I deliberately waited a couple of days to write this post, because I didn’t want to be guilty of the immediate overreaction that so much of the NBA media and its fans have been spewing forth. “Lebron has destroyed his legacy”… “Lebron is more Pippen than Jordan”… “Dirk is a top-20 player all time”… This is all just hyperbole; people trying to make something seem incredibly important so they can say they witnessed it as it happened.
This is especially the case for Lebron, and in today’s upload-interweb world, this kind of overreaction spreads faster than wildfire. I just spent 20 minutes searching through my blog archives for something I wrote exactly on this topic. I knew I had said it before, I just couldn’t remember when. And guess where I found it? Day 25 of the 2010 Playoffs – “Lebron Disappears, for now“. Pure coincidence. This is what I wanted to quote (in parts):
So much has been said of Lebron James since Game 5 that quite frankly, it’s baffling. I’ve never seen anything like it. “Lebron James” was a trending topic on Twitter for about 12 hours straight after this game.
What I kinda feel sorry about for Lebron is that this unprecedented backlash is more a sign of the times, than an indication of the magnitude of failure his Game 5 was. What I mean by that is Jordan, Magic, Bird and Kobe all have had bad playoff games – even when it really mattered. As Adande writes, “Magic choked at the ends of Games 2, 4 and 7 in the 1984 Finals”. We know Kobe has had his questionable playoff games, including a handful of games in the 2004 Finals. Even Michael Jordan slipped up from time to time, including a lousy Game 5 in the 1989 Conference Finals against Detroit when he finished with “only” 18 points (he had been a human wrecking-ball up till that point averaging 35+).
The difference is, especially with Michael and Magic in the 80s, is that nature was able to take its course, reaction and over-reaction reaching a nice equilibrium without ever overwhelming the senses of the innocent NBA bystander. Contrast that to today where within minutes of Lebron’s game the Internet and TV media is absolutely flooded with impulsive outbursts (from experts and otherwise) before you’ve even had a chance to digest what happened and think reasonably about it all. Adande nailed it: “That’s what happens when you can send comments to Twitter or Daily Dime Live just as soon as a shot is missed. We make things definitive when they’re actually still formative.”
I made the point, a year ago, that everyone was overreacting to Lebron’s Game 5. That I had faith he would turn it around in Game 6, just as I had faith he would one year earlier in the ’09 Playoffs. And I never wrote about Game 6 (Ant and J.O did), so you’re hearing this for the first time – I still had faith in Lebron James after last year’s failure. I still believed he had what it took to be a champion, and that the Cavs were only “half a player away” from getting back there and making amends.
It’s why before this Finals series I picked Lebron as my Finals MVP. I knew Wade was the better big-stage performer. I knew it was his team and that he would raise his game. But I just had too much respect for Lebron James’ game, too much faith in him as a person, as a winner, as someone who plays the “right way”. His form in the Boston and Chicago series was sublime so it’s not like I was going out on a limb.
I watched Lebron struggle in these Finals, watched him cower in the fourth quarter and turn into one of the most gifted bystanders the hardwood has ever seen. And yet when the Mavs were up 3-2 I still gave him a shot. I still thought the Heat were only two great Lebron James games away from winning the title. But it never happened. Just like it never happened in 2010, and just like it never happened in 2009.
So the questions I’m left asking are, have I lost all faith in Lebron James now? Can I still possibly defend him? Are we truly overreacting or is it warranted?
And before I get to the votes, I need to answer these questions.
Let’s start with a fact: Lebron was miserable in these Finals. You’ve probably seen the stat by now, but he had the biggest drop off from regular season points per game to Finals points per game in history. Shcoking. Disturbing. Not something you associate with an all-time great. His fourth quarters were pathetic, and as I tweeted, his unwillingness to shoot at times was alarming. You’d almost go as far to say he was throwing games, or that someone was daring him to play like that. It was that much out of character for Lebron. Because he hasn’t just been clutch the first few rounds of this post-season – Lebron has been a legitimate closer in this league for the last 3-4 years. Personally, I thought Lebron had figured out how to close better than anyone in this league since MJ. It’s why Cleveland won so many freaking games the past few seasons. Lebron just always made the right plays, the clutch plays.
So yeah, he’s harmed his reputation as a clutch player, because as good as he was in those Chicago and Boston series, that is meaningless. And the more clutch he is during the next regular season, the more people will point back to this Finals and say “he couldn’t do it when it counts”. The only cure for Lebron here, is to come back to the Finals and get it done. Which I believe he can (more on that later).
