Eastern Conference Finals. As he sits and watches like most of America the conclusion to the NBA playoffs, all signs point towards the ominous date of July 1, where James is expected to be the marquee name of among a gigantic class of free agents on the market. This only adds another chapter to a the career of an athlete who has been from the valley to the mountaintop and everywhere in between at the ripe old age of 25 and who has burdened the hope of so much since he was at the age where most people would be concerned with SAT scores and prom.
Lebron James was given the world before he even entered the summer of his senior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, anointed as the next coming of Michael Jordan, and was scheduled to be on national television for the all witnesses to bear full faith and testimony to his greatness. After destroying an Oak Hill Academy super team with five starters that had Division I scholarships on ESPN, the greater American public was ready to believe. As destiny had it, the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers were abysmal with a league-worst 19-63 record and lucked up in the lottery that was called “The Lebron James Sweepstakes”. The phenom from nearby Akron, who was deemed “Next” by everyone in the basketball universe, would be virtually playing at home.
His impact was instant. His presence was enough to improve his teams win total by 18 games to get the Cavs into playoff contention his first season and he garnered Rookie of the Year honors. The same summer, he played on his first Olympic Team. The next season, he became the youngest player selected as an All-Star, yet the Cavs just missed the playoffs again. His breakout season came in 2005-06, as he became the youngest All-Star Game MVP and the youngest player to average 30 points or more in NBA history. James finally got the Cavs into the playoffs and led them to their first series victory. Since then, he has exploded onto the scene. He’s won a scoring title, been named to four All-NBA teams, two All-defensive teams, and won two league MVP awards. In his fourth season, he singlehandedly lifted the Cavs to an NBA Finals appearance. He also won a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and has become the face of the league’s future, a marketing dream in the post-Jordan era.
However, in his relatively short career, the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy has eluded King James’ grasp. Two times the Cavs have entered the playoffs with the league’s best regular season record with home court advantage through the Finals locked up. Both times, the Cavs have failed to advance to the Finals, falling to teams thought be to inferior in talent and/or athleticism. What the Magic accomplished last year and Celtics this year is what every team in the NBA wishes to do: Neutralize Lebron James. In his playoff career, he’s compounded great numbers and has put on display some of the greatest performances seen in the last 10 to 15 years. Much like the 80s Detroit Pistons instituted the now infamous “Jordan Rules”; teams seem to be compiling evidence to make their own rulebook on James and how to keep him at bay.
Most of the onus on his previous playoff failures rested on an insufficient supporting cast that relied on James to score, create and defend at premium levels to be competitive. Over the last couple of years, the Cavs have brought in Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, All-Star Antwan Jamison and future Hall of Famer center Shaquille O’Neal to add to his supporting cast. While the faces and players are adequate veterans that are key pieces, they have been seen as not enough to help James reach the pinnacle of a championship. As good as Michael Jordan was and as helpful as players like B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Randy Brown were, the Bulls still needed a Scottie Pippen to team with Jordan make their championship runs.
Perhaps Lebron James suffers from a severe case of hubris, believing his own hype and it being all too apparent. Let’s face it: The great ones all have from some sort of arrogance, be it quiet or loud as day. In the age that marketing and brand visibility has stretched his face across globe for billions to see, he probably is beginning to believe his own press. He put this on display after a horrendous Game 5 performance that saw him shoot 3-14 from the field in a blowout loss. He said in his press conference having in his mind “three bad games in seven years” spoils people. Come on, Lebron. Everyone will admit that you’re great. Averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists over a career is outstanding, maybe even legendary. But even “His Airness” himself will admit that he’s had more than three bad games in a span of seven years.
It was the man that James idolized that once made a commercial stating that his continued failures are what made him successful. Make no mistake about it, with all apologies to the great Kobe Bryant (who has four titles to his resume); James is the closest thing in pure ability that the league has seen to Jordan. What he lacks are two things: 1) a supporting cast or sidekick that will compliment his prowess to lead him to a title and 2) the level of fire and venom that made Jordan so great. Jordan’s competitive fire drove him to succeed and often lifted the level of his teammates even to the point of hatred. When the game was on the line, Jordan knew how to step on the neck of his opponent or deliver the knockout blow. No one doubts whether James is a fierce competitor, but what he lacks is the apparent work ethic, fire and vitriol that made his idol a legend and icon. It’s why Jordan didn’t bolt town or seek a trade when the Bulls seemingly couldn’t get past the Pistons in the playoffs in the late 80s and early 90s. His ways paid off and six rings later, he is now the standard that all players in the modern era are measured.
Lebron James is full aware and knows that burden on his shoulder only got heavier with this past playoff defeat. Whether he stays in Cleveland remains to be seen. One thing remains certain: it doesn’t matter what his career statistics read when he hangs up the sneakers or what jersey he is wearing when it’s all said and done. If his trophy case doesn’t include at least one Larry O’Brien trophy, his great career will be in the annals of Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Reggie Miller. That’s good company to be in, but not the conversation that you want to have.
By Brian Cox