Goodwill: Fans must accept players' career moves

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — It's an age-old question that has been ignored in sports, particularly in the NBA where one player can hold so much sway over a franchise's fortunes.

And LeBron James, Greg Monroe and the exiled Josh Smith sit at various corners of it — the prospect of player control versus team control.

Why so much scorn and derision for players choosing their own path compared to teams doing what's best for themselves?

James, as usual, is at the heart of things. He started the conversation when he left Cleveland for Miami four years ago, and continued it when he surprised the NBA world when he returned to Cleveland — a story that warmed the hearts of even the biggest cynic, borne out of the feeling James unfairly left the Cavaliers high and dry as a free agent in 2011.

Never mind that James likely wasn't going to win a championship with that coaching, personnel and management; the burden of winning fell on his shoulders and his alone.

Taking his talents to the Heat organization introduced him to a new way of doing things, a more efficient and streamlined experience, filled with talent on the floor, innovation on the sidelines and wisdom, if not arrogance, in the front office.

Four Finals appearances and two titles later, James likely felt emboldened to impart that wisdom back in his native area — leaving the place that taught him such attributes, leading to the speculation about how Heat fans would receive James on Christmas Day.

It was a positive reception, but the question arose from the belief James would feel the wrath and anger of fans because he chose to take another path.

"The question I have that has been kind of bothering me sometimes is that when a player decides his own fate, there's always questions about why this guy did that, do that, do this," he said after the game. "But when the organization decides to go elsewhere for a player, they did what's best for the team. Figure that out some time."

James signed a short deal with the Cavaliers, to keep his flexibility for the future — and even caught flak for not signing a maximum deal as proof of his covenant with the Ohio region.

Former Piston Josh Smith probably believed he found a home in Detroit — no matter how ill-fitting it appeared on the surface when he signed a four-year, $50 million-plus deal some 18 months ago.

He exercised the power he had at the time, because soon enough, as we saw a few days ago, the Pistons exercised their power when they essentially banished him to parts unknown, cutting him and telling him to go away.

Although they tried to put a little lipstick on it, with niceties in the press and such, they didn't want Smith — their right.

"It's tough in this league," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said Thursday. "When a player makes a decision and however you make it, it's always backlash. But when an organization makes it, it's the right thing for the organization to do and it's fine. Josh Smith just got cut, it was the right decision for the Pistons to do and it's fine. It's fine, but LeBron James or players make decisions in free agency then it becomes a different situation."

That contrast hasn't gone unnoticed by Pistons forward Greg Monroe, an unrestricted free-agent-to-be next summer, as he had to go through his own backlash for not signing a long-term deal with the Pistons.

Twitter mentions and newspaper comment sections were filled with criticism, questioning the merits of Monroe turning down a $50 million-plus deal.

"Fans, they want what they think is best for their team, whomever they support," Monroe said. "And players are gonna do what they think is best for them. Of course some people may soak it and build it up more than what it is, at the end of the day, if that fan is making a career move, he won't come ask me what I think."

With his years of service — and let's be honest, some of the crazy things that have likely crossed his eyesight in Detroit — Monroe has earned the freedom to make his own choices.

"They can't expect us — as much as we love them, this is still our life, our job and we have to make the best decision for us," Monroe said.

Of course, James and Monroe are two different characters with different goals and expectations. But if Monroe leaves the Pistons next summer for a better situation — and it still appears likely that he'll do just that — he knows there will be some angry fans, but would they be just as angry as if he were sent away?

"It's always different when the athletes choose to use their power," Monroe said. "In certain situations the team can choose a certain power and nobody (questions it). They think a team made a move. When a player chooses to use that same power, it's some issues and that's what I don't understand."

And if he leaves, nobody should say a word.