The LeBron James Opinion Piece, Part 2

Almost four months ago, I wrote The LeBron James Opinion Piece, detailing the King and his journey in the NBA: from his struggles to secure a ring, to the general feelings of dissent, betrayal and hate directed his way from the basketball public, to what his final legacy should be taking everything into account. At that point, LeBron had no rings. He was the most hated player in the NBA, playing on possibly the most hated team in the entire league. And while the LeBron haters certainly won’t let up now that the King has finally won his crown, the rest of the basketball population knowledgeable enough to know a dazzling postseason run when they see one has to at least respect LeBron for his complete dominance throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs. In other words, if you know anything about basketball, you have to admire him and somewhat feel happy for him for winning his first ring.

What made the run truly spectacular was the fact that LeBron finally silenced all the haters and doubters who said he couldn’t come up clutch when his team needed him the most. During the regular season, LeBron would play fantastic for the first three quarters of games and end up with 30+ points to go with other solid statistics, but when the fourth quarter rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. When he passed up a potential game-winning shot to a wide-open Udonis Haslem and cost his team a regular season victory, people criticized him. When he passed up another potential game-winning shot in the All-Star Game with Kobe Bryant egging him on and turned it over, people were ready to abandon ship. But in the playoffs, LeBron James settled the argument over who was better between him and Kevin Durant by coming up big for the Heat down the stretch in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. During the regular season, it was easy to win a LeBron argument; just point out that he didn’t have any rings or that he wasn’t clutch and you’d get someone to laugh. Try making that joke now and you’ll start a heated debate that you’ll probably lose.

However, winning his first ring doesn’t change the fact that LeBron took the easy path to get there. While I’m happy for such a transcendent player to finally win a ring after nine years of putting up with unfair amounts of hype, scrutiny, criticism, expectations, hate and doubt, I still would have preferred him win one on his own, in Cleveland. Yes, basketball is a team game and yes, LeBron’s decision to leave for Miami ultimately proved to be the right one because he got what he was looking for. It’s hard to fault a guy for choosing to play with his friends: one future Hall-of-Famer and his reptilian All-Star counterpart. But ever since LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, the culture of free agency and the NBA as a whole hasn’t been the same and probably never will be again. Before The Decision, championship teams were built from good draft picks, smart trades and team chemistry build over the course of a few seasons, all engineered by good management (aka the Oklahoma City Thunder). Now, star players decide where they want to play and which one of their superstar buddies they want to join forces with. In other words, it just doesn’t feel fair or natural. While I applaud LeBron for taking a pay cut and give up money for what should be the ultimate goal (an NBA championship), that mentality is dangerous for the competitive integrity of the game; nobody wants to play pickup at the gym with all the talented players on one side. It looks like that’s exactly how the NBA is starting to function.

LeBron James made for fantastic television with the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. If only it had all come about about naturally.

There’s no question LeBron and the Miami Heat deserved to win the 2012 NBA Finals. If the Thunder had played the way they did on their run to the Finals, I think they would have challenged the Heat, but because they didn’t show up in full force, there’s no doubt that the best team won the trophy. But the way Miami came to be is nothing short of unnatural. The people of Cleveland still have a legitimate reason to hate LeBron James, ring or no. As a fan and student of the game, I can’t say I was cheering LeBron to victory, even if I did respect and admire his dominance along the way and even if I was happy for him when he finally got his ring. On the one hand, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were built on smart draft picks (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka), helpful trades (Fisher, Perkins), good management and a rabid fan base. On the other, you had the Miami Heat, who became the most hated team in basketball after LeBron and Chris Bosh settled for smaller salaries just so they could play with their fellow superstar Dwyane Wade. Nobody on the Thunder’s roster betrayed an entire city, let alone make their announcement to do so on national television.

But as easy as it will be for some people to do so, eventually, the world will have to get over The Decision and stop holding it against him. Because as much as that move was an ultimate act of betrayal, holding that grudge against him would mean missing out on being able to appreciate one of the greatest players in NBA history. We looked down on him because he couldn’t win one in Cleveland and he couldn’t rise to a Michael Jordan-level to elevate his team to greatness. We turned on him faster than he turned on Cleveland because we were disappointed that this superstar we loved to cheer for had suddenly admitted he couldn’t do it alone. By taking his talents to South Beach, he basically told the world that he wasn’t going to be the greatest and his legacy would never trump Jordan’s. The Decision cemented that fact. As a news-hungry generation that depends on social media to establish and clarify our thoughts, opinions and expectations, we are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, the next Michael Phelps, the next Tiger Woods. We want to believe that the great sports figures we witness in our lives will be better than the ones we watched as children or heard about from our parents. But the fact is, even with an NBA championship under his belt, LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan. As I wrote a hundred times before this, he never was going to be Michael Jordan. But that’s not the worst thing in the world.

