Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Go Easy on LeBron
Boy, am I backpedaling on this one. Last month, I wrote a column about winning the wrong way, centered around the idea that LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates had engineered a cheap title, winning not by raising their game to new heights, but by going somewhere it would be easy to win. At the time, I wrote that I was "disgusted" by the Heat's success, and I made a lot of sarcastic comments about LeBron's competitive spirit, especially in comparison with Michael Jordan's.
When Miami was rolling through the Eastern Conference playoffs, going 12-3, sportswriters started describing LeBron as the best possible combination of Bill Russell and Jordan, writing about how he had "grown up" in Miami, finally elevated his game to championship level. I don't mean to be unkind, but how stupid do you have to be that you can't tell the difference between improving as a player or having better teammates? That was the narrative leading up to the Finals, and ElGee of Back Picks summed it up nicely, how people were ignoring all the times James played well in Cleveland, and attributing undue heroism to his postseason play this year in Miami.
Now that the Heat have lost in the NBA Finals — and I'm as happy about that as most of you are — the opposite of what I had anticipated has come to pass. The writers who lionized LeBron have turned on him: he came up small in the Finals, and the Heat failed because he wasn't good enough. It's not any more true than the original story, about how LeBron had grown up, reached new heights, and turned into Jordan/Russell/Clark Kent/Joe Montana.
Miami didn't lose because LeBron is a bad player or a choker. Okay, he was a non-factor in Game 4. He had a triple-double in Game 5, and the Heat still lost. This isn't all about LeBron.
The Cavs didn't lose in the playoffs year after year because of some deficiency in LeBron's game. They lost because the other four guys usually weren't very good. This year, Miami didn't lose because James hasn't grown up, or can't handle the pressure, or isn't one of the two or three best players in the world. The Heat lost because Dallas outplayed them in a six-game series. That includes LeBron, of course — this obviously wasn't his best performance — but the series was never a referendum on King James.
If the Heat had won, that wouldn't have made LeBron a Jordan-esque hero any more than the series loss turns him into Jean Van de Velde. My favorite quote on choking is by longtime MLB manager Gene Mauch: "Losing streaks are funny. If you lose at the beginning you got off to a bad start. If you lose in the middle of the season, you're in a slump. If you lose at the end, you're choking." Everyone goes through slumps, but if your slump comes in the playoffs, all of a sudden it's an indictment of your will to win. What a load of crap.
You don't judge an individual player by his team's results, not even in basketball. During Michael Jordan's first five seasons, the Bulls were a .500 team: 205-205. Magic Johnson's Lakers lost in the NBA Finals four times. Larry Bird's Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA six times, but only won three championships. Are any of those guys chokers? Are their legacies diminished because they ran into a hot opponent at the wrong time, or had teammates who couldn't keep up?
Even more than the issue of team results, you shouldn't judge anyone by a handful of games. For the first 15 games of this postseason, LeBron really did look like the second coming of Jordan. For the final six, he simply looked like a good player, with positives and negatives, good plays and bad ones. He's not a superhuman gifted with a magical ability to elevate his game if there's a title at stake, and he's not a choker who can't win the big one. I'm sure he'll win a championship eventually, maybe even this time next year. These last six games don't define him as a player. They wouldn't have if he'd won, and they don't now that he's lost.