by Paul Knepper
My voice could be heard among the chorus of boos across this country when LeBron announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” last summer. Like many basketball fans, I felt he violated the code of the playground – that the best players split up and try to beat each other – and thought he did a disservice to the fans of Cleveland and the Cavalier organization by leaving with all the pomp and circumstance of “The Decision.”
There was one more reason I was disappointed in LeBron’s choice; the basketball junkie in me wanted to see this uniquely gifted athlete become the most spectacular player he could be. I believed that wouldn’t happen in Miami where he’d have to defer at times to Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. I thought never again would we see the LeBron who carried the Cavs on his back night after night and scored their last 25 points in a legendary performance against a great Pistons defense in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. In a sense, I was correct, LeBron isn’t that player anymore. He’s better.
From the moment he entered the league LBJ drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. It’s a burden that every supremely talented perimeter player must endure in the wake of his “Airness,” from Harold Miner to Kobe Bryant. Jordan was the greatest player of all-time, so fans, scouts and executives are always looking for the next him. Bryant’s success only reinforced the Jordan prototype. His game is similar to MJ’s; they played in the same system for the same coach.
LeBron’s decision to wear his idol’s #23 only hastened the comparisons. Due to a lack of talent in Cleveland, James was forced to play like MJ as well, carrying the scoring load and taking every big shot. The other aspects of his game were secondary to putting the ball in the hole. In fact, he was crucified by the media for passing the ball to an open teammate instead of taking the potential game-winning shot himself.
So it was fitting that LeBron left the #23 behind when he headed for South Beach., where he’s distinguished his game from MJ’s. Sure, he shares Jordan’s athleticism and elevation, but he has some of Magic Johnson’s game too, the way he jump starts the fast break and uses his height to see over the defense and deliver excellent passes. And like Magic, he doesn’t need to score 30 points to dominate a game.
He has a little Karl Malone in him as well, the way he explodes to the basket on the break like a freight train (Just ask Kyle Korver what it’s like to have him bearing down on you) and has the upper body strength to absorb contact and still make the shot; and a drop of Pippen, with his ability to control a game by locking down the opposition’s best perimeter scorer.
Playing with Wade and Bosh has allowed LeBron to thrive in all aspects of his game, not just scoring. He’s able to let the game come to him and play a style that he’s more comfortable with. The result has been a beautiful display of basketball.
Free to utilize his vast array of skills, James can tailor his game to whatever the Heat need on any given night. Sometimes that means scoring 40 points and taking over a game down the stretch as he did in the final minute of Game 5 last night against the Bulls; other times it’s being more of a facilitator, especially when Wade is rolling. In the Heat’s first round series against the 76ers it meant controlling the boards. During their second round defeat of the Celtics his primary responsibility was to smother Paul Pierce.
LeBron’s defense was the story in the Heat’s Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Bulls. The turning point of the series was when he shut down MVP Derrick Rose for the final five minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 4, forcing him to take difficult fadeaways in the Bulls last two possessions of regulation. It was reminiscent of Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals when Phil Jackson moved Pippen onto Magic and the Bulls won four straight after losing Game 1 to the Lakers. LeBron, like Pippen, changed the series by cutting off the head of the snake.
Another advantage to playing with Wade and to a lesser degree Bosh is they allow LeBron to rest on offense. Not being the focal point of every possession has kept him fresh and enabled him to close strong in the fourth quarter, as he did in games 4 and 5 against the Bulls. He wouldn’t have covered Rose in his Cleveland days because he needed to preserve his energy in order to score. Instead, it was Rose who didn’t have a second scorer to lean on and was forced to play almost the entire Game. Consequently, he wasn’t fresh down the stretch of Games 4 and 5 and came up short.
I thought LeBron would win in Miami, but his game would be restricted by the talent around him. It turns out he needed a wingman in order to fully blossom. Now he’s one step away from earning the coronation “King James.” Whether he wins a ring or not, it’s time to stop comparing him to the great players of yesteryear. He’s a prototype, the first player in the history of the game to possess such a magnificent blend of talent, size, strength and skill. Enjoy it.