LeBron James isn’t a villain. Now that he’s finally won a ring, people must acknowledge his skills on the court as an NBA champion. Whether they like him or not is irrelevant now because he’s not going anywhere. LeBron will still be one of the most polarizing figures in sports because of his decision to leave the Cavaliers, but hopefully the hate will recede as much as LeBron’s hairline (one more LeBron joke for old time’s sake) so we can all appreciate what this future legend can do on a basketball court. There will always be haters; Kobe Bryant is living proof of that. But let’s keep things in perspective: the worst thing LeBron has ever done was leave a terrible basketball team for a more talented one. Some players in the league have been accused of rape, domestic abuse, gun possession and other serious crimes. Looking at the big picture, LeBron and his rise to the championship really shouldn’t be the enemy. We can be disappointed that LeBron sold out and that it ultimately paid off. We can be upset that The Decision changed the dynamic of free agency in the NBA. And we can be upset that a class act like Kevin Durant wasn’t able to win a title in his first attempt. But this ring forces us to acknowledge the LeBron is a winner who took matters into his own hands, even with two fellow superstars on the floor. And although one ring doesn’t put him the conversation with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other NBA all-time greats just yet, he’s getting there. A few more rings and who knows? We might have to mention him in the top ten if he keeps winning. But for now, let’s be clear: LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. LeBron James is not Kobe. LeBron James is still LeBron James. His choice to leave Cleveland will slightly tarnish his legacy forever, no matter how many rings he wins. And while he’s still young and there’s no way of knowing how many titles LeBron will claim before his career is over, keep in mind Bill Russell won more rings than anyone; that doesn’t make him the best player of all time. We can’t say for sure where LeBron will rank on the list of all-time greats yet, but whether you like it or not, the name LeBron James can now be equated with being a winner.

LeBron will never be MJ. But let’s stop the hating and appreciate him for what he is: The King.

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Dwyane Wade Leads Miami To Eastern Conference Finals

After Larry Bird called his team “soft” following the Game 5 rout in Miami, the Pacers responded early in Game 6, jumping out to a 13-3 lead and dominating the Heat in the paint. But a spectacular playoff performance from Dwyane Wade and way too many Indiana turnovers gave Miami a 103-95 win on the road to end the series in six (like I predicted) and send the Heat to the Eastern conference Finals.

Wade exploded for 41 points on 17-of-25 shooting while also adding 10 rebounds, singlehandedly keeping the Heat relatively even with the Pacers in the first half by scoring 20 points in the second quarter. The Pacers had taken an 11 point lead in the first quarter as they out-rebounded Miami 14-3 and got 22 of their 28 first quarter points in the paint. But Wade’s brilliant second quarter performance had the Heat down by just two at half. The Heat also got some big help from Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who combined for 27 points and seven 3-pointers. LeBron James wasn’t much of a factor early, but helped close out the resilient Pacers down the stretch and finished with 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds. However, as great as Wade was and as helpful as it was for Miami to get a big game out of LeBron, Miller and Chalmers, the Pacers killed their chances with an atrocious 20 turnovers. They also got absolutely nothing out of their bench, who gave up Indiana’s 11 point first quarter lead within minutes and then allowed the Heat to extend a four point lead to 10 before the start of the fourth quarter. Indiana’s starters had a combined +/- of +13; their bench was at -73.  It’s true that the +/- stat doesn’t work cumulatively, but just looking at those number sheds a little bit of light how awful the Pacers’ bench was in this game. Indiana’s starters build leads up, but those leads evaporated as soon as the subs came in, and because those subs had to be taken out right away, the starters didn’t have enough gas left in the tank at the end from playing so many minutes.

