Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
There is no middle ground when it comes to LeBron James. Granted, there are very few subjects worth discussing in 2017 today that do allow for middle ground, but that’s beside the point. My suspicion is that LeBron would be divisive even in an era where partisanship wasn’t the default setting of every major topic. Greatness typically is. Ralph Waldo Emerson probably had it right: “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
The Cavaliers are now 8-0 in the playoffs and appear poised to make it a seventh straight NBA Finals appearance for LeBron James. An achievement that can only be adequately described as “great”. With that inevitability looming, it is time for all of my thoughts and feelings towards LeBron be laid bare. The comprehensive list includes the good, the bad, the biased, the objective, the fan’s eye, the statistician’s numbers, the facts and the opinions. One thing to me is obvious: regardless of whether you love “The King” or hate him, you are only going to agree with half of what I have to say.
The Chosen One
February 18, 2002 marked the date LeBron entered my life, and most of America’s, as the cover athlete on Sports Illustrated and a story inside on him meeting Michael Jordan and Jay-Z and already entering into contract negotiations with Adidas and Nike. Keep in mind, this hit the shelves 50 days after his 17th birthday. He couldn’t even vote yet, and already he had been anointed “The Chosen One” (and arguably worse “King James”). From that point forward, the hype train had left the station and there was no turning back.
I, on the other hand, was four weeks shy of my 11th birthday and my NBA fanhood was about to experience a major shakeup. Anybody who has pulled for the Seattle SuperSonics, Charlotte Hornets (original version), Vancouver Grizzlies, or New Jersey Nets understands. In the middle of the 2002 playoffs, the NBA announced that George Shinn was selling the Hornets and they would be re-locating to New Orleans. Charlotte lost to the Nets in the second round in five games and that was that. Suddenly I was teamless and I latched on to two things like that piece of Voldemort’s soul latched onto Harry Potter: the Detroit Pistons and LeBron James.
*Side note– the Pistons may sound like a random choice here but there were two major factors in my decision: they were a well-run smaller market franchise which I respected and I absolutely loved Ben Wallace. I loved his game. I liked that he grew up about 20 minutes away from where I grew up, and I really loved his afro.*
Going back to LeBron, his approval rating, even after signing a $90 million dollar Nike contract before being drafted, was on par with FDR, Reagan and Clinton. My generation was yearning for the next MJ because we didn’t yet comprehend that there might not be one. If you don’t believe me, look at the fact that in MJ’s wake we got Kobe, Shaq and Tim Duncan (three of the best 12 players ever) and never gave them the proper awe and respect they deserved.
The older generations weren’t going to be too hard on LeBron because he was a kid, even if his contract, nicknames and decision to “honor” Jordan by wearing #23 were in questionable taste. I distinctly remember when LeBron was still in high school asking my dad if he thought LeBron could be better than Jordan. He conceded that it was possible, but also intimated that it was highly unlikely. He closed that conversation by reminding me that he wasn’t even sure if MJ was better than Kareem.
Even if you weren’t sold or outright disliked LeBron before he even made it to the NBA, there were a few things that were completely unassailable. No one with his physical gifts understood how to play unselfishly and elevate the game of everyone around him sooner than LeBron did, at least not in my lifetime. No one in the age of social media had so much hype to live up to at such a young age and actually exceeded it (not until Bryce Harper hits 800 HRs, steals 500 bases and manages to never test positive for steroids). The first major “W” of LeBron’s career was that he endured the hype and the pressure of being Cleveland’s savior and thrived anyway.
*Side Note #2– One thing we underrate about LeBron is how hard it is for young guys from poor, urban areas and stay with the hometown team and not royally screw up their careers or go broke or both. Prime example: Charles Rogers.*
From Phenom to Phenomenal
On May 31, 2007, LeBron squared off against my adopted Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. James entered that game an All-Star and left that game a superstar. He posted a gaudy 48 points, 9 boards and 7 assists en route to a 109-107 victory in double overtime. It seems odd to think that a guy who had already played in three all-star games, been named Rookie of the Year, 2nd team All-NBA twice and 1st team All-NBA once hadn’t already made “The Leap”. That probably speaks to the ridiculously high standard we heaped on him (he also brought a good 85% of that on himself so don’t think I’m making him excuses here), but that’s the game that we will always remember as his first signature game.
