Last July I wrote a lengthy post about LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat. What followed was a frenzied season of basketball that saw the Heat become enemy #1 in the basketball world as they painted a bullseye on their own backs and got every team’s best night in and night out along with an insane amount of media scrutiny. But the important thing to remember is that they did it to themselves. And last night they lost out on their first chance to silence their critics. Everything that has transpired since The Decision has led me to believe that LeBron James is not the player we thought he was nor the player we wanted him to be.
As I said in that previous post, fans always want to believe that the players they are witnessing in the present are the greatest to ever play the game. We want to see someone assume the mantle of best player alive and then strive for a chance to be mentioned in the conversation for greatest of all time. And LeBron was supposed to be that guy. Heck, he was being groomed for it since he was a teenager. But somewhere along the line, something has gone terribly wrong. His career is taking a different path than what he and everyone who anointed him way back when envisioned.
I have no qualms in saying that I think LeBron is the most physically impressive athlete to ever lace up a pair of sneakers and play basketball. He is a physical specimen. His blend of size, power, and speed are wholly unique. He is a gifted player who has worked hard to get where he is. He is an unselfish player on the court. He can see and do things on the court that most people only dream of. He still has plenty of more opportunities to win himself a championship and enter into the discussion of being an all-time great. But…
We’ve seen LeBron for 8 seasons now. And it still does not feel like he has reached his potential as a player. He shows glimpses occasionally. Any NBA fan will remember his “49 Special” performance against the Pistons in a playoff game. He’s won multiple MVP awards. He is just entering into his prime years as an athlete. But for every glimpse of greatness and every accolade he has achieved, they have been mirrored by perplexing moments and frustrations.
At times, especially during the playoffs, he has had moments where he looks like he has checked out or had some kind of mental block that is hampering his game. He defers to his other teammates. He disappears on the court. In Game 5 he had a triple double, but it had hardly no impact on the game. The head questions came up during last year’s matchup with the Celtics when it looked like LeBron checked out in that series too. Last night he scored 9 quick points in the opening couple of minutes of the game and then only managed 12 point the rest of the game. Whenever is going on in his head , he’s got to get it figured out and put it behind him. He has to be locked in for every playoff game. Even as I’m writing this, I’m watching ESPN breakdowns of the game that show LeBron just standing still or drifting toward halfcourt when the defense is collapsing on a penetrating teammate who needs to kick the ball out. Too often in this series against Dallas, LeBron was a stationary player, not an aggressive one looking to impose himself. That is a problem if you’re the most physically imposing player in the game.
And that is the frustrating thing about LeBron. He can be an unstoppable player if he so chooses. When he gets a head of steam and drives toward the rim, he is nearly impossible to stop without fouling. And even then, he can often fight through a foul and get a lay-up and a 3-pt. opportunity because he is just so strong. However, in the 8 years in which LeBron has been in the league, his game has not evolved as much as it could. And too often he is content to meander around the 3-pt. line instead of being attacking constantly, because he is essentially unstoppable when he attacks the basket. But LeBron absolutely needs to develop an effective low-post game. There were a few instances in Game 6 when he got the ball in the post with mixed results.
On one possession he had a beautiful spin move on Marion for a basket. On a second possession he was guarded by the diminutive J.J. Barea and got called for an offensive foul when he shoved him away with his forearm. On a third play, he had a nice spin but an awful bank shot that didn’t even hit the rim. There is no excuse for why LeBron has no developed a post game yet. He is not a dependable outside shooter. The best defense against LeBron is to guard his dribble penetration and make him settle for jumpshots and the deeper the better. One of the big reasons the Heat beat the Celtics and the Bulls, aside from Wade dislocating Rondo’s elbow, was that LeBron and Wade were hitting their outside shots at a better than average clip, which disappeared during the Finals.
Why would LeBron dedicating himself to a post game improve his game and make his team better? It would put him closer to the basket, allowing him to take higher percentage shots instead of the 3s and long jumpers he puts up that are not his strong points. His physical strength would allow him to back his man down if he’s guarded by someone smaller than him or to get past someone bigger than him. Also, because he is such a gifted passer, he can effectively pass out of potential double teams, passing to a teammate who has a matchup to exploit. There are a multitude of options for him down there to explore. Also, it opens up the driving of Wade to the basket. As dynamic a player both James and Wade are, their offensive games are a little too similar to one another right now, as attacking the basket is both of their strongest suits and their perimeter game is shaky. LeBron James in the post would make his game and his team’s offense more diversified and dynamic. And it’s not that he needs to do it all the time, either, but it should be a far bigger part of his overall game than it currently is.
One other area he needs to work on is his decision-making and sense for the moment. As I said, he is a gifted passer and almost always will make what is technically the right basketball play. He will pass up his own shot if a teammate has a better shot. But the great thing about sports is that sometimes the “right” play is not what is required. Sometimes “right” is wrong for that moment in time. Sometimes what is required of a star player like LeBron James is to take the ball and drive to the hoop or create a shot for himself instead of swinging it along the perimeter or dumping it down to Juwan Howard.