Dwyane Wade was simply unstoppable and led the Heat past Indiana and on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

David West led Indiana with 24 points, George Hill had 18 and Danny Granger added 15, but it wasn’t enough to match Wade’s prolific night. Roy Hibbert continued his streak of underperforming, finishing with just 12 points and eight rebounds. Some of the disappointment in Hibbert’s inability to dominate a Miami side without Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem has to fall on Frank Vogel, who didn’t get him enough shots, but the majority is on Indiana’s “All-Star” (don’t even get me started on how Hibbert made the cut but Granger was snubbed as an All-Star). West was dominating the paint and getting good post position against Shane Battier, but Hibbert couldn’t establish good post position against Ronny Turiaf or Joel Anthony, often catching the ball out of the paint and far away from the basket. You combine Indiana’s awful bench, the 20 turnovers, Hibbert’s ineffective post game and his lack of a presence in the paint on the defensive end (Wade was on fire but if you’ve got a 7-footer protecting the basket, a lot of Wade’s drives to the rim shouldn’t be so easy), and it’s no wonder the Heat got the win and the series.

I said all along that without Chris Bosh, the Heat were in trouble (and I still stand by that, Miami doesn’t win the Finals without Bosh on the floor). I said the balanced scoring of the Pacers would give them an advantage over two superstars, and although the Heat advanced, I was pretty much right. Without Miller and Chalmers going off tonight, the Pacers force a Game 7. But the brilliance of Wade and LeBron cannot be denied in the last few games of this series. They simply overpowered Indiana and with a mediocre Hibbert failing to make this series his, the Heat advance to the next round. Indiana should be proud of what it accomplished this year and even in this game, never quitting and staying resilient until the end. They have a bunch of solid pieces, a great coach, a promising future and they gave the Heat a good series. Hopefully Hibbert is more aggressive next year as Danny Granger and Paul George continue to develop. But unfortunately for my sleeper team, two elite superstars look like they’re about to waltz into the NBA Finals.

Danny Granger and the Pacers had a great season, but they killed themselves in Game 6 and Wade took over.

The LeBron James Opinion Piece

LeBron James. Just seeing his name evokes a response of some kind. It just depends on who you ask. Superstar. Traitor. Sensation. Choker. Athlete. Coward. Icon. The list includes almost every name under the sun. How can a man be so respected, hated and admired all at the same time?

People will first point to “The Decision,” a one-hour ESPN broadcast in which he announced his plans to leave the Cavs for Miami, as the obvious reason he went from being a national icon to the most hated man in the sports world. A lot of people overlook the fact that the proceeds from that broadcast went to charity, but it was undoubtedly a poor decision to go through with the one-hour segment if he was going to abandon Cleveland.  But even though we all looked down on him for what he did to the city of Cleveland in that move, that wasn’t the real reason we’ve resented LeBron ever since. Only the city of Cleveland has a real reason to hate him just for that. No, the real reason LeBron has been scorned by the entire sports world is the fact that this gifted and talented sports hero, a man who had led the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA multiple times and to the NBA Finals, couldn’t get the job done and bailed. The real reason we hate LeBron is because we wanted to believe. We wanted LeBron to live up to the hype and deliver this underdog city its first championship in any professional sport. We wanted him to be like Michael Jordan and elevate the play of his teammates while still being a one-man show on the way to winning a title. We were ready for the next superstar with the same DNA as MJ and Kobe. But in his decision to leave for a team loaded with superstars, a decision to sell out and take the easy path to try and win a championship, he lost everything that made him so compelling in our eyes.

An infamous moment in basketball history

Some hoops fans’ eyes lit up when LeBron announced he’d be playing with D-Wade and Bosh in Miami. This was going to be a team to be reckoned with, a force not seen in the league since Jordan and the Bulls, Kobe and Shaq, or the Celtics and Lakers of old. And I have to admit, I was one of them. The idea of so much talent on one team was enthralling, and I defended his move by saying it was noble that he took a pay cut so he could win a championship. And then my fascination gave way to my love of the game and competition. “Noble” was the last word that came to mind. Why? Because I realized that all those legendary teams with so many Hall of Famers came about naturally, products of hard work, good draft picks and great management. Did Robert Parish and Kevin McHale ever tell the Warriors that they wanted to take their talents to Boston to play with Larry Bird? No. Did Dennis Rodman request to leave San Antonio so he could play with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? NO. If they had, people would have thought a lot less of them, and these were only great players, not the best player in the NBA! It’s easy to see why the best player in the league betraying Cleveland and taking a pay cut just to play with his buddies is so bad.

