Monday, June 13, 2011

What the Hell Happened to LeBron James?

It’s not often that public perception of a person can completely change in one simple moment. But on July, 8th 2010, when the once revered LeBron James publically told the world he’d be “taking his talents to South Beach,” he subsequently (and immediately) became public enemy number one.  And if skyrocketing NBA ratings are any indication, the public came out in full force hoping to see both he and then new superstar teammate, Dwayne Wade, fail.  And not only fail, but fail epically.  The role of villain was not one either Wade or LeBron were accustomed to, but one they grew to accept as a tradeoff in their quest for an NBA championship.  LeBron was tired of carrying a mediocre Cleveland team on his back, and after seeing the success of the Boston Celtics, and probably the Bulls of the 90’s, he felt he needed a superstar teammate to lead him to the elusive championship.  It all made sense, really, who would stop a team with arguably 2 of the 3 top players in the NBA?  Well, after watching LeBron’s horrendous collapse in the NBA finals, I assume they never thought their biggest enemy would be themselves. 
Though they may have used those Celtics or Bulls teams as models, they failed to investigate (or just ignored) the concept of “player roles,” and how much effect that had on both a player’s individual performance, as well as team success. 
For the most part, with the exception of the Houston Rockets in the mid-90’s (and maybe even Dallas this year), champions are built on the backs of two (or more) stars.  Jordan had Pippen, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Kobe had Shaq and later Gasol, but in each of those instances, roles were predetermined before they even got on the court.  Even though Pippen became a top five player in the mid 90’s, he was raised to be Jordan’s sidekick, accepted the role, and always deferred to Michael in just about every situation.  This formula not only enabled team success, but it allowed Michael to continue to be great.  Because not only was Scottie’s presence there to support Michael’s game first and foremost, but Scottie’s inferior role on the team allowed Michael to always be in control.  During days when Michael didn’t bring his A-game, he could shoot and figure his way out of it with no criticism or questioning.  Because he was the one true star, the one true leader of the team, he was given infinite opportunity to succeed behind 100 percent support.  At no point did he ever think he shouldn’t be the number one option because that’s not the role of a team leader.  And this worked perfectly for the Bulls because Jordan had that ability and confidence to always find a way to succeed.
So, why did LeBron James, who I believe to be the most talented player in the game (and who lead the league in PER the past four seasons) completely shrink in this past final?  Look no further than the concept of roles, and in this instance, his teammate, Dwayne Wade.  The difference between LeBron and Wade, as opposed to Scottie and Michael, is the fact that both had been alpha dogs virtually their entire careers.  Both were used to getting the superstar leeway, both were used to shooting themselves out of slumps, and both were used to being the unquestioned leader of their respective teams.  But on this 2011 Heat team, if LeBron struggled out of the gate (which happened in virtually every game of the Finals), he never tried to feel his way out of it, and instead deferred to Wade during most big moments, limiting his ability to relax and figure out the stingy Dallas defense through trial and error, volume, and sheer will (a trademark of any superstar).  Simply put, this option never allowed him to find rhythm.  As any kid who isn’t even the 8th best player on a playground court can tell you, the less opportunity you have, the more you press during said opportunity, and the more this shatters your confidence.  In your quest for perfection, you aim your jump shot too much, you think more than you should, and as a result, your confidence wanes and your play suffers.  And before you give me that crap about “killer instinct,” no human is immune to this. 
And this is exactly what happened to James.  Now, one can argue that James just doesn’t have that kind of demeanor on the court that a Jordan had, but I’m not sure the evidence suggests that.  After all, this is the guy who once scored 25 straight points against Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals to lead an otherwise crappy Cavs team to the final round.  Even if LeBron was red hot during this past Final against Dallas, do you think the presence of Dwayne Wade would allow for LeBron to score and dominate in that kind of volume? 
He understands that if he tries to play his way out of a slump and continues to struggle, the world may wonder why he didn’t use his superstar teammate more often.  When he was on Cleveland, he was afforded the superstar leeway and the perpetual confidence that comes along with it. On Cleveland, since he was the only superstar, he didn’t have a choice but to force the issue.  He had a completely different type of mindset that suggested if he couldn't do it, no one could.  And it worked.  On Miami?  If he doesn’t bring his A-game, he has an option that he never had on his past teams: the ability to sit back and defer.  And that option is the biggest detriment to both him as a player and Miami as a team.
All the above aside, I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard from the Miami Heat, but as I said many times back in July, this was the wrong decision and the wrong fit.   I wonder if he realizes that now.