By Matt Citak

Last week, the NBA world was set ablaze when ESPN reported that LeBron James would meet with the Golden State Warriors this summer, if they cleared the salary-cap space to sign him. This assumes he opts out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers and becomes a free agent.

The report cited anonymous league sources, and did not include any thoughts or quotes from James himself. James and his camp vehemently denied leaking the information, and it is believed to have possibly come from the Warriors side as they plan to pursue the four-time league MVP.

Yet despite the league’s biggest star flat-out rejecting the possibility joining the Warriors, it did not stop seemingly everybody from jumping on the “LeBron Hate Train.”

“If you even think about going to the Golden State Warriors, your legacy is tarnished forever!” shouted ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. “There is no other way around it.”

Smith was hardly the only person to attack James, as NBA Twitter exploded with the release of this story. Fans from all across the country were quick to label James as everything from “weak” to a “coward.”

But at the end of the day, it’s absolutely ridiculous to start criticizing the 14-time All-Star for his possible free agency this summer while it’s still early February.

With the way Cleveland has been playing over the last six weeks, the only thing on LeBron’s mind right now is getting the Cavaliers back on track, so they can make their fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. After last summer’s drama involving Kyrie Irving, James’s biggest nightmare would be to see his former teammate lead his new team to the NBA Finals while he and the Cavs watch on television.

And if you think James has anything else on his mind at the moment, you clearly haven’t followed the superstar’s career too closely.

The Akron, Ohio native prides himself on his professionalism and on-court success. Yes, “The Decision” was a big mistake by James, and one that led to much of the hatred that is still directed towards him today. But the 33-year-old seemed to learn from his mistake, as his decision to return to Cleveland a few years ago was announced via an article published on Sports Illustrated. Since then, James has led the Cavaliers to three consecutive NBA Finals, and won the team’s first championship in franchise history.

Even after last night’s demoralizing loss to the Orlando Magic, in which Cleveland blew a 21-point lead, James expressed his full commitment to the Cavaliers, sharing his desire to finish out the season with his teammates and get the team back to its winning ways. The team had just suffered possibly its worst loss of the season, yet immediately after the game, James told the media he would not waive his no-trade clause, and that he is “here for the long haul.”

If we believed every rumor involving LeBron’s free agency this summer, then the superstar would be joining the Warriors, the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the New York Knicks. Even someone this talented can’t play for six teams at once.

I get that it’s easy to hate on LeBron James. He has taken his team to the NBA Finals in seven consecutive seasons. His decision to form “The Big Three” in Miami started the super-team frenzy around the league. And, frankly, his ego is rather large.

But let’s not forget that, whether or not you like James, he is the greatest basketball player of this century. Forget the “LeBron vs. Jordan” debate. Since he took the floor for the first time back in 2003, LeBron has displayed true greatness on a nightly basis. And when you are that talented and have that much of an impact on the court, people will always speculate on your next move.

We have no idea what the future of LeBron James holds, because, honestly, the man himself probably does not know. A lot can change between now and July. If the offseason comes around, and James does decide to sit down with the Warriors, then I will be the first person to criticize him.

But until that actually happens, let’s give the man the benefit of the doubt. Put your pitchforks back in the closet for a few more months. Let’s see what James can do to turn around this struggling Cavs team before we start criticizing him about free agency. As the youngest player to ever reach 30,000 career points, and the greatest player of this generation, he deserves at least that much.

Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter here.

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