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Friday, June 22, 2012

LeBron James, A Battle Against Greatness Begins (6.22.12)

Well, the inevitable finally arrived.

LeBron James finally won an NBA Championship.

Mark the day, "June 21, 2012, LeBron James wins first championship." Some hope that line will someday read, "first of many championships," others hope, "wins first and only championship." Either way, it's a historic day for basketball.

First of many seems more likely, but who knows how James' second half of his career will play out. He finally won a ring, but will he have that same starving drive for another? It was evident that James went to another level this postseason to become a champion. However, just one championship is not enough. James has too much talent to finish his career as a one time champion. James is stuck in a dual prism of competition; he must compete against the current era while battling the legends of the game. While dismantling Kevin Durant, James must inch toward Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, and Larry Bird. The pantheon of greatness starts at three rings, that would be Bird. O'Neal and Duncan have four. Johnson and Bryant have five. Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar have six. Russell has a ridiculous 11.

These players kept their teams at the top year after year. These guys went to the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons. These guys dominated the league for years at a time while piling up rings. Sustained greatness is what elevates a legacy. Nobody really expects James to touch Russell's ring count, but many speculate whether he can reach Jordan's six. After all, that is what everyone wants to see, right? As a perimeter player (although he should just dominate in the post), James' biggest target is Jordan. Jordan is the bar. Jordan won three straight rings, twice. James' "Not five, not six, not seven" will forever set a standard. James understands the challenge. He knows that he is challenging for the G.O.A.T. title, you know, greatest of all time.

Only five teams in NBA history have repeated as champions: the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Rockets, and Bulls. Only the greatest teams repeat as champions. The greatest teams often feature the greatest players. Although James' individual stats may eventually outweigh many of those players up in the pantheon of basketball greatness, it will be all for naught if he doesn't dominate the league by piling up rings in the second half of his career. James has been expected to provide championships for the past nine years. Now that he finally has one, that expectation is even greater.

Learning how to win, and finally winning, usually unlocks the key to greatness. Although he flamed out as a Cavalier, James' greatest failure came in the 2011 Finals. After teaming up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James no longer had an excuse for failure, and the Heat jumped to the forefront as the favorites for an NBA championship. However, James' late passive play in the Mavericks series led to just 18 total points in six fourth quarters. James shrank from the moment, and the Heat lost to the Mavericks in six games. Add in his failures against the Celtics and Magic from prior years, and it looked like James had reached the peak of failed expectations.

How much longer could it have lasted? I certainly enjoyed failure after failure, but I always knew that LeBron James had enough talent to win an NBA title. His superior athleticism, and overall talent, is what made watching him fail so mesmerizing. James is a 6'9" 250 (listed, more like 265) pound tank. He is bigger, faster, or stronger than every single person that matches up with him. Yet, for eight straight seasons, James failed to win a championship.

Eight failed seasons seems like a long time, but Jordan failed for six seasons. The difference between each narrative probably stems from marketing campaigns and the age of the Internet. In the mid to late 80's, before Jordan was synonymous with champion, Nike marketed Jordan as a high flying talent whose shoes gave him the ability to jump higher than his opponent. Jordan drank Gatorade, ate Wheaties, and his game was simplified with the line, "It's gotta be the shoes!". Avenues for criticism, such as social media, 24/7 ESPN coverage, and the blogosphere, were nonexistent. Jordan's failures could never reach the stratosphere of James' failures in the new millennium. However, Jordan wisely avoided stepping on the shoes of Bird and Magic. Jordan understood that he would have to win before he could be anointed as the best.

On the other hand, James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title, "The Chosen One" as a junior in high school. With "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back, Nike marketed James with an ethos to ego, "WE ARE ALL WITNESSES." The phrase is always capitalized, and it always ends with a period. The phase implies that James will go down as the greatest player in NBA history, and that we are "witnesses" to his greatness. Add in the fact that he entered the league carrying the nickname "King James," and rest assured, James set himself up for every criticism he has endured throughout his failures. Many scoffed at James for such proclamations of greatness at a premature stage. I certainly loved the line, "Kings have rings," whenever someone brought up James and his moniker.

However, in 2012, James finally lived up to expectation. He finished the regular season with the tenth best player efficiency ranking of all time. He turned in a memorable stretch of basketball that started against the Pacers in the second round and continued to the conclusion of the NBA Finals. The label of champion allows James to avoid becoming the first three time MVP without a championship ring. James can shake off criticism now with a sense of validation.

