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.

Superman or Super Flake?

Awhile back, I wrote about how the Magic had become like kryptonite to Superman. I said that they needed to trade him, get what value they could for him and that the reason why Orlando was struggling was actually because of Dwight Howard. Even then, when the Magic were still the third seed in the East, Howard’s off-the-court drama looked like it was eventually going to become a problem and derail a successful team from its winning ways. Now it’s developed into a full-blown soap opera with Stan Van Gundy saying that his sources are telling him Howard wants him fired as head coach at the end of the season.

Now whether or not this claim is true still isn’t clear. Howard had no idea what Van Gundy was saying when he put his arm around him in that interview and was taken aback once the reporters had filled him in on what his coach had just said. Was he surprised that his secret had got out, or was he genuinely affronted by the rumor? Whatever the case, Van Gundy seems pretty confident in whatever sources he’s talking about within management. After Howard’s flip flopping multiple times on whether or not he would stay with the Magic for another year, a lot of rumors floated around about what management promised D12 in order to convince him to stay. Some stories said that he would have the power to decide the fate of Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith at the end of the season. Others said that Howard simply looked at Twitter once he said he was opting out of his contract and all the criticism he saw bothered him to the point that he changed his mind. Whatever the case, Superman’s superhuman wishy-washy mentality over the past three months doesn’t inspire much confidence if you’re an Orlando Magic fan.

Van Gundy told reporters Dwight Howard wanted him fired minutes before Howard showed up. Is there validity to his claim?

Now I don’t want to fully condemn Howard if it’s untrue that he wants Van Gundy gone and actually has the power to do so. It would be wrong to jump the gun if he is sincere about just focusing on winning a championship and I do think he feels bad about the message he’s sent his fanbase over the past few months. But all signs are pointing to Howard being guilty at this point. He’s denied any involvement in management up to this point, saying that he’s just a player and that Van Gundy’s fate is up to management at the end of the season…but I don’t know if I can be naive enough to think that Van Gundy is making this stuff up. There must have been some compelling reason for Howard to change his mind and stay in Orlando after months of everyone fully expecting him to be traded to New Jersey or LA. So while Dwight Howard may have love for the city of Orlando, it wouldn’t surprise me if after this freak circus show that’s been going on for the past few months, he’s planning on using his influence to oust Van Gundy.

If Dwight Howard is orchestrating these managerial moves, then shame on him. But even if he isn’t and his denials prove to be true, he still should be ashamed of all that he’s put the city through, all he’s put the fanbase through and all he’s put his teammates through. The issue here is not that a player is trying to oust a coach. People forget that Shaq ousted two coaches (Van Gundy and Kurt Rambis) and even the lovable Magic Johnson got rid of Paul Westhead. But the key was that these players orchestrated the move with a better coach in mind; Johnson’s complaining paved the way for Pat Riley while Shaq brought in Riley and Phil Jackson. Is Howard planning this move with a better coach in mind? Probably not. Is there even a coach better for D12 than Van Gundy, who helped shape him from day one into the defensive juggernaut he’s become? Most likely, no. So in this case, a player asking for or orchestrating a coaching change is unacceptable, but the real problem is that when you consider all that he’s put the city of Orlando through in the past few months, it’s downright despicable.

Stan Van Gundy helped Superman develop into the defensive powerhouse he is. Would Howard really fire him if he had the power to do so?

So why are people just now hammering Howard for these past months of indecision that will clearly taint his reputation and legacy for years to come? The answer is that even though Howard has continued to wound his fanbase and teammates, he’s brought his A-game to the court every night, putting up superhuman numbers and leaving no doubt that his hunger for a championship is greater than all the off-the-court drama. Until now, that is. Because when a player realizes that his coach knows/thinks he’s being ousted, it’s hard to play through that kind of adversity and public criticism. Which is why Dwight Howard threw up an 8-point, 8-rebound performance against the Knicks last night. Hell, Big Baby Glen Davis had a bigger game than Superman last night in the Magic’s fifth loss in a row, which is the first time Orlando has had a losing streak of that size since 2007. Tyson Chandler has played extremely well against Howard this season, but that kind of absent-minded performance is unacceptable and was a big testament to the problems within the Orlando Magic organization at the moment.

I predicted the Magic would implode, but I had no idea things would become so convoluted and melodramatic, especially this close to the postseason. During this losing streak, Orlando has slipped to the sixth seed in the East, meaning Howard’s problems are about to be a hell of a lot bigger than Stan Van Gundy. The recipe for destruction was always there: an unhappy superstar trying to uphold his image as a loyal franchise guy to a city that feels betrayed because he’s working on improving his own situation behind closed doors; a great coach who doesn’t put up with any BS and is getting sick of the games; a lackluster supporting cast that can’t appease their star’s desire for a championship; management that is giving their bratty superstar too much say in operations; it’s really all there in Orlando. But unlike before when the Magic were winning despite all of Dwight Howard’s BS, things are changing. The soap opera off-the-court has become the main show in Orlando. And whereas before Orlando should have traded Dwight Howard because the Magic were his kryptonite, the situation has reversed: Superman should leave because he has become the kryptonite to his city, his team…and even himself.

