Saturday, February 18, 2012

Assessing LeBron's Miami Heat

I will be stunned if the Miami Heat do not win the NBA finals this season.  They are by far the best team in basketball, blowing away opposition with about as much concentration and effort as it takes to play Words with Friends.  Many asked last year if “The Big Three” was an unjust epithet, claiming that Bosh really didn’t belong in the classification of the other two.  Bosh-rippers lump him into the cornucopia of disappointing players who, before signing with a big market, shined seemingly only because of the inadequacy of their prior small-market, supporting crew.  Since when is 18.7 and 8.3 per game from your power forward the reason a team fails to perform?  Bosh is a good player, but he could leave Miami tomorrow and they’d probably win just as many games as they would with him.    

After the first 30 games of the NBA season, what I have contended since “The Decision” is more apparent now than ever before:  The Heat belong to LeBron James.  It isn’t Bosh who is expendable, it’s everyone else on the team

LeBron has never played the game of basketball as well as he is doing this season.  You could point to a wide variety of reasons for why this is the case.  Maybe it’s because LeBron is one of the few superstar who actually spent the lockout refining his game and maintaining his physical conditioning.  Maybe it’s because the Heat now know their success starts and ends with him.  Maybe it’s because Miami has finally figured out how to work as a cohesive unit.  Or, most importantly of all, maybe it’s because LeBron has finally admitted to himself that even though he’s the best player in basketball, he has deficiencies.
The number of superstars who began the season out of shape has to make
you question their mentality and dedication. Even the revered Dirk
Nowitzki should not be above criticism. 
LeBron has never been a great three-point shooter; he’s spent most of his career hovering around 33%.  In the three seasons before the current one, LeBron attempted just under 4.5 three-balls a game, heaving a simply inexcusably high 5.1/game during his final season in Cleveland.  This year?  James is attempting fewer than two tries a game, by far the fewest of his career.  The truth is that the routinely chucked brinks were the effects of passivity and laziness.  For whatever misconstrued rationale, LeBron passed up opportunities to plunge into the paint with the strength and speed that only he can combine. 

He’s shooting less everywhere too.  LeBron’s 18.5 field goal attempts per game are also a career low.  Meanwhile, his 54.5 field goal percentage, the best for his position, is his highest ever.         

So, what does this all mean?  Like I said in the opening sentence, I don’t know how the Heat fail to win the Finals this year.  I mean, I actually do, but I don’t think it would be fair to predict yet another LeBron late-season meltdown when he’s been ruthless thus far.  But, this is really the only way Miami doesn’t take home the championship. 

In the event of another postseason disappointment, how would the fans react?  Could people begin to ask if maybe this team would be better off with just Wade and Bosh, even though I’ve just contended that all their success is because of LeBron?  Would the same fan base that so emphatically cheered the arrival of King James for – well, until this very moment – suddenly scapegoat their superstar of all superstars?  We know LeBron’s a sensitive guy.  I’ve been critical of this, but maybe that’s not just.  Nobody really knows the pressure that goes with being the face of a league and it’s probably unrealistic to say, “He shouldn’t waste his time worrying about what fans are saying about him.”  He’s human; he has emotions. 
The new-look, all black Miami uniforms tell you
they are embracing the villain role.  LeBron's
comments and mannerisms say otherwise. 
So what happens, then, if suddenly his new home were as vehement as his old one?  We’ve already seen James make numerous attempts to placate Cleveland.  He’s not used to hate.  He’s a reluctant villain who is corned into fulfilling that role.  With all this potential backlash, you could make the case that if LeBron doesn’t win the championship this year, he never will, especially if Miami loses in the finals.  For all his great talent, LeBron will never be recognized as an all-time great if he retires with a doughnut in the rings column.  Moreover, he will have to be regarded as the greatest disappointment and underachiever in the history of American sports. 

But… let’s at least consider the alternative.

What if LeBron finally gets it?  His improved, deliberate shooting certainly validates this notion.  The more he dominates in the post, the less room for error there will be down the road.  Shooters are streaky.  Powerful drivers can at least get readily fouled. 

What if LeBron’s controversial honesty means he’s no longer going to pretend to be someone he is not?  Media personnel and contractually obligated over-blowers across the league threw a fit when LeBron said he wouldn’t rule out playing again in Cleveland.  Who cares?  If you think LeBron’s giving any credence whatsoever to anything other than winning a championship with Miami then tap the person next to you and have him pry your head out of your ass.  The backlash of his honesty basically pressured LeBron into issuing a clarification.  He didn’t need to clarify a damn thing.  LeBron answered a question.  His answer was manipulated.  Everyone wants to see LeBron fail. 

And, ultimately, what if LeBron averages 28, 7, and 7 in the Finals on route to a championship?  People can argue whether or not he could have done it without Wade.  People can argue whether he took the easy way out.  People can argue if he cares about anyone other than himself.  I’ve got new for LeBron; these things are going to permeate his career, but one has to think that even for someone this polarizing, the negativity will at least be assuaged with a ring.  People can say whatever they want, but even if he wins just one championship, the “yeah, but” will be gone. 

Larry Bird said he’d rather play with Kobe, but added that LeBron is by far the best player in basketball.  Winning a championship in 2012 will make the latter official.   


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