That is what makes sports, and especially basketball, such a great game, the constantly shifting dynamic between an individual performance and a team performance. And the balance for that is always shifting. Sometimes a basketball game requires a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant to be a bit more selfish with the ball and dominate a game; other times it requires them to sublimate their talents for the greater good (“The greater good…”) of the team and get others involved. LeBron hasn’t reached a point in his career where he knows when that is required of him in the biggest moments most of the time. There are glimpses of it, like the “49 Special” or his epic Game 7 matchup with Paul Pierce in 2008. But then there are moments like in Game 6 of this Finals where his team is trailing in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter and they need him to step up and deliver and instead he passes the ball and becomes just another guy; Clark Kent when his team needs him to step into the phone booth and be Superman.
This is the thing that is so maddening and sad about LeBron James right now. And part of the problem is that LeBron is seemingly immune to the constructive criticism of his game. For over a decade now, he has been surrounded by people who have kissed up to him and told him everything he wants to hear. His inner circle is a bunch of Yes Men. Since he was probably a sophomore in high school he has not really had to be held accountable to anyone on the basketball court. Nobody has confronted him about the shortcomings in his game or called him out on anything. That’s part of the reason it was so shocking to see Wade yelling at him in Game 4. I think that is part of the reason why it seems like LeBron gets the mental yipes on the biggest stages.
I also think that another potential factor in that is that he went straight from high school to the NBA, and he was part of the last draft class to be able to do that. I think if you look at the successes and failures of the players from the mid-90s to the early-00s who went straight from high school to the NBA you will see that there is something missing from their games. The most successful of the bunch is, easily, Kobe Bryant. And as great as Kobe is, there are deficiencies to his game; it took him a long time to figure out that he couldn’t be so selfish with the ball and just be gunning for his out there night after night, and even now on the downside of his career, he still doesn’t always get it.
There is something to be said about players getting experience by playing college basketball. The best thing the NBA ever did was to eliminate the ability of high school players to jump straight to the pros. It prepares a player in multiple ways. It prepares them for playing on a bigger stage than their high school gymnasium. It gives them more practice on the game than if they were rookies in the NBA where practices are infrequent because of the schedule. It allows them to work on their fundamentals and progress at a more normal rate than just being thrown into the deep end of the NBA and the publicity that surrounds the league. Think about what just one year of college could have done for LeBron. Was he NBA-ready at 18? Yes. But just think about 1 year in college could have done for him in the long-term instead of 1 year of pro basketball. You don’t think he would have benefitted from a year of picking the brain of Coach K (I assume he would have gone to Duke since he is a frontrunner who roots for the Yankees)? You don’t think he would have benefitted from a college coach yelling at him and instructing him and teaching him instead of everyone anointing him as the King?
The post-game press conference after Game 6 spoke volumes about where LeBron is right now as a player. Instead of being distraught he appeared defiant, lashing out at people critical of his game and those who wanted to see him fail. He doesn’t get it. The people around him don’t get it. And until he does get it, he’s going to continue to run into a brick wall instead of leaping over it. The important thing is that it’s not just his potential and his game that is the “it” that he’s not getting right now. It’s his critics and the media. He doesn’t understand why seemingly everyone turned on him. It’s not because they want to see him fail, at least not everybody.
I am critical of him and rooting against what he is doing right now because I feel like, having taken his talents to South Beach, he is wasting them or not maximizing them. As a fan of sports, I want to see greatness. I don’t want to see it stall and falter when it could be easily remedied. Fans want to root for LeBron James. We want to see him become the player he is capable of and harness his powers. We don’t want to see him teaming up and deferring to Dwyane Wade, we want to see him vanquish Dwyane Wade and others on his path to greatness. We want to see him imposing his will on both ends of court and taking command of crunch time, not deferring to someone else, passing the ball like it’s a hot potato, and wanting no part of the moment. And based on what we’ve seen so far and based on his attitude, it’s fair to wonder if that will ever happen, or if he even wants it. He defiance makes it seem like he’s content to do things his way and not really improve. Needless to say, his career is at a crossroads. I want to see him take the right path. I just hope he has it in him to do so.
Regardless of where he goes from here, this season has done permanent damage to his legacy. The greatest players do not come up small on the biggest stage, and that is what happened to LeBron in these Finals. His rebounding and assist numbers may have been in line with his career numbers, but his scoring was way down. And not just his scoring, but important, tell-tale indicators of how he scored, were down too. His 4th quarter scoring and free throw attempts were drastically lower than they should have been.
Whether he ends up putting it all together within the next few years or never remains to be seen. And how we remember LeBron James will not be defined only by what happened in the 2011 Finals. I will remember his hellacious dunks, his memorable performances, how he shrunk the court with his speed, his chase-down blocks from behind, his ability to drive to the basket like a hard-charging bull, and his skillful passing. But beside those memories I’ll also have The Decision, The Welcome Party, Fan Up (surprisingly, not to be found online anywhere), his disappearing acts two years in a row, deferring to D-Wade, and being called out on the court by D-Wade. How much of damage these instances inflict on his legacy is still to be determined. It could end up being a small blemish or a gaping plot hole that undermines everything else. The whole story has not been written, but the main character stands looking at a sign and he must choose his own adventure.
And so, a season after The Decision comes an even more important, and far less publicized, decision to be made.