For me, that was a game full of conflicting feelings. I was disappointed that the Pistons had lost. It was also inevitable that they were going to lose Game 6, because once someone has taken your soul and you manhood it takes longer than 48 hours to get those back. Furthermore, it also felt like this might have been the last run for this group of Pistons (they would actually make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the 6th consecutive season the following year). At the same time, we had finally seen the greatness that we were promised when LeBron entered the league displayed on a big stage and in a tightly contested game. There was only one reaction really:
So there we were, LeBron would finally be making his NBA Finals debut after four long seasons. Unfortunately, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals would be the last win for LeBron and the Cavs that season. The Spurs, at the height of their power, swept Cleveland and showed us all that even though LeBron and company had just made the Finals they were still not close to actually winning them. Later that summer, the Celtics would acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen creating the “Big Three” and posing an immediate threat to LeBron’s reign atop the Eastern Conference. (And by “pose an immediate threat” I mean knock the Cavaliers out of the playoffs twice, win one final and go to another one).
The last three seasons of LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland stand out for a few reasons. On the one hand, he won two straight MVP awards and officially seized the “best player in the world” title from Kobe. He became the most exciting player in the world to watch on any given night, and dragged the Cavs to the playoffs more than Tom Hanks dragged the movie “Castaway” to box office success. Yet, he still left us wanting more. We still wanted him to get back to the finals. We still wanted him to save Cleveland sports.
That’s why there was no way he could leave after the 2010 season. I knew it in my head and my heart that he would come back. That’s the movie right? The embattled star endures bitter defeat at the hands of his rivals, keeps working to get better, faster and stronger then comes back and kicks ass and triumphs right?
Talents to South Beach
Wrong…he did this instead.
Ummmm sorry wrong clip…
July 8, 2010 is a day that will live in sports infamy. It was announced that LeBron would be making his choice for where he would be playing basketball next season via a one-hour television special called “The Decision” and all of the proceeds would be donated to the Boys and Girls Club. Cute…not. James proceeded to take the hopes and dreams of the city of Cleveland and crush them right there on live television. Earlier in the day the story had already leaked, probably by Brian Windhorst, that LeBron was going to go to Miami and I think for the first time in my life I spent a few hours in a state of legitimate denial.
There were four legitimate destinations for LeBron going into that summer: Cavaliers, Knicks, Heat and Bulls. Each choice said something about LeBron’s character. Choosing to stay home was the legacy decision. Staying in Cleveland and finding a way to win was the only way to catch Jordan (or at least most of us thought at the time) and make a legitimate run at G.O.A.T. status and proved that he was being sincere for all those years where he said chasing Jordan was the most important thing. Chicago would have been the copycat move. Did you really think you could pass Jordan in Jordan’s town? New York would have been the glamor move. That’s where he could have been a huge star, killed it in MSG every night and probably never get a title (For the record, I think if he had gone to the Knicks his destiny was a moderately more successful Carmelo). Miami was the cowardly move. LeBron took the easy way out by pairing up with Wade and proved that even he didn’t believe that he had what it took to win a title yet. He went full Anakin Skywalker on us, turning Pat Riley into The Emperor and Dan Gilbert into Mace Windu in the process.
Oh, and then there was this…
Unpopular opinion alert: the “Welcome Party” was worse than “The Decision”. You have these guys strutting on-stage like Victoria’s Secret models acting like they are God’s gift to basketball talking about how they are going to win not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six or even seven titles. They did all of this before they had even played a game together. For the record, the number was two, but I desperately wanted it to be zero.
Fast forward to the 2011 NBA Finals. This was the sweetest moment of my sports fan career that did not involve one of my teams. Not only did the “Heatles” not win the title but LeBron froze in the worst possible way on the big stage. Dwyane Wade had to be the alpha dog on that team and he turned LeBron into his own personal Scottie Pippen, which would have been fine, except they didn’t win the series. So, what happened to LeBron exactly? WE BROKE HIM. A year straight of constant scrutiny, constant bashing, being rooted against everywhere he went outside of Miami got to him and it manifested itself into a very public meltdown.
The only thing I actually respect about LeBron’s South Beach tenure is how he responded after the 2011 season. A breakdown like that on a stage like that could have damaged his psyche beyond repair. Look at Howard Dean. He didn’t let that happen though. He worked hard, came back and swore he’d never let that happen again, and it hasn’t. LeBron is 3-2 in the Finals since the 2011 loss and neither of those losses were on him. As most of you reading this already know, the Heat won the next two titles and then lost the 3-peat bid to the San Antonio Spurs in Kawhi Leonard’s coming out party. Then….cue the Drake lyrics.