Dwight Howard's season and legacy are going to pay for his actions in the past few months.

Kobe Bryant’s Legacy

Kobe Bryant should go down in history as the second-greatest NBA player of all time. Although I don’t think he’ll finish his career as accomplished as the best of the best like Michael Jordan or Bill Russell, Kobe has singlehandedly kept the Lakers relevant throughout the years, even when the rest of his team has been lackluster. A player this talented and important to the game should be respected and admired, but why is it that so many people hate on Kobe Bryant?

Admittedly, Kobe is no longer the primary target of the basketball world’s scrutiny. LeBron James has easily taken that title since “The Decision.” Still, Kobe Bryant was the third-most hated NBA player according to Forbes’ list, falling behind only Kris Humphries and LeBron. So why is it, after all his success and becoming easily identifiable as the best player we’ve seen since MJ, that a majority of people still don’t like Kobe Bryant?

Four games with the mask and we're already hearing Hannibal Lecter jokes.

There are three main reasons for this. The first reason is something I like to call “The MJ Effect.” Kobe has won five championships, including a threepeat. He’s won an MVP award, two NBA Finals MVP awards and he continues to dazzle us with his ability to take over games in the fourth quarter and hit gamewinners. Like Michael Jordan before him, some people resent Kobe because he continues to be the best and we get sick of the monotony, no matter how great he continues to play. Basically, we’ve gotten sick of Kobe and the Lakers winning championships and we’re ready for something new. There are always haters when it comes to success, as we began to see with Michael Jordan as he neared the end of his career with the Bulls. But whereas the majority of people recognized that they were witnessing the greatest of all time make history with Michael Jordan’s accomplishments, most knowledgable basketball fans know that Kobe will never measure up to MJ, so why be interested in watching him win more championships? It’s an easy point to back up, all people have to do is remind Kobe fanatics that Shaq was the Finals MVP the first three times he won a title with the Lakers, basically saying that it wouldn’t have been possible without Shaq (Phil Jackson too). Kobe isn’t even the best player in the league anymore (sorry but LeBron is better, even if he can’t hit a gamewinner) and we’ve seen him win before. So unless you’re a Lakers fan, you’re ready for someone new to be dominant.

We've seen Kobe win. Most people want to see something new.

The second reason people generally dislike Kobe Bryant goes back to the rape allegations back in 2003, when a young hotel employee, Katelyn Faber, filed a sexual assault complaint. Whether or not he actually raped the 19-year-old Faber was never proven because the case never went to court, but he did admit to having an adulterous sexual encounter with her. The worst part of all of this however, was his ambiguous and questionable apology to Faber after the charges were dropped, which left a lot of room for doubt as to whether or not the sexual encounter was consensual. So despite the charges being dropped, it’s not easy to forget a serious and scandalous accusation like that.

But probably the biggest reason why people dislike Kobe Bryant is his general demeanor and confidence that borderlines (and often crosses into) cockiness. Kobe is a winner. Kobe is a fierce competitor. But nowhere in those descriptions does it say Kobe has to be a nice guy. And that works for him, because he can be a downright dick sometimes. We see plenty of Kobe Bryant; whether it’s in postgame interviews or funny commercials with Aziz Ansari, the NBA’s audience gets plenty of exposure to him. But no matter how entertaining some of those commercials may be and no matter how many gamewinners he continues to hit, most people just don’t have a good impression of Kobe Bryant. It might be that ugly, jaw-clenched face he has when he’s at his competitive high. Maybe it’s his tendency to be a sore loser in how he handles defeat in press conferences and interviews with such a condescending and short attitude. It may even be something as small as the anti-gay slur incident that he was fined $100K for. But whatever the case, that fire and extremely competitive nature Kobe Bryant carries around with him is the same quality that prevents his commercials from being too endearing and makes him such an unlikable person in society’s eyes, in victory and defeat.

Here is the biggest reason we dislike Kobe: his demeanor. Exhibit A - Kobe's Game Face.

All Lakers fans adore Kobe Bryant, and rightfully so after all he’s given the franchise. Some Lakers fans foolishly look at him as the greatest of all time. The smartest ones acknowledge that he isn’t the nicest guy around and that he’s not MJ, but also recognize that he’s a one-of-a-kind competitor and winner with a legacy of his own. So what is that legacy? When his time is done, he will go down as the greatest Laker of all time. Perhaps not the most loved (no one will take that away from Magic Johnson), but Kobe’s ability to make big plays at the most critical moment of a game and win championships will secure his place in history as the second greatest basketball player we’ve ever seen, regardless of what we think of him as a person.

