Friday, May 4, 2012

Coming to Terms with LeBron James

While Steve and Sean are busy wrestling with fandom, advanced stats and the role of closers in the wake of Mariano Rivera's passing (kidding, he's most likely immortal), I have a few basketball related thoughts, and I have to start with a confession. I root for LeBron James.

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Fine. I root for him. Big whoop, wannafightaboutit?

This is certainly a strange confession to have to make. He's a superstar, featured in tons of commercials and obviously has legions of fans, so clearly I'm not alone in this sentiment. But I think James is a superstar in the way Two and a Half Men is the top rated show on TV or Nickelback is the country's most popular band. No one wants to admit that they're fans, and if you're serious about sports (or TV or music) you should have more discerning tastes. I not a fan ironically either, like disco music or buddy-cop movies (note: I only like one of those things. I'll leave it to you to guess which). I'm just a fan.


LeBron James epitomizes why I watch sports, why I care so much about something so fundamentally silly. On a purely athletic level, he is transcendent, maybe the greatest athlete I've ever watched, and I root for him aesthetically. I want to see LeBron James at his dynamic best because he possesses an improvisational flair for executing athletic impossibilities. I don't know what it was like to see Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson or Jim Thorpe in their primes, but James operates at their level of kinesthetic genius. In the open court, he is like Jimi on the guitar, utterly capable of anything. It's off the court that gets him in trouble (I guess that goes for Hendrix, too).

On the court, LeBron is a great teammate and facilitator, but off court he comes off as a narcissist, not a surprise considering he's been rich and just about the best in the world at his profession since about the time he was 20 (note: this entire post could be about his MLB counterpart, Alex Rodriguez, about whom I feel similarly). Unfortunately, James's attitude and Decisions off the court has changed the perception of his on-court play. When he's come up short in pressure-filled situations it simply confirmed the character defects we were looking for: James was incapable of being the man and by signing in Miami was looking for someone to hold his hand and get him to a championship. If he can make the sport so easy at times and then get tight at others, then clearly his clutch failings are a defect of character. Other players have choked but not many others choke and then post-facto seem destined to have choked. Until he wins a championship, his disinterested play in last year's Finals will be his defining moment, his failings tautological: LeBron James doesn't have what it takes to win because he's not clutch and he's not clutch because he doesn't have what it takes to win.

Let's digress for a moment. Consider two players. Player X is 27 and has averaged 32.6 points per game on 52% shooting with 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game for the fist seven years of his career, the first six of which he has yet to make a finals and has frequently been panned as selfish. This season, his seventh, he will finally break through and win a championship. Player Y is also 27 and has averaged 27.6 points per game on 48% shooting with 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game over his first eight seasons. He's made two finals, both as the best player on his team in the regular season and playoffs, but never won a championship and has frequently been called out for being too unselfish. Player X, of course, is Michael Jordan. His statistical profile at this point is maybe a little better (though his numbers would all tail off through the rest of his career), but he had no championships until his seventh season. Player Y is LeBron James. He could very well have one in his eighth.

The Michael Jordan mythology didn't really bloom until he started winning championships (much like Reagan's reputation didn't blossom until he died, but that's a post for a different blog). By winning, LeBron has a chance to re-write his legacy. Champions made Michael Jordan a winner after the fact, and the same can be true of LeBron.

There are generally two paradigms of superstardom at its highest level. Let's call them "MJ" and "Ali." MJ is universally beloved, a self-perpetuating myth of greatness whose victories are somehow pre-ordained. If you hate on MJ you're just being a dick (or a Jazz fan, but let's face it, same thing). Every aspect of his character lines up with what we see on the court. Pre-scandal Tiger Woods was like this. Roger Federer is as well. It's superstar as machine obsessed with winning. The other archetype, Ali, can be just as dominant, but is polarizing where MJ is beloved. Maybe he's show-offy or overly political or just too "real/controversial" to be universally beloved, but he also possesses the skills and drive of a superstar, and the polarizing nature of his celebrity (often intentional) only pushes it to greater heights. Maradona, in his playing and post-playing days, fits this archetype. I think most people would put LeBron James in the second category, and I also think that's wrong.

It's certainly true that James desperately wants to be an MJ-archetypal superstar. If there's one thing the sports media can agree on, LeBron just wants to be loved, even if he was willing to posture as if he would take on the role of villain, and therein lies the problem. LeBron's primary motivation, to be loved and beloved, doesn't line up with what we as fans and writers and critics of the game want. MJ didn't openly care about being beloved (though he clearly cared about legacy and marketability); he just cared about vanquishing his opponent. Ali also cared about his legacy and his media presence, but his media manipulations didn't come off as needy either. I think people don't like James because, despite his obvious talent, he's just not savvy or self-aware.

This has bothered me for a long time. Sportswriters, ESPN talking heads, et al control the narrative of players, and they have specific qualities they want in a player. They claim they want LeBron's primary motivation to be winning (and it's winning, but also marketing), but it's actually more than that. Sure LeBron could have gone to Chicago and teamed up with Derrick Rose and been dominant, but going to Miami (which does have the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference) is a move that could very well net him multiple championships. No, those writers wanted him to win and win on his own (but actually our) terms, concerned with his historical legacy which was sure to take a hit by joining forces with Wade. I don't blame him at all for going to Miami - he took less money to live in a city he loves and play with two great teammates that he thought would help him win a championship. None of this has any bearing on LeBron James the player, but the media can't help but conflate the two.

The narrative we've constructed about LeBron is that he gets tight in the clutch, is incapable of being the man, doesn't have the killer instinct that Kobe and Jordan and so many other greats had. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates LeBron's end-of-game narrative like his propensity to chewing his nails. Judging by all the noise, he must never come through in the nebulous clutch, but the stats don't bear that out. LeBron is the best player in the league no matter how you slice it, and while his shooting percentage goes down in late game situations (as is true of most players), it's still respectable and he maintains his playmaking ability. Last night, for instance, he put the game out of reach against the Knicks with a barrage of scoring in the fourth quarter. Those won't count toward his "clutch" stats, but only because he played so well that the game wasn't close enough to qualify.

On March 3 this year, LeBron and the Heat played the Jazz. Down late in the fourth quarter, LeBron almost single-handedly played his team back into the game, scoring 15 in the quarter and ultimately the team faced a final shot scenario down a point (they would have been tied if Dwyane Wade hit both his free throws). LeBron was on fire, but got double teamed and made a great pass to a wide open Udonis Haslem, who missed a shot he's made thousands of times. It was the right play, and had he hoisted up an impossible shot, he would have been criticized for taking a bad shot. Kobe never would have passed there (or Durant), but both of them would likely have missed the shot, and have worse shooting percentages in clutch situations (along with fewer assists than James). What, ultimately, is more important, that LeBron want to be the man or that he make the right play? Either way, he'd get criticized, no matter the outcome. In the media, as in the post season so far, LeBron really just can't win.

On the court I've never seen anyone play like LeBron. He has great instincts, is a great passer, an efficient shooter, a breathtaking dunker, and a top-5 defender able to guard any position. He has everything. And that's the problem. He's held to an impossible standard, because he makes the impossible look so, well, possible. He's the best player since Jordan and his team is the favorite for the title with only one other really good player (Bosh has looked TERRIBLE this post season, when not video bombing postgame interviews). If he wins a title, the questions won't go away, because he'll need to win more and more titles. But I'm rooting for him to get there.

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