"James down the other end, Hardaway wraps himself around [LeBron James] and [James] still puts it in! He does it again. How many times have we seen that this season," narrated Mike Breen, as James muscled his way to the hoop in an April 6th, 2014 matchup versus the New York Knicks. Tim Hardaway Jr., the New York Knicks’ rookie, did exactly what he was supposed to do: he enfolded LeBron James on the fast break in an attempt to foul and prevent him from scoring an easy two points. Unfortunately for the Knicks’ rookie (and the rest of the NBA), LeBron James' robust 6-foot-8, 250-pound stature is an anomaly to the bear-hug, wrap-around concept that Hardaway attempted. James' size, power, speed, and skill-set make him unlike any other athlete who has trodden the NBA's hardwood. Despite his unmatched physicality and exotic athleticism, James is lacking in certain aspects which, perhaps, impede his transcendence in the NBA.
Every time the Miami Heat stepped on the floor, the man sporting jersey number six was their glaring advantage. James' abrasive physicality makes him an unfair assignment for any opponent tasked with guarding him. He drove to the basket 7.1 times per game during the regular season, converting on an incredible 63.6% of his shot attempts; more than half of James' shot attempts originated from the painted area, per NBA.com/stats. His uncanny blend of size, strength, and quickness, which seemingly defy the law of physics, empower him to barge through any defense at will and attain an über efficient field goal percentage, identical to that of a typical NBA big man (of course, James' propensity to pass up a few opportune shots, perhaps to preserve his gaudy field goal percentage, certainly helps). In fact, I wrote here how LeBron James' charging through the defense reminds me of a starving rhinoceros. Le-brawn James, as I call him, is also comparable to a freight train when he barrels to the hoop. Personified, James' physicality is akin to Shaquille O'Neal's unrestrained dominance conducted during the Los Angeles Lakers' three-peat -- both physical specimens' offensive success have proven to be heavily predicated on brute force. The fundamentally sound game comprised of impeccable footwork, finesse, and subtlety, which is required to methodically find scoring positions, is not particularly LeBron James' forte.
To phrase it gently, James isn't the snazziest basketball player. Although one of the NBA's most impressive players, he doesn't dazzle the crowd with nifty crossovers or adroit ball-handling skills. Whenever James is trapped or caught in a predicament (courtesy of the opposition's defense), it seems as though his first inclination is actually to give the ball up to a teammate, rather than attempting to generate space for himself. He doesn't typically seem to have the craftiness to maneuver his way out of a snare, like Jamal Crawford or Manu Ginobili; regardless, James' ball-handling ability is adequate enough for him to create his own shot. But without his physicality, it's nothing special. Additionally, although he's occasionally very eager to share the ball, James doesn't make breathtaking passes like Steve Nash or Magic Johnson. His court-vision and willingness to allocate the ball are what cause people to classify him as a respectable playmaker. And despite the fact that he's freakishly athletic, James doesn't dunk the basketball with the same flair or pizzazz as Gerald Green or prime Vince Carter. Of course, James' lack of technical skill doesn't stymie his effectiveness. His hefty stature and supreme talent do allow him to dominate in the NBA. Whether he personally mesmerizes fans or not is a mere matter of his or her preferred playing style. However, these glaring intangible flaws, along with others, occasionally engulf the league's best player, especially on the NBA's biggest stage.
For a player of James' stature who is almost unjustly gifted, it's baffling how brittle his morale can be. His fortitude and resolve seem to sporadically elude him during games. "King" James simply does not consistently play with the same intensity, nor does he possess the same type of unwavering willpower or confidence, that Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, or Russell Westbrook encompass. Many fans have the idea that this entire "intangible, willpower" spiel is nothing more than conceptual nonsense concocted by "haters" to bash on LeBron James. But if these intangibles are just imaginary and don't exist in the NBA, that would entail that Andrew Bynum and Michael Beasly have the same drive to win and psyche as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. It would insinuate that all professional basketball players are systematically programmed and that their individual personalities and traits have no influence on their approach to the game, which is false. Take, for example, Tim Duncan. Duncan is, without a doubt, a relatively calm and collected person. He's likely the greatest power forward of all-time, yet he gladly masks his reputation with an insipid wardrobe and mannerisms that resemble the likes of a modest book-nerd. These characteristics paired with his unobtrusive demeanor translate to his playing-style. One could probably watch an entire game of his and hardly notice that he's even playing -- but one look at the stat-sheet after the game and it's likely to see that he's posted a solid 25 points and 12 rebounds with ease. A plethora of fans have been led to label him as "boring" as a result. Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, is completely on the other side of the spectrum. From fashion to playing style, Westbrook is similar to an incendiary bomb. His luminous pre-game outfits are audacious and his game on the court is explosive and unpredictable (tick, tick, boom). His fiery disposition often propels him to launch considerably more shots than his partner in crime, Kevin Durant, (who, by the way, is the better shooter statistically) and that's no different when the game is on the line. Oddly enough, Durant's public persona doesn't portray that he minds when Westbrook takes on the alpha dog role. Perhaps it gives the seemingly nonchalant Kevin Durant a sense of relief (again, it's a matter of personality). A player's singularity plays a significant role in how they perform, so it's not outlandish to examine how James' intangibles impinge upon his individual game.
