Friday is the one-year anniversary of LeBron James' "Decision" TV special, and as we look back, it would be natural for us to have a bitter taste in our mouths. Whether James did the right thing in leaving Cleveland for Miami is debatable; whether he did the right thing by announcing it in a TV special is not. The ESPN program was ill-conceived at best and an abomination at worst.
In short, there's little one can do to defend it, beyond the "who are we to judge anything" argument. But that's not what we're here to discuss. We're here to discuss the effect of "The Decision" on the league, one year later. In this respect, the most obvious effect is the universal disgust everyone now has towards James and the Heat as a whole. It's so visible that it almost goes without saying. If you follow the NBA and live outside of Miami-Dade County, chances are you aren't too fond of LeBron or his teammates these days.
But while the point may be obvious, it is still significant. Really, there are two types of hatred when it comes to James, the Heat and the Decision. The first is among fans. They've filled arenas, logged onto message boards and spent their hard-earned money in part so they can let James know how disappointed and angry they are at him. Ultimately, though, no matter how hard they boo, they really don't make a significant direct impact on the trajectory of the season. This is why even I, as a James critic, can get a bit uncomfortable at how vicious some of the hatred can be.
The second hatred occurred within the game itself. In the days following the Decision and the equally ill-conceived victory party thrown after it happened, many players on the other top contenders in the league took it personally. Paul Pierce vented on his Twitter account, then, along with his teammates, stepped his game up to provide the regular season's best rivalry. Derrick Rose retired to his gym after James turned his team down and ended up shocking everyone by winning the MVP. Scores of former players, from Michael Jordan to Larry Bird and on down the line, chastised James for "teaming up" instead of competing against his peers on his own.
The hatred that current and former players developed for LeBron after the Decision was very real. It was also very good for the league.
There hasn't been much true animosity in the game recently. Today's players came up through the same youth all-star camps and (mostly) played on the same national stage in college. The continued rise of free agency and trades means that the game is more of a business than ever before. What's the point of players developing true animosity when they all move around the league so much?
There have been some rivalries that have developed over the years, but few have been authentic or significant. Not since the Knicks and Heat in the late 90s have we seen a rivalry born out of true hatred that actually mattered, and you could even argue whether the old Knicks-Heat rivalry mattered. There was some animosity between the Lakers and Kings at the beginning of the century, but that was mostly because Shaquille O'Neal, ever the entertainer, hyped it up publicly. The Wizards and Cavaliers had a true rivalry going for a while, but it was also the Wizards and the Cavaliers before they got good. The Spurs-Lakers rivalry was born out of a overwhelming display of mutual respect, as was the Suns-Spurs rivalry. And Lakers-Celtics? Put it this way: it was all about the current players awkwardly fulfilling the public calling that the front of their jerseys necessitated.
With James, though, the animosity was authentic and significant. Teams lined up all across the league to get a piece of James and his new super team. Kobe Bryant played hurt all year, just to get a shot at James' new team. The Celtics put together an inspired first-half run one year after they looked decrepit for parts of the regular season, only to see it ruined by injuries and a trade. Rose raised his game and led the Bulls to the best record in the league. The Orlando Magic chirped before the year about how they were the best team in Florida. The Spurs found that extra gear and won 61 games. Finally, just when it looked like the Heat would overcome the flood of animosity, along came Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, a nice enough team on the outside that summoned their inner rage to pull off the Finals upset. All of these things don't happen without the Decision and the animosity it spurred.
The post-Decision NBA was more interesting, more authentic and, frankly, better. The on-court product was better, and the off-court mind games were so much more compelling. This isn't to say the NBA was failing pre-Decision, of course. Thanks to rules changes, an influx of talent and the ever-growing complexity of coaching schemes, the game was becoming better already. But James' move to Miami, along with the TV special, took one of the past's best concepts and inserted it back into the game.
Thanks to James, an hour-long awkward TV program and a victory party afterwards, the NBA had the best of both worlds last year. Big picture, that's the true legacy of the Decison.
Now, let's just hope a long NBA lockout doesn't ruin all of that.