Four years and three days after “The Decision”, LeBron announced via an essay released by Sports Illustrated that he was going back to Cleveland. Going home, and furthermore the way he announced it, showed that he had learned more than just how to win by going to Miami. As much as I disliked his decision to leave, I finally had to admit that it was probably the right decision for him. That still doesn’t mean I have to agree with it or respect it. A player of his talent, skill level, and basketball IQ shouldn’t have had to learn how to be a winner. But he did, he admitted it to himself and he went and learned from the best.
The one thing that disappointed me in all this was Cleveland. They welcomed him back with open arms like nothing had ever happened. I get that generational talents only come along once in a generation, hence the name, and to have one that actually wants to be in Cleveland is even rarer. But, the way that he left you, the disgust that you must have felt watching him win two titles in South Beach and then you just take him back like nothing happened? I get taking him back, and I even understand forgiving him. However, you could have at least given him one month of cold shoulder treatment right? You could have made him re-earn your adoration couldn’t you? That was a pretty spineless move.
Since returning to Cleveland, it’s safe to say LeBron has only furthered his legacy. He ended a 52-year title drought for his “hometown” (he’s not technically from Cleveland but the general area). He extended his streak for consecutive Finals appearances to six (probably about to be seven). He also won a Finals MVP, and arguably should have won another one. (I firmly disagree with his bid for 2016 Finals MVP, but there was argument to be made). The biggest accomplishment, other than redeeming his spot as the greatest Cleveland athlete ever, was slaying the 73-win Warriors, relegating them to “best regular season team ever” status, scoffing in the faces of all of us who questioned his status as the best player in the world, and forcing them to feel the need to go out and get another superstar in Kevin Durant.
Let’s just marinate on that for one more second because it isn’t getting enough attention. The team that just won more regular season games than any team in history felt the need to give up pieces (albeit bench pieces) to acquire one of the five best players in the NBA because they couldn’t get past LeBron. That has to go down as one of the top five power plays in sports history.
Two burning questions remain for LeBron. How much does he have left? What is his legacy? I can’t answer the first one and neither can he. History says that he should have started to decline a few years ago. He hasn’t. History says there’s no way he could have put this many NBA minutes on his body without even a minor injury. He has. He’s only failed to hit 70 games in a regular season twice, once because of a lockout shortened season and the other thanks to the famous “LeBattical” he took two years ago. He has already surpassed anything we could have imagined from a consistency, longevity and durability standpoint and even thought he will slow down eventually that day doesn’t look like it’s coming in the near future. With that being said, let’s turn out attention to the second question.
Here’s my Basketball Rushmore: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Aside from being all-time greats, each of these players also had something unique that set them apart, and where you rank them says something about what you value.
Kareem achieved a longevity and consistency that was unmatched (LeBron is threatening but not there yet). He played 20 seasons, was an All-Star in 19, won 6 MVPs (the first and last 9 seasons apart), won 6 titles, and won two Finals MVPs (14 years apart). He has the most points, rebounds, minutes played and win shares in NBA history. Kareem’s stake on Rushmore? He has the best NBA resume ever. Period.
Russell is the best teammate of any of the all-time greats. I know he was before my time so I’m basing this on secondhand testimony, but I can’t find a dissenter even on the far reaches of the internet where they always lurk. Here’s the quote from Russell himself: “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.” Eleven titles in thirteen seasons. All-time leader in Defensive Win Shares. Consummate team player and best rim protector ever. That’s Russell’s legacy.
Most of you don’t need me to rattle off Jordan’s numbers, so I won’t. Here’s what I will say. MJ is the fiercest competitor in NBA history. Russell wanted to win because he felt like he was letting his teammates down if he didn’t. Jordan considered each loss a personal insult. He never would have had to be taught how to win. He never would have needed Riley and Wade to get over the hump, nor would he have let them get him over the hump. If you want to argue the Pippen point to me fine, but no one ever questioned who the alpha on that team was. LeBron wasn’t always the alpha on the Heat. So it’s not just the fact that Jordan went six-for-six with six Finals MVPs. MJ was the greatest alpha dog in NBA history and that’s why he’s still the G.O.A.T.
As for LeBron, he comes in at third on my list behind Russell and Jordan. It might be unfair, but I will always hold it against him that he had to be taught how to be an assassin on the basketball court. If you were rating players like a video game, LeBron would have the highest rating ever. Very few athletes have ever found the way to pair their immense physical gifts with the highest level of prowess and skill, if ever. Furthermore, he managed to translate that into team success and transform himself into the most valuable talent in NBA history. Love him or hate him, we are all witnesses to his greatness.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Tony Dejak/Associated Press