LeBron James has attained abundant success in his tenure in the NBA. He's a 2-time NBA champion, 4-time NBA MVP, and a ten-time NBA All-Star. As the best player in the league and arguably the greatest athlete of all-time, it is necessary to measure James' success with high standards and a comprehensive assessment of his entire career. There has been much controversy about James falling short in multiple Finals appearances and failing to perform to his full capacity on the NBA's biggest stage, perhaps taking a closer look at the man who is known as "King James" will put his career in perspective.
As a teenager in St. Vincent--St. Mary high school, the basketball prodigy was fawned over and pampered to a degree that is seemingly unprecedented. LeBron James drove expensive cars, was nationally televised by ESPN in his high school games, and before he played a single professional basketball game, James inked a record-setting $93 million contract with Nike in 2003. James basked in the extensive hype and adulation. As the beneficiary of a luxurious lifestyle, it is plausible that James developed lofty feelings of self-importance as he nicknamed himself "King James". According to The Washington Post, James even refers to himself as "King James" when he sends text messages.
For example, a player recently told me LeBron had contacted him about possibly joining forces in the off-season, though he was cryptic about where he actually might play. The text began: “Yo, this is King James.”
“I was like, ‘Give me a break. You’re going to call yourself that?’" the player said, on condition that his name not be used.
“Do you think Michael Jordan texts people by starting with, ‘Yo, this is His Airness.’ Come on, get over yourself.”
That is pathetic. Additionally, James has "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back and "Gifted Child" inked on his chest. It's as if he constantly needs to remind himself how special he is -- a surprising trait for a player of James' stature; however, perhaps it's not more baffling than the abyss of idleness and timidity that he sporadically falls into. How is it that a player of James' prominence (who bolted from Cleveland to Miami in order to form a super team in pursuit of rings) can occasionally shift into an average NBA Finals performer in multiple appearances? He was outperformed by Dallas Mavericks' sixth man, Jason Terry, for the duration of the 2011 NBA Finals. In the 2013 Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James garnered measly averages of 16.7 points per game on 38.9% from the field after the first three games. Despite exhibiting a solid overall performance in this year's Finals, James had moments in which he inexplicably disappeared. In Game 3, James totaled just 8 points and 7 turnovers with zero free-throw attempts in the final three quarters, despite the Miami Heat cutting a 25-point lead to just seven in the third quarter. Miami certainly could have used the NBA's greatest player's devastating athleticism to help get them over the hump, however, he was unfathomably disengaged and passive throughout the game. James merely had quarter-long bursts of offense, rather than dominating an entire game outside of Game 2 (14 of his 22 points came in the first quarter of Game 1, 19 of his 28 points came in the third quarter of Game 3, etc). On the league's biggest stage, there is no room for error. Every play has to be executed precisely because as LeBron James himself put it, "once you get to the playoffs, every possession counts."
Although this quote is somewhat overused and uttered by many basketball players, few of those players' actions correspond with their words. It is evident that James' competitive fire doesn't consistently burn as vividly as Kobe Bryant's, Russell Westbrook's, and Chris Paul's. James' body language does not always portray a fiery zeal, willing to push through adversity and to conquer. His inflated ego, which his contemporaries have been feeding since his youth, is what drives him, contrary to the unwavering confidence and fortitude of the previously mentioned star players. Of course, every athlete encounters periods where he or she is at a low ebb, but James' fluctuation may be a result of weak-willed personality and feelings of entitlement. He had great difficulty adjusting to the "villain" role in 2011 when he bolted to Miami, which was especially apparent when he performed his notorious disappearing act in the Finals. It was apparent that the lack of support from his beloved fan-base affected his game. Although he may claim that he does not care what people think, his demeanor for the entirety of the 2011 season disproves that sentiment. James was accustomed to being the golden boy he was known to be in high school, and felt as though he should be bowed down to despite the lack of any championship wins at the time. After all, he is "King James", and after suffering a humiliating loss in that year's Finals, James had a pretentious message for his critics. He didn't take the opportunity to explain how humbled he is by the defeat, or how he would use the criticism as fuel to work harder the next year and come back a better player. Instead, he had this to say:
At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.