Now it doesn’t matter that he’s putting up MVP numbers (for the second season in a row). It wouldn’t have mattered if he had elevated his play in the fourth quarter last season and led the Heat to the championship over the Mavs. We disrespect LeBron not because of what he did to Cleveland, but because when he had a chance to rise to the occasion and become an NBA legend, he became frustrated and impatient and bailed.

Any true fan of basketball has to admit that LeBron James is the best overall player in the game right now. Even though he is definitely not clutch, Kobe and Durant are still not quite on LeBron’s level. He’s averaging 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game this season and should be a lock for MVP. He can score, pass, rebound and play great defense to help his team win, even if his fourth quarter play does (and should) come into question. Even if you don’t like the guy, even if you hate him for his decision to leave Cleveland while announcing that betrayal on public television for the entire nation to watch, and even if you don’t agree with his selling out to play with D-Wade in Miami, if you have a true understanding of the game of basketball, it’s impossible to deny respect for what this guy can do on the court.

Then again, it’s hard to leave him alone when he continues to make bad decisions. This year, just as people were finally starting to leave him alone a little bit, he opened his mouth and said something stupid again, this time about the possibility of playing in Cleveland again one day, hoping that they would accept him if he did. Now I can understand his desire to make peace with the city so close to his hometown. And I can also appreciate that LeBron understands that an NBA player’s tenure in any city is unlikely to be permanent these days. But only someone desperate for the public’s approval would say something so dumb so soon. Cleveland is barely starting to get over it now, why open your mouth and open old wounds when people were finally starting to move on and see you as a basketball player again? “Poor timing” doesn’t even come close. And so people continue to see him as the villain (side note: if your Nike commercial defending your bad decision is a big enough controversy to be turned into a South Park spoof, it’s time to rethink your decision-making).

LeBron isn’t a bad guy. As much as people hate him for the decisions he’s made, he is a good basketball player and a good human being. He’s always given his time and money to charity, including his “26 Seconds” campaign with State Farm to keep kids in school (even if the commercial is slightly creepy). We shouldn’t hate him for selling out like that. If anything, we should pity him. Any questions we had about whether or not he would ever be as good as Michael Jordan are now answered with a resounding “Hell no.” He already had to live with amazing amounts of hype when he was in high school, let alone being compared to MJ in his first year in the league. Yet somehow he managed to live up to that hype in every way except one during his time in Cleveland. Remember how he completely took over Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in 2007 in a double overtime win? Remember him rattling off 48 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, including 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points in that game? Remember jumping out of your chair for this guy when he hit that game-winner against Orlando in 2009? It’s incredible to think how far this man has fallen since then.

Nobody hated LeBron in this moment. Well, except maybe the Magic.

So what can LeBron do to win the people back? Unfortunately, it may be too late at this point. The nation is divided into people who dislike LeBron, dislike LeBron but still respect his talent, and Miami Heat fans. Those who support him or at least still respect him know that he will NEVER be mentioned in the same breath as MJ and Kobe without a ring. But when he finally does win one (it’s only a matter of time now that the Heat have such great chemistry), it’s not going to help his image or people’s opinion of him. Like last year’s series with the Mavs, if he doesn’t live up to our expectations (especially in the 4th), we’ll give all the credit to D-Wade and Bosh for the victory. And even if he does actually play well in the Finals for once, people will still hate on him and say it wouldn’t have been possible without selling out for superstar teammates. So even though people will continue to berate him until he wins one, when he finally does, LeBron still won’t be able to catch a break.

Whether or not he deserves one is up to you. LeBron isn’t a villain. He’s just an NBA superstar who didn’t live up to the role model we all wanted him to be. There are a lot more important things in life than basketball and when you look at the big picture, all the guy really did is leave one team for another. But if you take this game as seriously as I do, if you know that basketball is really more than just a game, and if you realize your anger at LeBron stems from disappointment in what he could have been, you know that LeBron James’ legacy will never be the same after he took the easy road. He will never measure up to MJ. He probably won’t measure up to Kobe. His lack of rings hurts his legacy, but not as much as his lack of loyalty to one team. Why do we love MJ and Kobe so much? Because they were so successful with one team, a team they stuck with through the hard times and led to victory during the good times. We need to stop hating on LeBron so much and instead, focus on the great basketball player that he is. Yes, he made a huge mistake and sold out, which lowers our respect for him, but there’s no reason to hate on him anymore. Because as much as we wanted him to be, he will never be Michael Jordan.