As LeBron James keeps winning we keep telling ourselves not to take him for granted. But what, specifically, is being overshadowed by his success?
Game 1’s halftime buzzer had sounded, but the opportunity to send a message still presented itself. Kyle Kuzma had tried to get a final shot off with a layup, and as his attempt caromed off orange iron, LeBron James powerfully vaulted off his soon-to-be 36-year-old left foot and thundered home a reverse two-handed put-back windmill. Squint just enough to cover up James’ bald spot and you’ll see flashbacks of the same play in the before-and-after Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys or the Miami Heat jersey in between.
Hard to believe, but the more the NBA landscape has changed the more it has stayed the same. It is Year 17, and after a Jimmy Butler sized speed bump, James is marching to a fourth title in his 10th Finals appearance and is also likely to become the first-ever player to win Finals MVP with three different teams. The all-time counting stats and personal accolades are being racked up ho-hum, and the career 27-7-7 line almost gets sneezed at. From making the case for Seeding Games MVP Damian Lillard, to Houston’s microball, to the never dead Denver Nuggets, and finally the ultra-prepared and well-coached Heat, the narrative has flipped to James’ path being too easy. James continues to turn the improbable into the mundane, and so we resort to telling ourselves, “Don’t take LeBron for granted.”
But what does he do so well that we repeatedly anticipate obstacles in his path and then casually dismiss them? What do we keep failing to truly appreciate that we constantly resort to what’s now become a throwaway line?
LeBron’s galaxy-brain offense
No one in the league can maximize the offensive potential of a roster like James. Seeing the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Alex Caruso step up shouldn’t come as a total surprise after we’ve seen the ‘LeBron effect’ make postseason heroes out of Daniel ‘Boobie’ Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic and Channing Frye to name a few.
Beginning with the 2009 postseason, James-led playoff teams have had an offensive rating that’s ranked second, sixth, fourth, third, first, fourth, fifth, first, first, and eighth. This year, after concerns over the Lakers’ offense all year, they rank second in offensive efficiency behind a Utah Jazz team eliminated in the first round. The only two years James wasn’t in the top five were his last seasons as a Cavalier during both his first and second stint.
He had no right dragging the 2007 or 2018 Cavs to the Finals but James finds the best in his teammates by rendering scouting reports useless. The playoffs are usually where we see one-dimensional players and specialists get nullified and dared to do the things they can’t. But more often than not, James finds a way to accentuate those very specific skills to fit seamlessly alongside him.
The debate can rage on over whether the Lakers should play big with Anthony Davis at center or at the 4 but either option is made possible by James’ ability to, in one case, maximize both Davis and Dwight Howard as screen-setters and rollers in a big lineup and, in the other, the spacing on the floor created by the likes of Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma.
Of course, James’ most famous shapeshifting act was when he went from more of a perimeter-oriented player to a behemoth of a post-player with shades of both Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone for the Miami Heat. It is arguably the most dominant version of James we have ever witnessed and perfectly encapsulates how an offense can change pillars upon which it operates. He is the ultimate trump card, playing the role of explosive wing, bullying forward, or showtime guard depending on the need of the hour.
LeBron’s timely defense
James’ reputation for coasting on defense is of his own making, but he can still shed it when needed. During his second run with Cleveland, he mostly jogged through the East before hitting fifth gear against the Warriors. Looking to set a championship standard early in this 2019-20 campaign, the Lakers saw him operate at full capacity defensively right from training camp. His 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame on that end of the floor is as intimidating as his Herculean dunks. Ball-handlers are constantly aware of the threat of James’ weakside help and his signature play is the chase-down block. Isn’t that a true hallmark of greatness, an opponent knowing what’s coming and still being helpless to stop it?
And then there is his awareness, his ability to bark out instructions and organize his teammates to counter every set play. Teams try to change up their signals but James has a beat on the code itself so often it’s hard not to view him as the game’s greatest cryptographer.
That James hasn’t made an All-Defensive First Team since 2013 shouldn’t be a reason to think he can’t be the man who has made it five times prior. Does he play possum during the regular season so teams are goaded into thinking they have something that works, only to be completely blitzed and bamboozled when it matters most? There is a trick in knowing but not letting the opponent know you know.
In tennis, superstar, Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open,’ he details how he figured out a tell on Boris Becker’s serve: that the German would actually point his tongue out just before serving in the direction of where the ball would go. Agassi then described ignoring Becker’s tongue for the majority of the match but only looking at it on crucial points and never giving Becker the impression that he had him completely figured out. Whether it’s picking up a team’s best offensive threat or busting an action that’s been working all game at the most crucial time, it seems as though James knows exactly when to go all-in on that end of the floor.
LeBron’s all-encompassing leadership
James has switched teams three times and those franchises have reaped the benefit every time. His run in Miami was certainly a mutually beneficial relationship with him still needing to learn what it takes to get to the mountain top. But ever since learning the harsh lessons of that Dallas Mavericks series in 2011, James’ blueprint of winning for the highest level has been unmatched. He knows the pieces he needs and exactly how to manage those personalities. He receives the majority of the spotlight when his teams win but he boldly shoulders the blame if they don’t, absorbing criticism and sparing his teammates.
Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland because he wanted to be the main leader of a team and then later ended up calling James to apologize because he didn’t realize how good he had it.
When the Lakers roster read names like Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Dion Waiters, as well as J.R. Smith heading into the bubble, plenty of jokes were had about how those pieces couldn’t coalesce to win a championship. Who’s laughing now?
The moral of every playoff story of the past decade – save 2019 when he was injured – has been a simple one: To win a ring, you must beat LeBron. Just as Jordan before him and those considered the greatest before that, James isn’t just the video game boss but the video game itself, setting the levels of difficulty and different versions of himself to be overcome, ultimately altering how we define success.
A fourth title is within striking distance, and a fourth Finals MVP would put him two behind Jordan, and one ahead of a trio tied at three in Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan. It’s very much a 1-on-1 battle from there, and in having that debate that goes on for hours on end, let’s take time to appreciate why he’s a part of it in the first place.