Falling Down Just to Stand Up

Over the last 20 years or so in the NBA, there's a fascinating trend that has developed: rarely do the league's biggest stars immediately find championship success on their first trip to the Finals or a grand, high-pressure stage. In that time period, Tim Duncan is the superstar to have won a championship within a year or two of his rookie campaign and in his first major appearance on a big stage. Gone are the days where stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson can reach the ultimate pinnacle for the first time in their careers without first suffering a high-profile playoff loss or two.

Shaq won several Finals after first being embarrassed by Hakeem Olajuwon, running into Michael Jordan's iconic 1996 Bulls team and falling short of the Finals in his first few L.A. seasons. Kobe Bryant won his first Finals, but shared those Lakers disappointments with Shaq and dealt with the pressure of "Kobe can't win as the main guy" that was said after Shaq's departure until 2009. Dirk Nowitzki failed to step up against the Heat in 2006. Even Dwyane Wade, who won his first Finals over Dirk's Mavs, lost to the Pistons in 2005 after Miami was one of the leading contenders for the title.

Never before has this pattern been more visible than in the wake of the 2012 Finals, where LeBron James, easily the best player in the world, finally won a championship after a multitude of well-known and oft-discussed stumbles. Furthermore, the way in which he performed in the Finals left no doubt about who the go-to guy on the team was. In the wake of "The Decision," any titles LeBron won were supposed to be overshadowed by Wade's identity as a clutch performer and a career-long Miami stalwart. Clearly, that wasn't the case in Miami's title run.

It's tough to say anything about LeBron that hasn't already been said to this point. But the most insightful thing said about one of the world's most polarizing athletes came from James' teammate, Shane Battier.

"He sneezes and it's a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he's really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don't know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle."

Goodness knows LeBron has made his fair share of missteps. "The Decision" will forever be known as one of the most unfortunate hours in the history of sports media and public relations. James' steadfast refusal for months thereafter to recognize the way he had gone about his choice was hurtful to many will always leave a bad taste in the mouths of many former fans and sympathetic observers. For lovers of an NBA time gone by, the fact that he teamed up with two other stars in the 2010 free agent class and his hubris thereafter still make him a persona non grata.

But for me, there came a time in these playoffs where I became decidedly more less hostile about my opinion of LeBron: the first quarter of Game 6 against Boston. There's few games I've watched in any sport where one player was on a singular, you've-got-no-chance-tonight mission to dominate the other team in a way that made every single person critical of that player shut up, at least for a few hours.

In sports, I don't think there are many neutral observers who don't want to see the best players give it their all and do so in a way that takes advantage of their potential. LeBron had been doing that a lot of that since midway through the Indiana series, but he took it to a completely different stratosphere when the Heat were facing elimination. Now, I'd be lying if I said I was cheering for the Heat to win any of their series besides their first round against New York, but I enjoyed watching LeBron dominate because I love the game of basketball and enjoy it being mastered in a way that hasn't been seen in the history of the league.

The present NBA theme of failing today to reach the top of the mountain tomorrow eventually might not be restricted to the victorious Heat. Oklahoma City has now had back-to-back years of losing five-game series to the eventual defending champions. In each series, a couple of plays in each unsuccessful game were the difference between a short series and a much more competitive one. As I've written before, there's a linear progression the Thunder are on that might reach a championship-winning zenith as soon as next year. To be sure, there is some work to be done. James Harden will obviously have to perform better in a hypothetical future Finals, but Kevin Durant should ideally improve his defense and add some muscle.

The hot topic with Oklahoma City has been and might always be Russell Westbrook's shot-taking proclivity, which nearly won the Thunder Game 4 against Miami, but comes at the cost of potential shots for Durant. I've read and heard opinions that Westbrook can't be reformed, and that his confidence with the ball is both his greatest weakness and most valuable strength. I don't buy it. In the wake of these Finals you can't lose sight of the fact that Durant and Westbrook are 23-years-old, and Harden 22. Since most players change their games in their 20s due to the desire to add or change skills (see LeBron's improved post game this year), or because of physical limitations/injuries, you can't say that Westbrook will continue to be his same gung-ho self in the future.

Nonetheless, if and when Durant and Westbrook win a title, it will have come after tasting bitter disappointment on the NBA's biggest stage. As LeBron can attest, nothing in today's NBA helps motivate stars quite like the desire to overcome the final hurdle.

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