Perhaps more concerning than the lack of clutch though, was his demeanor, his disinterest on the court. His lack of fire. Now, some players get away with an icy, stoic demeanor without getting too fired up. Tim Duncan was the master at this. At times you could say he looked disinterested. But in the heat of battle he was always there, fighting for rebounds, setting screens, boxing out, attacking the rim. Simply, he made his presence felt.
And what makes Lebron’s disconnection so baffling is that when you talk about presence, there’s probably no one else in the league (other than maybe Dwight) who has a bigger on-court presence than Lebron James. For a guy as physically gifted as Lebron to go missing in action like this is just plain weird. At least you think he could just start crashing the boards. At least he could start throwing his weight around and doing an athletic Charles Oakley impersonation. Just do something for fucks sake.
Guys with a hundred times less talent have been a hundred times more noticeable than Lebron was during stages of this Finals. Case in point is Brian Cardinal, who is older than your uncle. See what Cardinal was doing in Game 6? Taking charges, laying out hard fouls, fighting for loose balls, and being an all-round pain in the ass. He doesn’t have much talent left, but you damn well knew Brian Cardinal was on the floor. Just can’t say the same for the two-time MVP in the other uniform.
And then there’s the humility angle. Lebron James just hasn’t grown up, hasn’t matured. It’s hard to look up to him as a hero because he just doesn’t seem to display the qualities that the true greats did. His post-game press conference was a lesson in how NOT to handle losing. I wonder how much of it is due to his character flaws, versus how much Lebron just hates losing. Because hey, we’re not all gracious in defeat. I’m a pretty sore loser at times – losing an NBA Live game to my mate Wibo when he scored 64 points with Clyde Drexler still fucking pisses me off to this day. And Lebron is just human like us. But it’s because we hold him to such high standards – or we want to – that we expect more. I so desperately just wanted him to eat humble pie after the game, admit he had a miserable series, congratulate Dirk, say the Mavs were the better team, and that he would work hard at his game and come back ready to fight again. But he didn’t say those things. Hard to stick up for a guy after that.
All this criticism is completely valid. It’s not overreaction. It’s what happened before our eyes over the last two weeks. It will probably haunt Lebron for a long time, but I don’t believe it will define him. Last time I checked, Lebron James wasn’t planning to retire at the end of this season. He has plenty of good years left, plenty of time to learn from his mistakes, to start behaving like the champ we want him to be.
And that is why when I weigh up everything that has been said about Lebron the last few days, I feel like I need to make a clear seperation. There’s the 2011 NBA Finals, and there’s Lebron James’ career. Lebron was miserable in the Finals. You just can’t argue otherwise. But to say this will define his career? To say he will never be mentioned in the same breath as Michael and Magic or even Kobe, is just plain premature.
Lebron James has a lot of years left playing at an elite level. Sure he doesn’t seem to get it yet, he doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a champion. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I brought up the Jordan analogy a few days ago. After losing to the Pistons – again – in the 1990 Conference Finals, Jordan was in a world of doubt and pain. After failing to get to the Finals while being the best player in the league, again, people were starting to think Jordan was nothing more than a one-man freak show. That you could never win a title averaging 32 points a game. That after 6 years in this league, Jordan just didn’t have what it took to be a champion. Sure, you might have put money on the Bulls winning a title or two in the next few years while Jordan was in his prime. But six titles in eight years? Did anyone really see that coming?
I know I’m playing the hypothetical game here, but it could just as easily be the case with Lebron. He only needs to win one title and all of a sudden he’s learnt how to win and the massive monkey is off his back. In another 7-8 years, we might look back at these 2011 Finals as the exception rather than the rule.
I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses for Lebron. I’m just saying that you need to keep a level-head about these things. Think about how 2007 Dirk is worlds apart from 2011 Dirk. A startling transition. From choker to Top-20 all time (as some people are saying, but I don’t agree). Think about how 2005 Kobe is worlds apart from 2011 Kobe. From un-coachable to Top-10 all time. These changes do happen in sports. We’ve seen them happen in this league in the past few years. Have a little perspective.
So to go back to my three questions…
Have I lost all faith in Lebron James now? No, but I don’t really trust him the way I used to. What I’ve seen from him over the past few years just doesn’t reconcile, doesn’t really compute in my brain. My idea of what Lebron James is has become blurred. My expectations have re-aligned, but I still believe he can make up for this. It might not be the permanent black mark people are making it out to be.
