans on. He gave no signs pointing to Cleveland or Miami, utter silence from him. All of a sudden, Cleveland’s trade of Zeller, Karasev, and a first round pick to rid themselves of Jarrett Jack would be called into question. Would Miami have signed Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, and drafted Shabazz Napier without thinking LeBron would return? There is a good chance that money would have been spent elsewhere.

However, I never know what to believe any more. Recent reports have said that LeBron made his decision a week or more before the SI story by Lee Jenkins was released. But, if that is true, why did LeBron talk to Pat Riley In Las Vegas just two days before announcing his decision and not let him know whether he was taking his talents to Cleveland or making another run with Bosh and Wade?

A few things seem indefensible and others make sense. Miami has little reason to be upset that LeBron left, in a vacuum. The Heat won two titles and appeared in four Finals series. The Cavs’ young, talented, and flexible roster, chance to repair his legacy, and his ability to be closer to Akron are all defensible reasons to choose Cleveland.

However, the final few days seemed to drag on unnecessarily. On July 6th, Cleveland fans managed to track Dan Gilbert’s plane to Miami. The Heat used their remaining non-LeBron/Bosh/Wade cap room on McRoberts and Granger on July 7th. They already drafted Napier. By then, LeBron knew who would be on the rosters and had spoken to Gilbert. But, LeBron waited until July 12th to make his announcement official.

We will likely never know why he waited, what the meeting with Pat Riley was about, or when LeBron actually decided to sign with Cleveland, but we do know that he loves the spotlight. He destroyed Cleveland fans’ dreams in 2010 with The Decision” and made it up to them last week with The Essay, a brilliantly planned out PR move. Miami fans can’t be angry that LeBron left, he took them to the Finals every single season he played for the Heat, but it is understandable for them to be agitated that he stretched out his decision longer than they anticipated.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Um no offense but Windhorst “reports” a lot so much so his credibility has taken a hit with me. I don’t fault the kid he’s come a long way since he wore jeans on More Sports and Les Levine but still. As for what you wrote I’m sure you are right lets face it the essay was a stroke of brilliance for a number of reasons. I was really starting to get annoyed by the wait as well but it should have been expected. In the end it worked out. Cleveland is 1-1 with decisions by LBJ while I’m 0-2. I didn’t expect him to leave the first time and I didn’t expect him to return, oh well.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    All these guys have “sources” the problem is they report everything they hear immediately so that they can get the credit. Enter Twitter. I started paying attention to it a couple weeks before LBJ finally made his choice. It made me realize I missed nothing by not following Twitter. The same people Tweeting the same Tweet over and over and it seemed like there was a new Tweet depending on which way the wind blew. And what was even more shocking was all of the Tweeting by people who have jobs other then that which is enhanced by Tweeting. And I was even shocked by those people. It seemed like for as much ‘”work” as they were doing they were Tweeting the same amount. I guess it’s a product of social media but personally I find it sad that this has become what passes for reporting. It’s more like gossiping.

  • Denny

    “Indications are that he waited extra time merely for the marketing.”
    Where are these ‘indications’, exactly?

    “Again, if his guys were running mis-direction to protect the SI Essay, is that defensible?”
    Without any specificity in these claims, it’s impossible to talk ‘morals’, as nebulous and vague as that term is. If we were left TWISTING IN THE WIND for weeks, then perhaps it was not ‘moral’. If we’re talking about a day, or hours, or minutes, absolutely not. Waiting a day to ensure that his message that he was returning was done on his own terms is in no way ‘immoral’.

    Turned around: how ‘moral’ is it for fans to demand that an adult human kowtow to their demands and make the one of the most significant choices in their professional life on a convenient-according-to-the-fans timeline? Fans aren’t entitled to a thing.

  • The_Real_Shamrock
  • Denny

    Some? Are you personally, or are you bringing up straw-fans for the sake of debate?

  • nj0

    I have no answers. Just saying that there seemed to me to be a lot of mentions of Akron/NEO on his website. Calculated marketing? Yeah, probably. Window to Lebron’s soul? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

    I just think that there were clear indications on where the brand/man was planning on going. In the same way, I think his silence leading up to Decision #1 was a clear indication that most missed.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Thank you for calling it “The Essay.” That’s what it was it wasn’t a letter. Regardless it was a stroke of brilliance.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Ugh this is how sports and it’s coverage are becoming and I don’t care for it. Probably why I watch so little of ESPN and FOX Sports. Reminds me of CNN, FOX and MSNBC.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Miami fans were given an escape route by The Essay. LBJ said he would have still left four years ago and said he grew up in Miami and equated it to going to college. Miami fans took that to mean they made him better and he chose to return home because he was home sick which is hard to fault. The problem is Miami didn’t make him better he made Miami better. Of course he matured, physically and mentally, that would have happened regardless of where he played. But still it allows Miami fans an out. The fact that the Heat were able to retain Wade who is there LBJ despite being from Chicago along with Bosh will help ease the pain. The Heat won’t free fall unfortunately.