In 2012, James jumped to another level, a championship level. He played a phenomenal Game 6 in Boston while facing a 3-2 series deficit. His 45-point explosion saved the future of the "Big Three." His performance in that game may define the rest of his career. If the Heat had lost in Boston, the series would have ended, and someone would have been the scapegoat. James would have been widely criticized and the window for a dynasty would have slammed shut. However, James showed another level to his game. He played with a focus and intensity that he had never shown before. James burned the Celtics with isolation jumper after isolation jumper. His assassin mode scoring reminded me of Jordan and Bryant. I had never seen James play a game like that before.

In the Finals, James unleashed his post game, another level to his game that I've never seen. James routinely posted up James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Thabo Sefolosha. If the double didn't come, he scored easily by finishing at the rim or banking in a hook shot that he worked on with Hakeem Olajuwon this past summer. If the double did come, he hit the open man, and they drilled the three-pointer. With a much improved post game, James scored at least 16 points in the paint in every Finals game. He averaged 17.6 points per game in the paint versus the Thunder, much higher than his 8.7 versus the Mavericks in 2011. His post play also led to 7.2 fouls drawn per game against the Thunder, compared to just 4.0 versus the Mavericks.

James has always flourished as a multifaceted player. However, in the Finals, he used the threat of his Game 6 performance against Boston as a weapon against the Thunder. He made the Thunder double him, and if they didn't, he let them know that he would not let them off the hook. In the clinching game, James delivered his ultimate performance. He finished with his first triple double of the postseason, 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. His 13 assists led to 34 points. In the past 15 NBA Finals, only Rajon Rondo has had a bigger impact from assists (Game 2, 2008, Celtics vs Lakers, 16 assists for 37 points). For the Finals, James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game. Overall, James set up his teammates for open shots the entire series. Shane Battier nailed 57.7% of his threes to average 11.6 points per game throughout the series. Mario Chalmers turned in a memorable Game 4, with 25 points on 60% shooting, because the Thunder kept leaving him to double James. Mike Miller capped things off with a scorching performance in the final game of the series. With the Thunder continually doubling James, Miller sank 7-8 from downtown on his way to 23 points. Obviously, the threat of LeBron James set those guys up for open shots and easy buckets. James' stellar play led to him being named Finals MVP.

Although I am a staunch LeBron hater, I must admit that his performance in 2012 was a huge breakthrough in his legacy. He can no longer be regarded as the greatest athlete to never win a championship. That title shifts back to Dan Marino, or Karl Malone if you want to keep it in the NBA.

Some arguments can be made to diminish this title, but not enough to truly harm it. James did win the title in a compacted lockout season. Phil Jackson famously diminished the Spurs championship in 1999 as an "asterisk season." A truncated season may have helped an explosive athlete who is in his prime, especially in a seven game series against the Celtics, but winning is winning. In Game 4 of the Finals, James cramped up and was saved by Mario Chalmers, who scored the final five points in the final minute for the Heat. Cramps are an unbearable pain, but if the Heat had lost, James surely would have been blamed. Also, James only had two memorable clutch moments in the Finals—two free throws at the end of Game 2, and a three-pointer over Thabo Sefolosha with three minutes to go in Game 4. James never really had to face the pressure of hitting a shot with the game on the line in the final stages, but James made plays that led to other guys hitting open shots in those moments.

Many will claim that LeBron has silenced his critics with this championship. I don't believe that to be the case at all, especially with "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back. James finally accomplished a feat that he has been favored to accomplish for the past five years. If anything, the championship just elevates the conversation. I still want to see if LeBron James truly has the fortitude of an all-time great. He has always had the talent, but will he be able to transcend the sport and square off against the legends. That's what this is all about anyways. LeBron James is not competing against Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, and Carmello Anthony; LeBron James is competing against Michael, Magic, Larry, Kobe.

With five minutes remaining on the 2012 season, and the Heat comfortably blowing out the Thunder, I updated my status with this, "One. It's not five, not six, but it's finally one. Let's see how this all plays out." That is what is so intriguing about LeBron James, he just wrote a new chapter on his legacy, and it serves to start the second half of his novel. Throw out the failures of past seasons, the slate is clean. Now James can truly battle the greats. He may finish with just one ring and a bunch of individual accolades that place him in the top five players of all time. He may finish with eight rings and lay claim to the G.O.A.T title. Either way, it has all just begun.

3 comments:

  1. Lebrons individual talents are tha G.O.A.T no one matches up not even MJ...oh and did u know that MJ lost his first 3 finals appearances to the same team 3 years in a row..Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit pistons...everyone blows up MJ but not many people know that

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    1. Minor correction for you, three straight eastern conference finals.

      But yes, MJ did have to overcome some demons, similar to LeBron with Boston.

      Overall, 'Bron still has a ways to go. His all around game is strong, but he's still missing some aspects that he will continue to improve — post game, foot work, deep shooting.

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