Here’s the thing: with the NBA playoffs behind us, in this aftermath of a tremendous run by the Warriors and another devastating blow to the city of Cleveland, most people caught in the fierce current of the mainstream have fallen for Lebron James. Head-over-heels. He’s a great athlete; that is undeniable. But the surrounding froth and standing Os have become really pretty delusional and romanticized. The question has two possible built-in answers: is he legend or myth? I want to look at the side few are on because I contend that this is another case where there’s an important gap to recognize between myth and reality.
Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger context of the Bron Bron Phenomenon.
Do the numbers lie? His statistics during the finals have been recited by most fans (casual and supposed expert). He averaged nearly a triple-double. These are enormous numbers, no one could ever do that, he carried that team further than anyone ever could, etc. etc. In reality, he shot below 40% from the field and below 30% from the 3. Those are awful percentages. That has to be brought to bear on his preternatural production.
We would need game film and play-by-play analysis, I’m afraid, to really flush this out, but these numbers are fluffed, padded, whatever you want to call them (despite being not very efficient in the first place). Cleveland AS A TEAM played well during most of the playoffs and through the first three games of the finals. If we look at that film, we would see much better ball movement, and role players playing well (along with James’ undeniably huge efforts). But the series became very quickly Lebron vs. Golden State. That the rest of his teammates are so shit, so bottom of the barrel NBA talent is just a big-time over-statement. The injuries hurt the Cavs, no doubt. But I’m not buying the story that Lebron had no one to rely-on, so he had to do it all by his lonesome. That’s more a flaw in his game than it is his teammates (all of them) are crap. We have ridiculed Kobe for this same style of play. Why does Lebron get such a huge pass? The Cavs were suddenly standing around watching Lebron. Design some plays, make a cut to the rim. Standing around not only killed the Cavs’ offense, but gave Golden State a huge break on D. Only the guy covering Lebron had to work. What about the rest of the bench? Why did he recruit Mike Miller and the Matrix? That it was Lebron vs. the Warriors (OMG, amazing, super-human!) is over-blown bullshit.
Sure there were the injuries. The-injury-to-Love excuse is not a huge mystery. His loss was crushing? He was ineffective all year. He and Lebron (this is common knowledge) did not get along and Love played like crap all year, lost. Lebron forced that trade (common knowledge) before the season began (Wiggins for Love) and then alienated Love. Lebron orchestrated a lot of deals, we can be sure. That injury was a loss, but look at the bigger picture; Love was not a critical cog in that machine; Lebron made sure of that. The Irving injury? Tough loss for sure. But none of this discounts the fact that the Cavs had enough pieces to win that series. In the end, Lebron managed and coached that team (this is well documented), so he needs to take more responsibility than he is. Period. His presence in Cleveland, especially now, is too inflated.
The only time Lebron James has had success in basketball (championship success, this is not summer YMCA fun ball) is when he’s had people around to hold him accountable. In Miami he was told to get into the post because he’s such a big body, and could dominate down there; Miami had stars who could make plays elsewhere. Pat Riley, Dwayne Wade and even Spoelstra forced this accountability and they were finally (after getting embarrassed by Dallas in 2011) able to win two titles (before getting embarrassed by San Antonio). In Cleveland? David Blatt and Kyrie Irving balance the power. Who can say no to him in Cleveland? Watch Tristan Thompson get a max contract this year. Why? He is a solid power forward who had a good playoff run. But he’s Lebron’s friend; they share an agent and Lebron has said that Thompson should get a max or near-max contract. He’s holding the franchise hostage. This is not healthy. That’s a reality.
In other words, too much Lebron (“I am the best player in the world”) ethos, which means an unchecked guy who is trying so hard to write the ultimate basketball narrative, being general manager, coach, captain, the man, the savior. Doesn’t work.
More on the inflated numbers, which, again were derived from total isolation ball that yielded terribly inefficient numbers. The NBA is a much softer league now compared to much tougher styles of play 10-20 years ago. The league is now perfect for a guy with Lebron’s skill-set. He is a very well-rounded player, can play great on both sides of the ball, but given his size and the rules that now permit no hard fouls, no hand-checking, etc., he gets a free pass. If you are stumbling into NBA spectatorship now, you have no idea the differences in the game. In the 70s and for the next 30 years, the game was brutally physical. Elbows and forearms were common defensive strategy, guys got worked going to the rim. Go watch some video, read some accounts. The game is softball now by comparison.
This is a huge advantage for a guy like Lebron, especially if he shoots thirty or forty times. He’s going to pile the numbers. But they’re inflated. This reality is totally overlooked. Look at the bigger picture.
More on this ultimate basketball narrative: the Bron Bron Phenomenon. More numbers: 2-4. An interesting dichotomy to this story is that alongside all of the fanfare for Lebron James, history could be much harsher on his legacy. As a culture, we love winners. Many of us think of Lebron as a winner, still. But he’s stacking-up the losses where they really count. He is an unbelievable three-point shot by Ray Allen and a Spurs’ choke-job away from being 1-5 in the finals. That’s a fact. But let’s look at the 6 finals.
I think there is some belief out there that James is unlucky. Let’s put two of his finals in that category, his first in 2007 and this last one in 2015. The motto for both, I guess, is his team was not good enough to win it all. Two more were embarrassing losses where he was on a team that had plenty of talent, no? If you go back to 2011, he was terrible, despite this talent. There was a take-away from that experience that Bron Bron was a choke, couldn’t score/win in the big-time. Tough to explain that away. Then you have his two finals wins where he was with the Big 3 of Miami. He didn’t “run out of talent” with that team. Many observers see Dwayne as the finisher of those teams. But Lebron was definitely more successful those two years. He confirmed his greatness, indeed. That’s a slightly more analytical approach at making sense of his 2-4 record in the finals. I don’t think that really makes him look so dominant and most people, in the end, will not parse the experience as such. They’ll just see 2-4.
Ah, but he’s going to win next year and 2-3 more championships after that when everyone is healthy! Go back to the Lebron-as-owner-general-manager-coach-team-captain-go-to-player-is-totally-unhealthy-and-LOL-destined-to-fail theory above. There is no guarantee that the coaching situation will improve and it has to (will they bring in a real coach that can actually design plays and be able to push back at Lebron’s control?). Quick aside: you can’t blame Blatt and give Lebron carte blanche. Those two points are incongruous. Lebron brought-in all of his boys (Mike Miller and Shawn Merion, James Jones) and they really had no effect. Will Irving stay healthy? What’s going to happen with the roster? And what about Lebron’s contract?
Aside from all of that, this just in: he is on the decline. If you think Lebron will continue to be so effective (which hasn’t been that effective if you look at all the numbers), you got another thing coming. He puts a lot of wear and tear on that body. He has played a lot of basketball. You think he’s going to be “the best player in the world” in two years?
Lastly, here’s the real tale of the tape: Lebron grew up in Cleveland and fortunately was drafted by the Cavs. He made it to the finals and got beat pretty bad (sweep). Must have thought this is pretty lame, so he went to Miami; and really pissed off a lot of people, especially in his beloved hometown. Did pretty well in South Beach with his all-star friends. He went 2-2 in the finals there, but then they got beat pretty bad (4-1) in 2014, so I guess he looked around, saw the thinning resources (and perhaps too much push-back from leadership) and went back to Cleveland. This second abandonment got renamed the Lebron is coming home show. And now he’s in Cleveland running the show, all by himself, apparently.
He is an all-time great. But let’s not become foolish prisoners of the moment.