Should this fragile finals edge (up 2-1) hold, and should LeBron James win his first championship with the Heat (Let’s not count eggs yet. Chokers usually have the lead before gagging commences.) we are certain to see stories detailing how some sort of change in LeBron’s attitude or psychology enabled him to finally secure that elusive gold trophy.
Let’s be real, though. LeBron James is an incredible, singular basketball player, and he has been since he entered the league out of high school in 2003. Just for fun, I looked up chapters about him in two great, fairly recent basketball books.
This is what Bill Simmons wrote about LeBron in “The Book of Basketball” (this was taken from an article Simmons put online in 2009. “Doc” is Julius Erving):
I figured out LeBron’s ceiling. At least for now. At age twenty-four, he’s a cross between ABA Doc (unstoppable in the open court, breathtaking in traffic, can galvanize teammates and crowds with one “wow” play, handles himself gracefully on and off the court) and 1992 Scottie Pippen (the freaky athletic ability on both ends, especially when he’s cutting pass lines or flying in from the weak side for a block), with a little MJ (his overcompetitiveness and “there’s no way we’re losing this game” gear), Magic (the unselfishness, which isn’t where I thought it would be back in 2003, but at least it’s there a little) and Bo (how he occasionally overpowers opponents in way that doesn’t seem fully human) mixed in… only if that Molotov NBA superstar cocktail was mixed together in Karl Malone’s 275-pound body. This is crazy. This is insane. This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
In “The Art of the Beautiful Game,” Chris Ballard goes into deep detail about LeBron’s physicality. The rest of the NBA is in awe of his athleticism. He can cover the length of the court in fewer strides than other players, and when he drives to the hoop he hits like an NFL linebacker, often leaving defenders genuinely hurting. This section on his defense, in particular, is really interesting:
Draw a circle of, say, six feet around most players, and that is how much space they can patrol – call it their defensive radius. For James, make your circle almost twice as big. “He can be all the way in the lane on that skip pass and still close out [on the wing on the shooter],” said Cavs assistant Mike Malone. “And it’s not a guy like me closing out; it’s ‘Holy shit, this is a big guy coming at you.'”
… In essence, James has become the coolest toy any defense-inclined coach could imagine – long, powerful, fast and smart.
My fiance and I teamed up with my parents (Happy anniversary!) to win last night’s Geeks Who Drink pub quiz at El Farol. (Mondays at 7. Always a great time.) The team name I made up was “Bend the Knee to King LeBron.” My mom’s from Ohio, and she was furious for about an hour. The quizmaster, who asks the questions and keeps score, is also from Ohio. She hated the name too, and told me as we were getting our prizes (free tapas!) that LeBron’s a puss for bailing on Cleveland. Jordan wouldn’t have done that, she said.
My response was “Fat Shaq.” Cleveland spent years trying to put good players around LeBron, and it was a sad failure. LeBron may have failed to clinch big games as a Cavalier, but he can’t score 100 points by himself. Remember the teammates he was given to win with? You think a title is possible when Larry Hughes is your second best player? Larry Hughes was a brick machine in the playoffs. So was Mo Williams. Antwan Jamison tried, but was way past his prime. Wally Szczerbiak? Donyell Marshall? Without LeBron, these teams would have been some of the worst of all time. With him, they made the finals and kept leading the NBA in wins.
And Fat Shaq? That was sad. (Then he played one more year with the Celtics and things got even sadder.)
Teams win championships, not players. Jordan’s brilliance was complemented by the pieces around him, including Scotty Pippen and Phil Jackson, who’s probably the best coach I’ve ever seen in any sport. LeBron James’s transcendent ninja skills have been bolstered in these playoffs by teammates playing well. When Shane Battier hits his threes, the Heat win and LeBron is declared to have learned how to win. When Shane Battier misses his threes, the Heat lose and it’s because LeBron can’t step up when it matters.
If Miami pulls this off, don’t be swayed by the stupid, lazy narratives ESPN will cram into our eyeballs like Roy Batty’s thumbs. It will not be because LeBron is suddenly playing with more speed and power and passing and lock-down defense. It will be because he finally got high-level help.