Can I still possibly defend him? For his performance in the Finals, no. Absolutely not. It was the worst Finals performance by a supposed all-time great that I’ve ever seen. A lot of great players have tried hard but failed (Kobe in ’04 comes to mind, so does Iverson in ’01), but Lebron didn’t even try hard, and that is indefensible. Having said that, I will defend his legacy. I will not concede Lebron has wasted his career thus far or invalidated anything that comes next. One bad finals series could define a players career, but for Lebron James I don’t believe it will.
Are we truly overreacting or is it warranted? As I said, regarding his performance in these Finals, it is warranted. But everything else is probably an overreaction, and a result of Lebron becoming the villain in everyone’s eyes. We’ve seen the same thing with Kobe for years. He has been hated by so many that when he’s down – losing Finals in ’04, losing to Phoenix in ’06, losing Finals in ’08 – he gets kicked… hard. In each of those occasions we’ve heard the throwaway line “you can forget the MJ comparisons now”, yet a year later those comparisons resurface again. It’s emotion. It’s a knee-jerk. It’s what being a sports fan is all about.
And now that I’ve dropped 3000 words on Lebron James, I can get to the game at hand. The game in which the Mavericks became your world champions.
3 votes – Jason Terry. When people look back on these Finals, they will probably forget the following fact: over the last two games, Jason Terry was the best player on the court. And you can easily make the case that for games 4, 5 and 6, Terry was better than Nowitzki. He actually turned this series. His shot-making, his momentum-shifting threes and his daggers, are what got Dallas over the line. And given how amazing Dirk has been this post-season, that is probably the biggest compliment Jason Terry will ever receive. For half of this series he was Dallas’ best player, yet he got zero consideration for Finals MVP. And it was Dirk’s, rightly. But don’t ever forget how big Jason Terry was in these Finals. Unfortunately, you will.
2 votes – Puerto Rican Guy. The most startling turnaround in this series? JJ Barea, the Puerto Rican Guy himself. After earning a “WTF?” reaction after his first few games, Barea went bananas in Games 5 and 6. He made threes (5-8 over those two games), he made plays (10 assists), he even defended Lebron James and beat him. He epitomized this Mavs team – what he lacked in athleticism he made up for with heart and hustle.
1 vote – Tyson Chandler. Really, the unsung hero of this Mavs team. The constant defensive force that made us realise, “oh yeah, you always need one guy on your team like this to win a title”. He was to this Mavs team what KG was to the 2008 Boston Celtics. From all accounts, his energy and positivity is what inspired Dirk and his teammates throughout this season, someone who did the dirty work and had fun doing it. The guy Dirk Nowitkzi always needed but never had.
And on that Dirk guy. He doesn’t get a vote for this game because just like Kobe last Finals, his poor shooting almost cost his team the game (and potentially the series). But just like Kobe, he found a way to score double-digits in the fourth and kept playing his ass of till the final buzzer went.
Dirk’s Finals MVP caps off one of the great playoff runs in history. I think we’re a bit guilty of overreaction here too. Statistics wise, it doesn’t even rank within his Top 5 postseason PERs. He had a couple of outstanding series (Lakers and Thunder) and a couple of great series (Blazers and Heat). It doesn’t make him a Top 10 all-time player, despite what Rick Carlisle says. Top 20? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced that one title and one great Finals run validates Dirk’s position amongst those greats. But that is the subject of another post, because right now we should simply celebrate Dirk Nowitzki.
Celebrate him for bringing us so many awesome memories these past two months. For ending the reign of the Lakers. For delaying the reign of the Heat. For beating the villains and becoming the guy you simply couldn’t NOT root for. Trust me, I know this better than anyone. I looked down on Dirk in as much negative light as anyone possibly could after ’06 and ’07. He was dead to me. I just couldn’t root for a guy that choked away a ring, embarrassed himself in a shocking first-round exit against an 8th seed, and then became soft playoff fodder for two years.
But this postseason run changed everything I thought about Dirk. I don’t think that’s because I was being shallow or short-sighted. I think it’s because Dirk fundamentally changed. He became a better player, a better leader. His on-court mannerisms changed, became more stable, inspired more confidence. After the countless ridiculously clutch shots he hit in these playoffs, you rarely saw more than a passionate fist bump from Dirk. To me, it just showed that he believed this was his time. That despite the huge odds against the Mavs – the fact that NOBODY picked them to win the championship when these playoffs started – that Dirk had already made up his mind. This was going to be his year. The Mavs year.
Two months ago that seemed like a distant possibility. Right now, I couldn’t have imagined the 2011 season finishing any other way.