Translation: I am rich and you are not. Needless to say, LeBron James improved his ability to perform under pressure, for he went on to win 2 straight NBA championships as the slander that had previously overwhelmed him had subsided. But as aforementioned, James' tenacity continues to sporadically elude him, although it is not as palpable as before. In game situations where James should be the predominate authority, he infrequently allows himself to falter. It was previously mentioned that Jason Terry outscored LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals, but more recently, Kawhi Leonard (James' defensive assignment) out shined James in multiple Finals games this June (including his 29 points on 76.9% shooting in Game 3). Leonard was also the first player since Tim Duncan to garner 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals in a playoff game in Game 4, and he shot 57.9% from beyond the arc on nearly 4 attempts per game for the series -- earning himself the Finals MVP Award. Beyond James' defensive woes in the NBA Finals (although he irregularly frustrated the much smaller and injury-riddled Tony Parker), his defense was strangely sub-par all season, despite claiming that he aspires to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Again, LeBron James possesses a unique blend of size, speed and quickness. He is likely the most versatile defender the NBA has ever witnessed, for he has the capability to guard all five positions on the floor. James recognizes his defensive versatility, and he prides himself on defending every basketball position, which he says is unprecedented as reported by Ira Winderman at the Sun Sentinel. However, guarding all five positions and doing it well are two different things. Albeit a formidable defender when he's locked in, James gambled and coasted for the majority of the 2013-14 season. CBS Chicago depicted in great detail how James has uncharacteristically allowed his man to blow by him, as he exhibited his worst defensive performance since his rookie year. James told Steve Smith in a February interview that winning DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) is a goal he aspires to achieve (now that he's won multiple MVP's, Finals MVP's, etc.). Big men who terrorize the opposition from driving to the hoop and protect the rim are heavily favored to win the award over wing defenders. Additionally, James has never won the award throughout his professional career. Cognizant of these facts, James needed to be much more diligent and attentive on the defensive end to be dubbed the greatest defender in the NBA.
He's come close to winning DPOY in years prior (finishing second in voting for DPOY twice in his decorated career), and was named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team for five consecutive years from 2009 to 2013, but his streak was snapped last month. Unfortunately for the "King", Joakim Noah is also an incredibly versatile defender, who actually exerted some energy with his formidable position defensively and earned DPOY. James didn't defend like he was striving to be the best defender in the league. His grit and focus on that side of the floor diminished this year, his expectancy to be crowned the league's best defender was still buoyed because, well, it's "King James, yo". Nevertheless, James' defensive prowess enabled him to be named to the NBA's All-Defensive second team and helped fortify a top-ten defensive Miami Heat team. His efficacy, notwithstanding an unstable mental make-up, is sufficient to catapult James into the realm of dominance, which coincides with O'Neal's domination as aforementioned. Success based on physical ascendancy overshadows complacency. Kobe Bryant expressed his displeasure with the big man, who he believes freewheeled to supremacy on raw physical ability and stature.
“It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy,” Bryant said in an interview with the New Yorker. “You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through (expletive).”
Perhaps Bryant is still bitter toward O'Neal and was aiming to diminish the 7-footer's eminence during the Lakers' three-peat, but even the great Phil Jackson recently reiterated Bryant's sentiments. In a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Jackson elucidated O'Neal's work ethic as he compared it to Bryant's and Jordan's.
“Shaq didn’t work at it,” Jackson said. “Michael was able to succeed despite all kinds of limitations in his game. He couldn’t hit an outside shot. He couldn’t defend. But all of that went away because of his work ethic. Kobe saw that as a pinnacle that he had to reach, and he took it to a whole new level.”
LeBron James may not necessarily be the "lazy" player that O'Neal was. After all, he has developed an outside shot and has also embellished his post-game over the years; however, James possesses such an edge physically that it often bedims his own intangible flaws: self-importance and entitlement. The unwavering resilience to adjust his intangible flaws won't stop James from garnering copious amounts of accolades during his career, or even from cementing his name as indisputably the greatest current player in the league (as was O'Neal during his prime), but it begs the question: Had James sustained a fiery disposition, how much more polished would his legacy be?James said in the same interview with NBA TV's Sam Smith that he will "for sure" be one of the four greatest players in NBA history. Taking into account the lofty expectation of himself and considering how James is the world's greatest basketball player, he should be held to high standards. Although, James has now reestablished himself as the "good guy" and returned home to Cleveland, it does not entail that his past infirmities should be discarded from his account. The totality of "King" James' profitable career should be considered when assessing his career and where his name stands among the greats. James' career isn't over, and winning a championship for his hometown would only intensify James' legacy, assuming he musters up the willpower to land Cleveland its first NBA Championship.