Too much of what's happened despite the Cavaliers standing atop the Eastern Conference feels like some kind of vile deja vu, as if we've melded LeBron's 2010-11 season in Miami with his previous and unsuccessful stint in Cleveland.
There's the under-fire but capable coach (though this one, David Blatt, actually got fired), the petulance, the mounting frustration, the way-too-obvious passive aggressiveness (this time a trip to Miami during some time off), the shots at his teammates (on Twitter) that he later pretended was just, you know, nothing to see here. Nothing at all. Keep moving. How dare you question the King.
I've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well.
Five years ago, when I lived in Miami and covered LeBron and the Heat, the story was eerily similar: Superstar arrives with huge expectations, things get tough, superstar blames coach, then media, then (passive aggressively) teammates. Then he and the team fail under the brightest and harshest of lights. Then, after some deep soul-searching, LeBron gains large measure of self-awareness and goes on to great things.
That happens in life, and especially in the NBA. They learn, they rise, they falter, they grow from their failures and the best -- Bird, Isiah, Jordan -- go on to better and bigger things. Part of their greatness was they didn't revert to old, bad habits. But the fact LeBron James might be repeating the same mistakes that five years ago crushed his image, cost him a championship and required him to admit to people like me he made mistakes should initiate long, serious concern in Cleveland.
As they say: People don't change.
Here's hoping, for Cleveland's sake, that that's so very not true.
A few weeks ago, an NBA source told me this: “Even today, I'm not sure anyone can beat LeBron physically. But you can beat him mentally or emotionally. That's how you do it.”
Which is exactly how Dallas won in 2011. They beat LeBron because he crumbled emotionally, not physically. Which is to say, he beat himself. Like so many luminaries -- Eazy-E, Churchill, Johnny Manziel, Nixon, Pete Rose -- genius is usually hardwired with a self-destruct button that boggles the imagination.
Unfortunately for LeBron, things that marked his issues then are recurring now, like some kind of tripwire of that very paradox.
Let's be honest here. LeBron was clearly instrumental in David Blatt being fired in January despite the Cavs having the Eastern Conference's best record at 30-11. That's good for a .731 percent winning percentage. Tyronn Lue? He's 14-7, which irons out to a .667 winning percentage. Fine. But not exactly damning evidence Blatt had to go. Not exactly beyond a reasonable doubt that LeBron was right.
Then, in a Twitter rant after a rough stretch, he seemed to clearly take shots at teammateKyrie Irving. Followed by reports the two aren't getting along. And a report -- which mimics what I've heard, too -- that now claims LeBron's people have been vocal in making it clear he won't be afraid to break Cleveland's heart again and walk if he needs to.
So: Your coach is to blame. Your teammates are to blame. Your organization is to blame. The media is to blame.
Ah, well ... News flash: If, time after time, everyone else is the problem, it probably turns out it's not everyone else. It's you.
LeBron is so very smart. He is so remarkably talented at the game of basketball. He's worked hard at working the media, crafting the narrative, deflecting the blame and bristling despite the normal ups and downs of his sport while still shielding himself from complaints he remains the exact same talented but not-easy-to-win-with star from his first year in Miami.
It's looking -- for the moment, and in stark contrast to his current situation -- like he needs the boundaries and tough-love guidelines Pat Riley and the Heat foisted upon him.
Five years ago, LeBron's great talent, his love for the game and his Mensa-level basketball IQ weren't enough when in competition with his own personal demons. Those same demons seem to have been recalled in Cleveland, where too much freedom, too much power, too much control, too much pressure and a truly genuine burning desire to bring that part of America a championship have turned LeBron back into his lesser self.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. So maybe LeBron, like all of us, really should be careful what we ask for.
None of this means LeBron is a bad person, a bad teammate, a terrible talent or a loser. But being great -- great -- like Jordan or Ali or Owens (or, ahem, Curry) is about beating back all comers, yourself included. First and foremost yourself, at least the parts that can hold anyone back.
Being a human being for those of us who, unlike LeBron, lead normal lives is hard enough. So I can't imagine how much harder it is to hold on to that sense of perspective, restraint and self-awareness for those inundated with greatness, money, fame, scrutiny, sycophants, the hopes and dreams of a place you're from, and all that comes with being one of earth's most important people.
But I've seen this before. LeBron struggled that first year in Miami because, when it became too much, he lashed out. At the world. At the little people and their little lives. At some of his teammates. At Erik Spoelstra, his coach. In the end, it cost everyone, most importantly himself.
Steph Curry might be the best player on earth right now, but LeBron is on another level: His talent, his burgeoning legacy, his transcendent fame, his Hollywood turn and his unrivaled power as not just player but pseudo GM, agent, marketing specialist and Q-rating machine -- all of it means LeBron's self-inflicted drama matters. His tweets toward Kyrie. His coach getting fired. The leaks he might just leave. It's all part of a pattern that in the context of his place in the game and his own past and history add up to a very troubling turn.
The biggest threat to LeBron's pursuit of greatness, glory and a championship for Cleveland is not the Warriors, not the Spurs, not the supposedly mediocre coaches or unreliable players surrounding him.
The East is open. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, good as they are, do not glint with a championship sheen. And last year's Finals show a Chosen One can rise to unheard of heights in pursuit of a ring.
It's the thing each of us faces every day when we wake up that threatens the most: That face, LeBron, staring back at you in the mirror.