In what could only have been considered an attempt to keep the NBA relevant during the lockout, ESPN published a list of the league’s top 500 players. While many of the players were either undervalued or overrated, none was a bigger mistake than the player selected number 1, LeBron James.
Indisputable facts first. LeBron James is an incredibly talented player, perhaps the league’s most talented. He has two MVP trophies. He is a physical specimen whose muscular build you might only find in a comic book. He is a walking triple-double who can and has on occasion played all five positions. He has only missed the playoffs once in his 8-year, hall of fame-caliber career. He has never won a championship. He has exactly one memorable game winning shot, over an underdog team he ultimately lost to in the playoffs.
Truth be told, LeBron James isn’t even the best player on his team. Sure, if we were discussing talent in a vacuum – Talent Theory, if you will – LeBron is virtually unmatched by anyone ever. But greatness is more than theoretical talent, it’s applied talent.
Here’s what I mean. Eddie Murphy has as much talent as anyone in Hollywood, and he’s had that talent since the he was 18. Would you call Eddie Murphy a great actor? The prosecution rests.
When LeBron took his talents to South Beach, he chose to skip past all the moments where he would build his legend and go straight to the moment where everyone expects a player to win titles. Just because you saved the Princess by warping ahead to level 8 – 8 doesn’t mean you beat Super Mario Bros. What good is an accomplishment if you didn’t work for it? We don’t hate LeBron for leaving Cleveland, we hate LeBron for thinking that taking the easy way out is the same as hard work.
Of course, LeBron was well within his rights as a free agent to sign where he pleased, but choosing to team up with both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh eliminated him from “Best Player in the NBA” consideration, at least for his first season in Miami. He could have been considered the best player in the league coming into this season, if it wasn’t for that pesky NBA Finals he had.
If you recall, the “LeBron James chokes in the fourth quarter” jokes were everywhere after the Mavericks showed the world that LeBron hates figuring out zone defenses even more than he hates playing defense. LeBron let his team down, plain and simple. At the start of that series, LeBron was undeniably the main reason the Heat had gotten to the Finals. By the end, it was equally undeniable that Dwyane Wade was that team’s Alpha Dog.
When LeBron signed in Miami, everyone wondered how Wade would perform in the “Pippen Role” with LeBron playing the Jordan. Wade had never really been the facilitator, and was used to having the offense built around him. For a while, the Heat struggled because of this fact. No one knew who to defer to. The Heat started picking up steam when both players worked off each other, featuring one of the greatest fast breaks of all time, but experts knew the playoffs would eventually slow them down, and they’d have to answer the lingering question of whose team it is. The Celtics and Bulls did everything right. They cut off LeBron’s lanes to the basket, which forced LeBron to settle for ill-chosen jumpers. (For the record, there’s no way Jordan lets this happen to him. Cut off his lane to the basket, and he finds ten other ways to get there. But LeBron is no Michael.) The problem was that LeBron was hitting his improbable jumpers. LeBron shot 33% from the 3-point line during last year’s regular season. He shot 43% against the Bulls. The Celtics fared better, holding LeBron’s averages to below his regular season marks, but the Heat edged out a five game series victory, outscoring Boston by a total of 14 points. Once LeBron got to Dallas, his shooting streak stopped. Dallas invoked the same strategy against LeBron that the others did, but their ability to keep pace with the Heat offensively coupled with the mounting pressure the Heat was facing caused LeBron’s collapse.
LeBron James averaged 26.7 points per game in the regular season. He never scored more than 24 in the Finals.
Game 4 was LeBron’s lowest moment. In 46 minutes, he finished with nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and eight points. Eight. To compare, Scottie Pippen only scored in the single digits three times in his 6 Finals appearances. Two of those performances were his last two alongside Michael Jordan, when his back was gone and his body had been beaten down by relentless Karl Malone charges to the basket. One of those games, Pippen played only 22 minutes. Michael never scored that low in a playoff game (Career low: 15 points), let alone the Finals (Career low: 22 points). In that same Finals, Dwyane Wade averaged one point more than his regular season average, and outscored LeBron in 4 of the series’ 6 games. On the game’s biggest stage, it was LeBron who reverted into the supplementary role. Dwyane Wade would play the part of Alpha Dog. If you’re looking for the league’s best player, Dwyane Wade deserves more consideration than his more powder-throwing teammate.
LeBron can be the best player in the NBA should ESPN release a similar list next year, but naming him so now is premature.
This season is a new start for LeBron. If he takes the pressure off himself to live up to everyone’s expectations, he can go back to being the player he was in Cleveland. But even then, he’d still have to add the work ethic that the Greatests of All Time possess. Having talent isn’t enough. He has to do something with it.