As a Suns fan, I can’t stand Kobe Bryant. But as a basketball fan, player and student, I can’t deny the respect I have for his talent, competitive fire and ability to win. I absolutely hate watching Kobe with his game face on when he’s singlehandedly taking over a game or dominating my Suns. Yes, Michael Jordan had a similar game face when it came down to crunch time, but his was purely inspiring unless you were a diehard fan of the other team. Kobe’s game face, like his entire persona, is one that largely inspires disgust and dislike from the majority of people who aren’t Lakers fans. So go ahead and hate on Kobe’s success. Mock his overly competitive attitude and make fun of him for his postgame interviews. But whether or not you like him and his game face doesn’t matter, because at the end of his career, people had damn well better respect Kobe Bryant and the ugly face he made on the way to becoming the second-greatest NBA player we’ve ever seen.

Like him or not, Kobe Bryant should be remembered as the second greatest player to ever play the game

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/4/12

Here are the scores from around the league and the major headlines:

Boston Celtics 115, New York Knicks 111 – The Celtics beat the Knicks at home in overtime after Paul Pierce hit a tough contested three to tie the game in regulation. Pierce ended up with 34, which was overshadowed by Rajon Rondo’s historic triple double of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists. Only two other players have recorded a 15-15-15 triple double in the last 25 years (Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson). Talks of trading Rondo will likely die down now, even though the Celtics probably need to make some changes to stay competitive in the East. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points and had a few key buckets to give the Knicks the lead before Pierce forced overtime. Jeremy Lin struggled, finishing with 14 points and 6 turnovers. He’ll need to work on keeping his turnovers down while increasing his scoring and distributing for the Knicks to be contenders this year.

Paul Pierce sends the game to overtime

Los Angeles Lakers 93, Miami Heat 83 – Kobe Bryant and the Lakers made a statement with their ten-point victory over the visiting Miami Heat. Kobe started out the night with 18 points in the first quarter and singlehandedly set the tone for his team early on. Kobe finished with 33 and has scored 30+ in each of his last three games while wearing the mask to protect his nose. LeBron James led the Heat with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, but it still wasn’t enough for a Miami side that was down the whole game. The Masked Mamba showed his competitive fire from the start while LeBron, who had a good game, couldn’t carry the load with Chris Bosh out and Dwyane Wade fouling out in the 4th. The Heat probably win this game with Bosh on the floor, but watch out for the Lakers in the West. They are looking like a completely different team from the beginning of the season behind Kobe’s hot hand.

Miami had no answer for the Masked Mamba

Denver Nuggets 99, San Antonio Spurs 94 – Ty Lawson flirted with a triple double as the Nuggets edged the Spurs in Manu Ginobili’s return to the court. Lawson finished with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds, and also hit a critical jumper that put Denver up by three and sealed the deal. Gary Neal tried to tie it up on the Spurs’ final possession but his 3-pointer rimmed out, resulting in San Antonio’s third loss of the season at home. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25. The Nuggets have now won three in a row without Danilo Gallinari or Nene. This game also showed off Kenneth Faried’s incredible athletic ability. Look for him to continue to evolve his game, he could develop into quite the role player for Denver.

Look for this guy to grow into a pretty good player for the Nuggets

Chicago Bulls 96, Philadelphia 76ers 91 – Derrick Rose tied his season high of 35 points and added 7 assists in a spectacular performance as the Bulls got a road victory over the 76ers. Chicago avenged a loss earlier in the season and led for most of the second half but couldn’t quite close the deal, missing free throws down the stretch. Joakim Noah has 11 points and 18 rebounds for the Bulls, who now own the best record in the NBA at 31-8. Andre Iguodala had two good looks for threes in the fourth that would have kept the Sixers alive, but air-balled them both. The Sixers have now lost seven of their last nine games.

Derrick Rose makes another ridiculous shot to lift Chicago over the Sixers

Los Angeles Clippers 105, Houston Rockets 103 – Chris Paul was clutch again for the Clippers down the stretch, giving Los Angeles a solid win on the road in overtime. Paul led the way with 28 points and 10 assists, including 3 crucial points in the final minute of overtime. The Rockets have now lost three games in a row. The Clippers still hold on to a slim lead over the Lakers in the Pacific.

Chris Paul was Mr. Clutch for the Clippers at the end of the game

New Jersey Nets 104, Charlotte Bobcats 101 – Deron Williams has a historic night of his own, putting up 57 points to set a Nets’ franchise record. Williams’ 57 is the highest scoring total in the NBA so far this season. Williams was a perfect 21-for-21 from the free throw line. The Bobcats still only have four wins on the season.

Deron Williams couldn't be stopped and set a franchise record with 57 points

Phoenix Suns 96, Sacramento Kings 88 – The Suns won their third in a row behind Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat, erasing a double-digit deficit in the second half, also for the third game in a row. Nash had 19 points while Gortat had 14 points and 17 rebounds. This is the longest winning streak for the Suns this season, and has helped put Phoenix only a few games behind the 8th spot in the Western Conference.

Can Gortat and the Suns have a shot at making the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors 83, Golden State Warriors 75 – DeMar DeRozan scored 25 for Toronto, leading the Raptors to a victory over Mark Jackson’s Warriors. Golden State was up by nine at halftime but only scored 11 points in the third quarter. David Lee led the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Warriors, who have now lost six of their last nine.

DeRozan drives to the hoop and helps snap the Raptors' five-game losing streak against the Warriors.