  • Steve

    I will admit to not having scoured his site closely enough, but absolutely agree that it’s mainly calculated marketing. But, now I’m a bit confused (and I have to admit, I’m more than a bit confused and torn on a lot of the Lebron topics still, hopefully the season gets here soon enough and I can just enjoy having a beer while watching a team win a bunch of basketball games). If you don’t think it’s a window to Lebron’s soul, why would we think it was the primary indicator of his decision?

    I think there were a lot of indications in both decisions that led to where he was going, but there was also a lot of indications going the other way too. I’m just not sure we can sit here and say with 20-20 hindsight that we actually should have been anywhere near certain.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    it’s an obvious false equivalency. i dont wonder about hypotheticals regarding obvious false equivs.

    but youre welcome to spin your wheels, enjoy.

  • nj0

    Does that mean anyone quitting a job without giving enough notice is committing a moral wrong? Or does this standard just apply to athletes?

  • Steve

    No, it’s a potshot. Where is the equivalency? What is the hypothetical? And what’s with the arrogant dismissal?

    If anybody should drop a “hey, I know how much it sucks, but wasn’t it totally worth it to watch him play?” to Miami fans, it’s Cleveland fans. And the last people who should kick a Miami fan when he is down because he doesn’t get to watch Lebron play for his team anymore are Cleveland fans.

  • whosevelt

    You’re right, that was poorly worded. I agree that Lebron as a person owes his bosses and coworkers basic courtesy. What I should have written was, “There is no reason to think Lebron wronged Riley or Arison as individuals, and he owes nothing to the characters that they and Stugotz play on TV.”

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    occam’s razor. ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

    ill let others conjure phil knight conspiracies or spin theories about a rich paul hypnosis to bring lebron home in order to max his brand. (and i admit i’ll smirk at ‘other side’ examinations that look backward at the mike brown 2013-14 cavs and the 29-yr-old wade heat but ignore wiggins-irving (and bennett) plus blatt cavs.)

    me? looks to me like a man in full who found himself.

  • Steve

    I’m on board with all of that. But I don’t think Lebron owes much of anything to the fans either other than hard work to win basketball games for whichever team he decides to play for.

  • mgbode

    I think it applies to anyone. If I were to leave my job without any notice or handing off information, my employer would be at a big disadvantage compared to if I gave time to relay the important stuff so they could plan out an exit.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    totally this. and these same people then start talking jibber jabber about the heat’s past history. there’s a whole buy-low sell-high thing that eludes.

    one question: how could you put yourself through a miami podcast? the linked stugotz post gave me my fill of douche-tastic for the rest of the month.

  • mgbode

    I prefer fans made out of fabric or paper myself. Straw fans tend to loosen up and then they just lose all effectiveness.


  • Steve

    Who is saying a cigar isn’t a cigar?

    If there’s any occam’s razor when it comes to Lebron it’s that he deeply cares about his PR image, and will make sure it’s spotlessly polished. Every move he makes is coldly calculated by its marketing/image potential.

    The examinations of the Cavs roster most certainly include Irving and Bennett. It’s tough to examine Wiggins yet. We can paint rosy pictures, but they are far from locks.

  • Backwoods

    Moral discussion about his free agency announcement?

    It’s business, not an argument between you and your girlfriend over custody of your 6 month old.

    He waited too long to announce?

    He announced less than 36 hours into free agency.

    And what is the point of dogging Napier? A fan base that has Bennett, Thompson and Waiters as top 5 draft picks should in no way be dogging Napier for his summer league play.

    This is a guy who has kept his nose so squeaky clean, that we have to resort to dogging the way he announces free agency. Seriously, Kobe got less backlash for RAPE than Lebron has for the decision.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    or broussard did it to himself.

    as we’ve learned, lebron wasnt even talking to chris bosh who had a roughly $100M time bomb ticking and possibly exploding depending on when lebron decided. if he’s not talking to bosh, it seems unlikely he’s pushing broussard down any path.

