LeBron James vs. Dan Gilbert highlights the absurdity of modern sports

No one in Cleveland would choose the franchise owner over the best player of his generation. But no one has a choice, leaving LeBron with a tough decision.

LeBron James made peace with Cleveland Cavaliers franchise owner Dan Gilbert only after not having to see his face or deal with him at all for four years. It’s worth remembering that when reviewing LeBron’s seminal 2014 Lee Jenkins collab announcing his return to Northeast Ohio and considering the state of things today.

LeBron certainly knew what he was signing up for with Gilbert: he had lived through it for years prior to decamping to South Beach, and felt its aftermath in Comic Sans immediately after The Decision. There was no evidence in 2014 that Gilbert had graduated from his status as perhaps the one of the three least likable franchise owners in the NBA. (James Dolan retains the pole position, but a public poll might be closer than you think.) But they say time heals all wounds. The passage of time might have diminished Gilbert’s particular tomfoolery in LeBron’s memory.

Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger reports that Gilbert, who fired general manager David Griffin at a critical moment in the LeBron II Cavaliers’ arc last summer, has taken full control of basketball operations. Berger reports that Gilbert coveted the unprotected Nets pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal, pushing that trade through even after Cleveland docs found issues with Isaiah Thomas’ hip. Berger also reports that Gilbert has rode along on college scouting trips, like a game this week to check out top prospects Trae Young and Collin Sexton.

LeBron liked Griffin, and tweeted his support after the decision came down. The Cavaliers’ replacement front office — new GM Koby Altman is mighty young and, Berger says, widely deferential to Gilbert on basketball matters — botched the Kyrie sweepstakes, it would now appear. The Cavaliers are something like underdogs to two Eastern Conference teams heading toward spring.

Oh, and LeBron is a free agent in July. Rumors persist that he will consider leaving Cleveland four years after he told the world this:

I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.

How did LeBron go from that to back in the free agent mix in four years? Two words: Dan Gilbert.

This situation gets at the absurdity of modern sports in an interesting way. Not a single soul in Cleveland would, given the choice to keep one and lose the other, pick Dan Gilbert over LeBron James. LeBron wants to raise his young family in Northeast Ohio. He wants to compete for titles with the Cavaliers. And Dan freaking Gilbert is making it so hard that LeBron, the best player of his generation and a top-3 player in the history of basketball, might give up those dreams just to get away from him.

But because Gilbert had the capital to buy the Cavaliers off of Gordon Gund in 2005, the people of Cleveland don’t have a choice. Gilbert stays, and perhaps LeBron goes … again.

Contrary to the opinions of some, Gilbert is not responsible for LeBron leaving in 2010. The franchise was fairly stable at the time, and while the supporting cast was consistently undermatched, it wasn’t due to thrift or chaos. LeBron wanted to win titles, and Cleveland was not in a place to do that like Miami had been after retaining Dwyane Wade and landing Chris Bosh.

But this time, if LeBron leaves after that love letter to Ohio, after bringing a championship to long-suffering Cleveland, after witnessing the break-up of an Eastern hegemon (while strengthening a top rival!), it’s on Gilbert. Cleveland doesn’t get a choice in this battle, but LeBron does have a choice. Reminded of Dan Gilbert’s particular tomfoolery — watching it in full bloom, really — LeBron is well-justified to flee.

That doesn’t mean LeBron will escape critique, sophisticated or otherwise, should he leave. Sure, he ended the Cleveland curse. That doesn’t make his jersey any less flammable. While the world is slowly moving toward a liberated fandom presaged by the vanguard a decade ago, partisan sports team preference remains as strong as ever among most. The Cavaliers fandom, if given a vote, would bestow LeBron a landslide victory over Gilbert that would make dictators jealous. But if LeBron bows out, a large section of that same fandom will boo him ‘til their voiceboxes crack.

As with so many things in sports, try to rationalize it at your own peril.

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