What’s happening to LeBron?
To me, the most interesting aspect of LeBron James and his career arc centers around where to place him in the pantheon of great basketball players and more specifically, the media (and the public’s) fascination with anointing him the one and only BBall jesus, seemingly against all logical signs otherwise.
Born out of not only a need to find a suitable comparison, but out of an overwhelming desire to squash the “LeBron is more Magic than Jordan” bullshit I’ve heard spouted for years now, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time finding the most similar player there was, in terms of both physical prowess and result. Without wasting too much time on this, saying Lebron is more like Magic than MJ is like saying Sprite is more like Coke than Vodka. It’s not only goofy to compare LeBron, a physically superior athlete who lacks the Alpha Dog gene and prefers to blend in and make others happy to Magic Johnson, the sports’ most gifted passer, a supreme leader and a man who not only accepted, but thrived in the spotlight.
Really, that kind of lazy analogy bugs the shit out of me.
In lieu of something that thoughtless, what about this? What is a suitable for a man blessed of otherworldly physical gifts? A player who was simply, bigger, stronger and faster than anyone he played against, but was possessed of a fatal flaw that prohibited him from ever maximizing his potential? What about the idea that someone who was supposedly an unstoppable, dominant entity could be successfully contained with the right strategy, whereas prime Michael Jordan was virtually undefeated? That said player needed not only help to achieve his greatest glory, but was absolutely dead in the water without a teammate who possessed the seize-the-day, clutch mentality he lacked?
Allow me to expound.
Ten years into his NBA career, Lebron has the one title, and needed not only “help” to get it, he needed to align himself with one of the five best players in the NBA and essentially accept something resembling a subordinate role. Yet somehow, after years of coming up short, of putting in confoundingly subpar, almost inexplicably detached performances in some of the biggest games of his career, somehow all of that was seemingly erased in the eyes of the public following his first NBA title win over an Oklahoma City team that seemingly fell apart under the bright lights of the games’ biggest stage. After the three year run from 2009-2011 which saw James’ heavily favored teams dissected by Orlando, Boston and Dallas in three straight post-seasons, the story nevertheless was shaped to present him as the conquering hero, now set to dominate forever more.
Me, I never bought it. I’m all for career re-inventions or triumphs-of-the-human-spirit or whatever you wanna call it, but you are what your resume says you are, and Lebron’s resume says when the going got tough, he got out of the way. And wouldn’t you know it, in these NBA Finals we are seeing the return of the old, passive, content to be good but not great James, and the result is Miami being pushed to the brink of defeat by a team that, much like the 2011 Mavericks, seems to understand that the secret to beating LeBron is to use his passive, unselfish nature against him.
So as comparions go, I feel more comfortable putting LeBron on this list of flawed geniuses than next to the very greatest to ever play the game. Rather than the ultimate champions, the definitive winners, the Magic/Jordan/Russell stratosphere, he belongs on the list of guys whose talent outshone their accomplishments, whose shortcomings defined their careers every bit as much as their achievements. The Julius Erving’s of the world, who for all of his hype, all of his talent, all of his showmanship, managed only one NBA Title with a team loaded with talent. The Shaquille O’ Neal’s of the world, who as ludicrous as it may sound to label an underachiever, spent the better part of a decade being exploited for his lack of conditioning and horrendous free throw shooting until such time as he was paired with a superstar player capable of carrying him across the 4th quarter finish line in a way he was never capable of. Assuming that Miami falls short of the title here, it makes all the sense in the world to include LeBron on this list.
You know what occurred to me the other day? James forces less shots than any player of his caliber I can think of, and by a wide margin. This is not a compliment, but an indictment of a guy who seems not to know his proverbial strength on a basketball court. Shit, the current NBA is littered with significantly less talented players who have no problems hoisting with impunity, and while that is hardly a compliment to the Nate Robinson’s or J.R. Smith’s of the world. it is somewhat damning that those guys are willing to live and die with their misses and the world’s greatest player always errs on the side of deference. Trust me, if I can figure out that the best defense of James is to goad, cajole and practically beg him to put the ball in the hands of his less skilled teammates, you can bet someone like Gregg Popovich was a lock to figure it out.
That’s the long and short of what is happening in this series. San Antonio has thrown the kitchen sink at LeBron defensively, doing whatever they can to dissuade him from being aggressive and it has worked. Faced with that kind of resistance, his reaction has been to A) pass the ball and B) hoist jumpers. For all of the celebration of his penchant for sharing with teammates and making “the right play”, his affable nature is being exploited by a team smart enough to know that if they can allow him to be his swell, non-aggressive self, they will be virtually assured of beating a Miami team that lacks the offensive depth to make them pay.
This is Lebron’s flaw and where he most obviously falls short of the all-time greats, and it’s on display for the whole world to see. As of tonight, he either snaps out of his normal way of thinking and becomes the alpha male this team needs him to be, or he fails yet again and puts another nail in the coffin of his “greatest ever” candidacy.
It’s really that simple.
It’s not about shooting percentages, though his .388% mark in this series is rather abysmal. It’s not even about lack of scoring, even though his 16.7 points per game are even less than the 17.8 he managed in the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas. It’s not about being outscored by Danny Green in this series, though that is a rather unsightly reality. It’s about 6 free throws in three games. No Urgency. Letting the moment happen to you instead of seizing it, the way the greatest player on earth should. Where in 2011 Dwayne Wade was still vital enough to average 27 points a game while LeBron struggled, Wade is averaging about half of that in this series. In other words, he’s got to do it or nobody else will.
The reality of the Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s of the world is that if they are gonna go down, they are going down shooting. Starting tonight, we’ll find out if James can step out of his essential nature to get the job done, or if he’ll be forever consigned to the list of “fatal flaw” guys who, as great as they were, never did all that they could, or should have.
We’ll know soon enough.