  • nj0

    Great minds and all that – I’ve had that same thought many a times before. They way the big networks cover sports is eeriely similar to cable news. Same play book i guess.

  • Backwoods

    Best angle and only one really up for discussion would be his responsibility to his friends (Bosh, Wade, etc.) but it is not a moral implication unless he would have convinced them to sign and then left. Outside of that scenario, there is no moral obligations. I’m actually embarrassed about how people are acting about this.

  • Backwoods

    He opted out before anyone. Does that not count as notice?

  • nj0

    Because the cynical side of me can conceive of a Lebron that preys upon and manipulates saps like me who want to believe that he is a family man, loyal to Ohio, etc. It could ALL just be marketing and his decision was just about improving the image of his brand (aka himself), making money, and those material concerns.

    I want to believe that SOME was marketing. That deep down he is that family man and the marketing is secondary.

    So I guess I avoid “window to the soul” because when you come down to it none of us can ever really know what is going on inside another person’s head.

  • nj0

    I get the hindsight thing. That said, Kanicki was pretty certain two weeks before the decision. I think he made a pretty compelling case. Guess you can say confirmation bias and all, but still.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    i need to take a step back here steve and understand you because i’m not getting it and i know im moving toward that ugly snippy tendency of mine.

    [sans snark] what is your point?

    to level-set: my premise is centrally that (once bball considerations were found to be even between mia-cle) lebron’s heart drove this decision with a sidebar tinge of frustration at the endless search for ulterior, mercenary motive.

  • Harv 21

    These days listening to podcasts while I work out (v. music, taking advantage of precious down time to open the mind). But the last 10 days have satiated myself with Lebron talk instead of, e.g., Freakonomics or The Moth or Dan Carlin’s History. Big mistake. Suffice it to say I’m about satiated with mostly idiocy.

  • CBI

    I heard a rumor that the opt outs were based on each player’s number. Lebron opted out 6 days before, Wade 3, Bosh 2 (almost 1). The opt out times might have been predetermined by the three.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    At least double. At least…

  • Steve

    I think there were parts of his case that were compelling. I think there were parts of many other cases for what Lebron would do that were compelling too. The biggest thing these article had in common? They focused on the benefits, and sometimes exaggerated them, of one side, and really didn’t look at the benefits of the other side. I think there were a single digit number of people who actually knew, and the rest were just projecting, or in the case of Sheridan, taking a shot in the dark in a last-ditch effort to salvage their reputation.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    It is a moral issue, but an easy one. As a society of sports fans, we’ve deemed that one to be alright. We expect and understand and justify the benefits of that. Although the NFL has worked on it, thus their injury reporting and starter reporting rules.

    But yes, it’s a moral issue or a rules issue and it’s worthy of discussion.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    I wasn’t attempting to bring up straw-fans. Stugotz’ post was the catalyst here and in his post he said this…

    “He chose drama and self promotion over his fans emotions not once but twice.”

  • Anomander

    I just figured the timing was to avoid being heckled in the Miami airport, I was trying to guess the timing beforehand as a thought exercise and its what I would’ve done.

  • Steve

    My only point was that I find it very, very weird that a Cleveland fan would kick Miami fans when they are down from experiencing the same thing Cleveland fans went through. If you left it at refusing to get busy with them being upset, I get that. The whole Cleveland attitude of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” and all that. I think that’s laughably overplayed, and the four years of teeth-gnashing at Lebron leaving is part of why I think it’s overplayed, but I get the attitude. But the whole beneath you part? Huh?

    “once bball considerations were found to be even between mia-cle”

    This is a very tough assumption to make. I know, you’re all in on Irving, Wiggins, and Bennett. I’m not, mainly because of just how big a step Bennett has to make to even become worthy of a rotation spot, and for all the potential that Wiggins has, I think Clevelanders should know quite well that the range for an incoming rookie can be quite wide and not to count any chickens before they hatch. We can hash it out a bit over the roster pieces if you want, but I’d guess we won’t change each other’s mind too much.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I confess however that I really like MLB Network and NBATV. Love the look-in shows.

  • mgbode

    One of the main reasons that I thought that LeBron opting out meant that he was NOT returning was because there is very little reason to believe that the Cavs give him a better chance at winning a title this year.

    If his sole purpose is to deliver a title to Cleveland, then it makes sense to come back early and guide the young players. However, if the main purpose is his own legacy in terms of overall titles, then the move makes much less sense.

