LeBron James still stands tall as the NBA’s best
Kwame Wilson @hnw_kwarmz
Now that the NBA owners and players have finally decided to split the many millions they earn each season more fairly, the fans who line their deep pockets will get to see their basketball heroes in action when the lockout-shortened season starts in earnest on Christmas Day.
The anger that built up from hoops supporters worldwide might still linger for a good while, however the fevered anticipation of seeing the cream of the hard-court crop hitting the floor each night is palpable.
During the last close season, though, all the talk revolved the biggest name of all: LeBron James.
James’ controversial and spectacularly announced The Decision televised move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat last summer brought the two-time MVP many more detractors and sworn enemies, but regardless of his ego, there are many in the game that believe his talent deserves an NBA title and that includes me.
The fact that James and his two high-profile Heat team-mates, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, came up short in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and the NBA’s best ever foreign import in Dirk Nowitzki, proved a karmic boost for James’ vociferous detractors.
The title of this article stems from the rather unflattering name given to him by the founder, treasury member and non-executive chairman of the LeBron James Hate Club, ESPN’s analyst, Skip Bayless, and, unfortunately, it is somewhat true.
James came into the NBA straight out of high school, his games televised nationally in America, and he graced the front covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated and SLAM. Not only that, he also signed a reported $90 million shoe endorsement deal with Nike before he was even eligible to play in the NBA – a sizeable burden for a player in any sport.
However, this is also the same player that knowingly accepted the King James nickname. The same man who, maybe under his management’s advice or the encouragement of the Nike head honchos, was only too happy to be marketed as the second coming of Michael Jordan, American sports royalty and the greatest basketball player that ever lived.
The biggest criticism of James is that he has failed to win any championship rings, something that echoes louder following Miami’s agonising loss to Dallas. San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan, arguably the best ever in his position, has four and a certain Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard by the name of Kobe Bryant has five.
American sports are unlike others, in that there is one title/championship to compete for, usually titled ‘world’ despite only being contested in North America. In America, there is a strong sense of sporting excellence and the quest to be the best in any capacity, whether it be at state, regional or national level.
In American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey, high school and collegiate athletes already have to deal with excessive coverage and the pressure of playing in large, rabid arenas up and down the country pitted against the very best in that particular sport. One school of reason thinks this same attitude leads to the USA sitting atop the medal tables for the Olympic Games and the World Athletics Championships regularly.
Professional football players can play in different leagues around the world, competing in several different tournaments, while amateurs in sports such as golf can pit their wits against the world’s very best in top tournaments, allowing the opportunity for an upset of massive proportions.
In professional men’s basketball in North America, though, the NBA is the be-all and end-all. No domestic and continental cup competitions, no euphoria or dismay at being promoted or relegated, just the (usual) 82 games, 30 teams and one glittering title to target.
James is used to pressure. In fact he has become more than accustomed to living under the microscope since the age of 15 as the illuminating 2009 documentary film ‘More Than A Game’ highlights. Unsurprisingly, LeBron was the one always touted for stardom, such was his dominance over his peers in all levels of basketball that he competed in.
Despite this he has been labelled as a ‘choker’, someone who cannot function when the pressure is truly on. There was the 2007 NBA Finals against the Spurs when the Cavs, making their first ever NBA Finals appearance, were unceremoniously swept aside in four straight games and James was nowhere to be seen.
Then there was his last game in a Cleveland uniform, the Eastern Conference semi-final defeat to the hard-edged Boston Celtics. Many fans and the previously soft-spoken GM Dan Gilbert believe LeBron had already made his mind up he was leaving the team and couldn’t put his contract negotiations to one side in his mind in an average end to his Cavaliers career.
Which, obviously, spelled more playoff heartache for the Cavs as they needed LeBron to be great on many occasions, one could say too many occasions, during their ascent from laughing stock to annual contenders.
However, the staunchest of LeBron die-hards cannot offer an excuse to explain his truly shocking performance in game four of the Finals series against the Mavericks. Despite flirting with a triple-double on the back of seven assists, nine rebounds and eight points, he was for 3-11 for shooting and did not score a single basket in the fourth quarter.
His capacity to take ill-advised and contested shots, another James flaw, could be seen in game two, when a fourth-quarter meltdown stopped the Heat from claiming a 2-0 lead. They were leading 88- 73 with 7:15 remaining, and with Dallas rapidly gaining ground, James twice launched and missed two contested three-pointers. The two wasted possessions gave Dallas even more momentum, resulting in a win on the road for the Mavs which tied up the series at 1-1.
This was part of the reason for his astonishing game four performance, LeBron fleeing into deep pockets of the court and not calling for the ball. To see a basketball great ignoring all his responsibilities and almost seeming to lose faith in his ability was a truly incredible spectacle.
For LeBron James not to shoot in the entire fourth quarter is like Wayne Rooney choosing to pass sideways within sight of goal instead of bearing down on the keeper with United trailing.
Tellingly during Miami’s post-season, LBJ was the Heat’s star player, stealing the show in game four of the Eastern Conference semi-finals with 35 points, including sinking a tough three-pointer right in front of a baying Celtics bench. During game five, with the score tied 87-87 and just over two minutes remaining, James scored the game’s final 10 points, registering two more three-pointers over long-time nemesis Paul Pierce.
