Sports on a grand scale always gives us lots of questions, and often they provide answers as to why results end up how they end up. “This team was too banged up”, “They didn’t execute”, “They couldn’t win on the road”, “They got out-coached”.
I’ve been racking my brain (doesn’t take as long as you might think) trying to remember the last time or even IN my lifetime, I’ve seen a seven-game series in any sports as difficult to explain as the Mavericks/Heat NBA Finals. It’s not the biggest shocker in recent NBA history — not even close in fact, I’d still maintain the Pistons’ 5-game assault on the LA Lakers in 2004 leaps off the page as a major upset, and even the Celtics 2008 title had its share of non-believers that Boston, only two offseasons after acquiring Kevin Garnett could make a push so swiftly, and yet so subtly towards a Championship.
But given the last eleven months in the life of LeBron James, given how confident he was arriving in Miami along with new mate Chris Bosh, to join Dwyane Wade, and set fire to the NBA’s Eastern Conference, this is shocking. Given they hemmed and hawwed their way through the excruciatingly long regular season of 82 games with mild fits of disinterest and apathy throughout, still to emerge winning 58 games, this is shocking.
Given LeBron is healthy physically, despite many arguments that he has played too many minutes in too many important games in the last 5-6 weeks, this is shocking. And most importantly, given he fed the league’s “MVP”, the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who’s a real artistic and skilled basketball player, his lunch night in and night out in the Eastern Conference Finals, and if anything, LeBron was gaining steam headed towards the Finals, not running out of it, this is shocking.
This can’t all be mental, and yet it can’t all be physical, but even the most casual NBA fan (there’s a lot of us out there, the game drew almost a 17-share in the United States, baseball’s World Series games are usually a 10 or 11 at the absolute most), would concur they’re perplexed by this. It makes no sense. It maybe never will. LeBron James is the most gifted physical basketball player of our generation. Save your Michael Jordan argument — it’s not even close. Jordan was cut in high school. Jordan was a good-to-almost great NCAA player for Dean Smith at North Carolina. He was a skinny kid when he got into the NBA who had trouble doing anything under the basket, and had a real limited long-range jumper. He loved to slice-and-dice, and slash-and-dash, and guess what? He kept working at his game, he’d get better, he’d get bigger, he’d get smarter, he’d watch film, he’d devise ways to make his teammates better and vice-versa.
My only theory is LeBron James has too many “yes men” around him and hasn’t been told to do that. He’s had to be responsible (despite being a young father, and obviously a more involved one that his own dad was, given he abandoned LeBron and his Mom) for little else besides maintaining the good name of LeBron Incorporated.
I theorized last week he should have gone and played college basketball, at least for two years. He’d be better now for it. Easy for me to say, I’m a middle-class kid, two parents, I didn’t grow up needing to scramble to stay above the poverty line, and for that, I’m grateful, same as I am for my family being there for me, my wonderful wife and adorable kids, my job, my friends, my experiences, all of it. I felt like a jerk afterwards — who am I to tell LeBron James at age 17 — “Hey, skip that #1 overall pick thing, and the endorsement deals, and the $10-$12 million you can accumulate in your bank account in six months or so!!!! Go to school, take a Film Studies class, fit in on campus, play for UCLA, or Duke, or Michigan State!!!! You’ll love it!!!”
But would he be a better player now? Absolutely he would. There’s something missing despite his physical gifts. Is he afraid to take responsibility for his own failures? Is he afraid to embrace the successes? We’re all playing “amateur psychologist” right now, and sports, and sportswriting, and the sports talk radio industry is, indeed, all about that — too much so sometimes for my liking, but NONE of us know.
For an athlete we all thought we knew, who he is, what he can do, what makes him tick — we’re now learning we know a lot less about LeBron James than we originally thought. But I know this much (I think, therefore, I know) – he’ll get his title, and more than one, in the next five years in Miami. He’s a better basketball player than Dirk Nowitzki — one two-week stretch can’t possibly change that, and I still am unsure we should be elevating Nowitzki to Top 15 or Top 20 all-time status. He has “the ring” and a Finals MVP and we can’t take any of that away from him.
Does that mean he had a better career than Charles Barkley? Scottie Pippen? Chris Webber (had Webber not suffered his horrific injury)? Dirk gets mentioned in Larry Bird-territory now and it’s tough to definitively dismiss either side. But take this for what it’s worth; we’re judging Nowitzki positively, and we all damn well should, for his run, especially in these NBA Finals, right? If anything, the 2011 NBA Finals will be remembered as the time LeBron disappeared and the Heat lost, far more so than all the amazing performances and teamwork on display from the opposition.
Well, if we’re giving Nowitzki the benefit of the doubt for this year’s playoff run, let’s remember Nowitzki’s Mavs had lost 21 of the previous 33 NBA playoff games dating back to their COLLAPSE against, in retrospect, a superior Miami Heat team in 2006. So if he gets praise for two weeks, he has to absorb some criticism for the last five playoff disappointments. Love the guy as a player, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but we’re getting a touch carried away.
Make no mistake, LeBron James needs to find himself. But he’s in charge. He makes the calls, if he whistles past the graveyard thinking nothing’s wrong, then nothing with his game or personality or flaws will change. It’s not going to get any less fascinating this offseason — though I would guess another Nike/”What Should I Do” advert isn’t in the works.