  • Steve

    Absolutely agree with that first paragraph. I was in that same position.

    But the Love rumor changes everything. With Love here, with or without Wiggins, the Cavs are heavy favorites to win the East, and probably slight favorites to win the Finals. Love at 26 and Irving at 22 is an excellent switch from Bosh at 30 and Wade at 33.

    Maybe he didn’t know that Love was likely to come here. Maybe he does prefer building a team in Cleveland to just playing on the favorite. But I’m having serious trouble believing either of those.

  • mgbode

    I don’t think we’d be the favorites for a ring. Not enough defense and too much youth. We could win the East, but I have a hard time seeing us taking down one of the Western giants next June.

  • BenRM

    The corollary to “LeBron’s misdirection is morally iffy” is “it is morally good to immediately give fans all of the information they want.”

    I disagree.

  • saggy

    It’s so elementary that it’s embarrassing (for the media).

  • saggy

    AB was hurt and out of shape last year. But of course all your metrics tell you is that he was sub-replacement level. I really wonder what those metrics say for this season.

    Nerlens Noel was even worse last season.

  • Djamon

    “I think anyone from Miami is in absolutely NO position to chastise national media”

    You’re kidding me, right?

  • mgbode

    No, by not playing, Noel was better than Bennett last season :0

  • Steve

    I’m not sure how a guy being hurt and out of shape is a good sign. Similar issues with Noel, he may never be right.

    If you want to prove those metrics wrong, I’m all ears. If you just want to complain about them, have fun on your own.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    ok i get you. i place a higher value of lebron being raised here and that this is home. he spent 25 years here; four years in miami. so i reject the parallel ‘miami and cleveland equally betrayed’ angle. i think his coming home is noble/laudable whereas his going to miami (though understandable) was whatever is the opposite.

    second, it’s completely hypocritical for miami fans to cry foul when he leaves given how they acquired him. i’m not sympathetic toward them. seriously, not at all.

    on the rosters, cleveland’s trajectory is up. whether it’s with youngsters or whether it’s with tradable assets (youngsters+picks) or whether it’s with an owner who spends (baron davis, shaq). miami’s trajectory is down. an old and expensive team deng-wade-bosh all over 30 and collecting 40M? 45M? and getting older (granger, haslem), and their history (amnesty-ing miller) doesnt show comparable owner commitment of dollars.

    re pat riley aka guy who drafted michael beasley second overall: he has a terrific record roster building in miami and la; he’d be another david kahn if he were in minnesota or milwaukee.

  • Steve

    Like I said, according to him, Cleveland wasn’t his home when he left the first time. It seems highly revisionist – either fans yearning for anything they can hold on to, or team Lebron working the PR angle to the best of their ability for both moves.

    And I have serious issues with the idea that Lebron choosing to go play somewhere else is called a betrayal. Lebron owed us nothing. He’s a grown adult who gets to chose where he wants to ply his trade. I find the whole it wholly uncomfortable to call him doing what he wants a betrayal because we don’t like it. It implies some kind of debt or ownership.

    As for his coming here being noble and his going to Miami being the opposite, looks like you left those homer goggles on. This goes back to the last paragraph in being highly uncomfortable.

    Do Cavs fans look a bit hypocritical for bashing Lebron for leaving only to welcome him four years later, saying things like “Forgiven”? Or is it all the same thing we see everyone else – people are happy when their team wins and unhappy when they lose.

    Cleveland’s trajectory is up, and Miami’s is down mainly because there were no other ways to go. The gulf between them was enormous though. Starting to move closer doesn’t mean they actually were close. I’m having a hard time seeing a franchise that fired three key front office personnel in the last 15 months as having a rocketing trajectory. We’ve got a chance to really take off, but up until Lebron signed, we were still on the ground.

    As for Riley having a couple blemishes to his name – yup, it happens to everyone. I’m not sure we’re in much of a position to point fingers at another franchise for their inability to build a roster though. Maybe Grant held such enormous sway that his number two in Griffin had little influence, but this is a team that was adamant about making the playoffs, and proceeded to go with an Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee pairing at the 3. They’ve got more than few headscratchers in their history.

  • MoreGolfLessWork

    1. You are kidding yourself if you think LeBron wrote that “essay.” That was written and combed over who knows how many times by professional PR people.
    2. You are also kidding yourself if you think it is not likely at all that LeBron will at some point leave the Cavs again.