Against the East’s best team in the regular season, LeBron offensively was the go-to-guy for the Big Three but more impressively and perhaps importantly, he performed lockout defence on the Bulls’ MVP point guard, Derrick Rose, causing Rose to be largely ineffective. Sadly for him, Heat fans and his own supporters the Finals arrived and James faded.
Wade, who already has an NBA title to his name, took the control of the scoring reins and, despite being 2-1 up, Miami were powerless to stop Dallas claiming their first NBA title for their exuberant owner Mark Cuban.
Taking this on board, James is now vilified because of The Decision, and in this day and age where old couch potatoes are now self-important Twitter analysts, adding a hashtag to someone’s name can quickly paint a picture of a widespread view that is reflective of the whole basketball nation, rather than a few members of the Twitterazi who are after a retweet or attracting new followers.
Many times, such noise is made of James as a celebrity that people tend to overlook what he is primarily – a basketball player and a very good one at that. It is only right to prove detractors wrong by providing statistics and accolades to throw weight behind the argument that LeBron is not only the greatest player today but the best since Jordan.
LeBron James is a seven-time All-Star, three-time member of the NBA Defensive First Team, and, on the offensive end, is part of a select group of eight elite NBA players to score 2,000 points in seven consecutive seasons. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan are also members of this exclusive scoring club, with James the only player in NBA history to register at least 2000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 100 steals in four straight seasons, highlighting his unique multi-faceted game.
He also is the first player since Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, to record a triple-double in his play-off debut and the youngest player to score 40 points in a game at the tender age of 19.
Love him or hate him, LeBron James is the best basketball player in the NBA and he has been for some time. Rose and Bryant loyalists will now start clearing their throats, but honestly they need not bother. James’s official position is as a small forward, often referred to as the three (out of the five positions).
Small forwards are expected to score highly, be an active rebounder and to distribute the ball well. They are expected to be smaller and leaner than power forwards (the four) and versatile in the two (shooting guard) and four positions. In his first year for the Heat, LeBron regularly spent time playing in all five positions, such is the magnitude of his talents.
James is often thought of as a great dunker, an athlete and high scorer. Not enough attention is paid to his great point guard-like court vision, decent three-point range shooting ability, which has been steadily improving over the years, and also his leadership skills on and off the court.
The Cavaliers imploded last year without him, finishing top (two years running) of the Eastern Conference with LBJ and finishing bottom of the same Conference, after he left.
Last season was met with giddy expectation to see how the Big Three would fare with James, Wade and Bosh vilified for taking the easy option and forming a super team overnight in the hunt for ‘multiple championships’. Admittedly this was said at a Championship Parade like showcase of the three wearing their Heat uniforms before a game, let alone a championship, had been won.
This rankled many fans and ‘purists’ who were only too happy to see the Boston Celtics’ Big Four (Rajan Rondo, Ray Allen, Pierce and Kevin Garnett) easily swat away the South Beach Big Three in the first game of the season.
Fast forward to the NBA Finals against Dallas where, after many teething problems, shock defeats, late-game collapses and many hit-and-miss episodes of LeBron trying to be the Heat’s closer, or even clutch shooter, the Heat were there.
After impressively disposing of the Celtics (in a series where Wade and James especially overcame some playoff nightmares inflicted by the C’s in the past) and the Rose-fuelled Chicago Bulls, they were to meet the plucky veteran Mavericks in the Finals.
As a basketball fan, first and foremost, the fact Nowitzki and Jason Kidd will not retire without rings is very pleasing, but one can argue LeBron needed this win much more than the seasoned vets.
ESPN’S Stephen A Smith quipped: “If you don’t get it now (the championship), it’s going to be that much harder to get it down the road.” He makes a fair point with young talented teams on the up and up like Oklahoma City Thunder and the Bulls, as well as stalwarts like the Lakers and Celtics, the chance for Miami to plot a successful path to the Larry O’Brien Trophy may never be as smooth again.
You don’t have to love him, but there are many reasons why basketball fans and even non basketball fans can dislike or even claim to ‘hate’ James.
Bigger than anything , there was The Decision. In terms of PR, professional reasons and just basic human decency, the hour-long ESPN special would have only worked in his favour had he pledged his future once again to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Or if not, at least he should have told them beforehand and the excitement would have been about where he would be going rather than whether he was staying or not. Add in the fact that he said “South Beach” like he was going there not to ply his trade, but for a well-paid holiday with some famous friends from his draft class of 2004, and you can see why the tide turned against him.
Sharing records with true greats such as Jordan, Magic and Larry Bird show that James is truly a world-class player, especially when you consider the attention and media coverage he has garnered over the past decade and the fact he never played collegiate basketball. College basketball is the blossoming period where future pros can receive excellent coaching and refine their game one last time before they enter the NBA.
Every true basketball fan should recognise James’ talent and also enjoy him at him best, just for the spectacle, whether it be for superb perimeter shooting, great passing, solid defence or yet another high-octane dunk.
James splits opinions like Cristiano Ronaldo in football and Floyd Mayweather Jr in boxing, but an ego or personality should not get in the way of a recognising a truly world-class athlete, which is precisely what James, Ronaldo and Mayweather are.
Because of The Decision, he does not deserve to go ringless throughout his whole career. He deserves a ring one for being one of the greatest, most athletic and charismatic players the NBA has ever seen. One day, perhaps, King James will finally be crowned.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s Dirk Nowitzki feature “Evolution of a Big Man”