Before I describe my own opinions of LeBron James let me start by saying this: his “decision” last offseason was correct. He could not have continued to play in Cleveland and expected to win a championship while surrounded by former D-leaguers and One-Time All-Stars. His GM could never help him out enough, and unfortunately for the Cavaliers, no superstar wants to live and play in a state where the marketing opportunities are lackluster at best and the winter weather is subject to the lake effect.
LeBron jumped at the opportunity, as most of us would, to create a Big 3 in Miami that not only gave him the best chance to win a ring, but also provided him with the warmest weather and the opportunity to collect his paychecks tax-free. It was his cocky attitude and off-the court antics that irked sports fans everywhere and positioned him as the NBA’s most hated villain.
“The Decision” was a complete and utter disaster that will go down in sports history as one of the most infamous PR moves ever. When in Cleveland, LeBron was a fan favorite of anyone who watched the NBA, and generated the positive interest of casual fans (myself included) to a game that desperately needed it. I have been racking my brain trying to think of an analogy to how awful it must feel to be a Cleveland fan during this time, but I do not think any comparison explains it well enough. The closest I could come up with for Villanova fans would be if Scottie Reynolds held a press conference after his junior year where we all thought he was going to announce that he would return for his senior season and skip the NBA draft, only instead he announced that he would transfer to Syracuse. Even if he led them to the title game alongside Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins I think we would get over it before Cleveland will ever get over LeBron.
I went into this year’s NBA Finals rooting hard for the Mavericks to beat the Heat for a lot of reasons. I was hoping Karma would prevail for Cleveland’s sake; I wanted validation that my thoughts about LeBron never being as good as MJ were correct; I wanted to see that hard works trumps sports collusion (see: Dan Gilbert’s Tweet). But most of all, I wanted to see LeBron James fail and fail miserably for stabbing the city that embraced him, immortalized him, and treated him like a god in the heart in front of a nationally televised audience.
Now that all of my hopes and wants about the NBA Finals have come true, however, I am left with an unsettling mix of joy for the karma “The King” is receiving and major disappointment for the realization that maybe LeBron is not what he appeared destined to be. He looked like a sure thing top 5 or 10 player in NBA history, and he very well still could become that type of player, but after 8 years in the league James appears to lack the killer instinct of the Kobe Bryant’s and the Michael Jordan’s and the Dwyane Wade’s that turns great players into legends.
There are two ways pressure affects athletes in sports. The first way is physical: your shots are horribly off the mark, you dribble off your own feet, you throw the ball out of bounds, you miss free throws, your palms sweat, your breathing quickens, and your heart beats so fast that you feel as if it could explode out of your chest at any moment. The second way is mental: you lack confidence in your own skills, you lose the mental edges that you may have had previously, fear takes over, you are afraid to shoot, afraid to possess the ball, and terrified to make mistakes; you appear to play timid and disinterested and would rather someone else take chances rather than yourself.
I think it goes without saying that LeBron James suffered from the latter in this year’s finals. We all watched him hide out in the fourth quarter of every close game as guys like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller took more fourth quarter shots than he did. I am not a huge fan of all of the newfangled stats that that exist today, but I think one of them really summed up this series. In “Crunch Time” (score within five points in the last five minutes of the game) LeBron was 0 for 7 with 0 points. Digest that for a second. In close situations when his team needed him the most the most talented player on the floor had 0 points. In the five games where this stat applied he took only 1.4 shots per game!
At 6 foot 8 inches and 250 pounds, and with the quickness and ball skills that James has, there is not a single defender in the league who should be able to consistently shut him down. Nobody in the NBA has his combination of height, strength, and speed; he should post up and shoot over guards and blow past bigger defenders off the dribble. Yet for six straight games in the NBA Finals we watched LeBron choose not to, even as guys like 38 year-old Jason Kidd defended him.
I cannot help but feel robbed. “The King” was supposed to be a once in a generation type of player. He was supposed to take over for Kobe and supplant MJ as the greatest player ever. He was supposed to win multiple championships with his clutch scoring and near perfect decision-making ability. We all watched in awe as he scored 25 points in a row and 29 of 30 against the Pistons in ’07. That was supposed to be his coming out party. It was supposed to be the moment that we knew LeBron really was “The King” of the NBA.
But ‘supposed to’ only gets you so far in life; eventually you have to execute. Last year when LeBron tanked it against the Celtics in Game 5 I thought it was because he was more worried about the 2010-2011 season than he was about 2009-2010. Now I realize that maybe he just cannot handle the pressure of true championship expectations. I am sure that he realized that last year was his final chance to bring a title to Cleveland even before the season ended, and that pressure must have been enormous.
Fast forward to this year’s Heat team. As if the pressure of bringing together three superstars (or two and a half, depending on how much respect you have for Chris Bosh) was not enough, LeBron added fuel to the fire by uttering this classic speech. The only problem is, before the games “are easy” and you win multiple championships you have to win one. And before you can win one championship you have to be able to handle the pressure of competing in a highly competitive NBA Finals against a team that is just as hungry as yours is.
Unfortunately for LeBron this situation is going to get worse before it will get better. He is going to get shredded by the media all offseason, which, thanks to a probable lockout, will likely be extended. All of the fans and analysts will question his mental toughness and his ability to handle pressure as he sits back and tells us he ‘just had a bad series,’ or ‘everyone’s human, I make mistakes too’ or ‘credit to the Mavs, they shut me down,’ as the doubt inside of him begins to grow. Then next season will start and he will have a typical LeBron year of 27/7/7, which will quiet the murmurs until the playoffs start and the criticism starts back up again, this time even louder than ever.
I still do not know if I will ever root for LeBron to win in Miami, but after watching this year’s finals I have realized that I want him to, at the least, go down swinging. After all of the hype we deserve to see LeBron play up to his potential when it matters most. We have all “witnessed” the cockiness, and the increased expectations, and the ‘supposed to’s.’ It’s about time we witnessed the most gifted player in the league play like the legend he can be, and not the crunch time disappointment he has been.
Only time will tell if LeBron will go down as one of the top 10 players in NBA history; he is, after all, only 26 years old and has plenty of basketball life left. But after all of his experience, including this year’s enormously disappointing finals appearance in Miami, the pressure will continue to grow every single season until the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy is within his grasp. And after watching LeBron perform under stress in this series, none of us can guess when, or if, that day will ever come.