He has given us plenty of awesome moments to relish over the years. Even if he were to retire today, he’d have had an overbearing stamp on the game of basketball, and walked out as one of the game’s modern greats.
Since his breakout rookie season in 2003, very rarely has LeBron James been away from the spotlight. But for the last two years, that is in fact what has happened, courtesy a gifted, once-in-a-generation sharp-shooter named Steph Curry. The current National Basketball Association (NBA) season has been an uncharacteristically quiet one for LeBron James. Most of the news bytes on him have focused on his alleged role in the firing of Cleveland Cavaliers’s ex-coach, David Blatt; his lifetime deal with Nike; and his cryptic tweets. On May 26, James led the Cavaliers in a rout of the Toronto Raptors, sealing a place in the NBA finals for a sixth consecutive time, a seventh final in his still far-from-finished twelve-year career.
It is an incredible achievement, worthy of much praise, matched by no one in a generation that has seen many of basketball’s greatest players. To find the last time someone appeared in as many consecutive finals, we would have go all the way back to the 1960s’ Boston Celtics, to the great Bill Russell, whose achievements may never be emulated in today’s über-competitive league. Every decade usually has a defining basketball player – Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and this current age arguably belongs to James.
Picked as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, his home team. NBA first-draft picks, chosen first among a battery of rising talents, usually come preordained with the tag of greatness. Many go on to achieve that greatness: Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal being prime examples. Many, however, fade into oblivion, becoming NBA journeymen like Joe Smith, or get riddled by injuries and never come close to realising their full potential like Greg Oden. As of June 2016, James has four ‘Most Valued Player’ awards, two championship rings and two Olympic Gold medals. There is no doubt that he has lived up to the hype, and on the way has set and continues to set a legacy that few people in sporting history can claim.
An adaptive gameplay
So what makes LeBron James a great basketball player?
He is a physical marvel, built to dominate his opponents on court as a small forward. As ESPN wrote, a small forward has to be versatile, often taking up scoring responsibilities along with rebounding and defence, and could be more important than any other position on the court. And what has James apart – from the likes of contemporary small-forwards like Carmelo Anthony and Paul George – has been extreme versatility. Over the years, he has developed a skill set that remains unmatched: he can drive, cutting through defences and often overcoming players with his power; play excellent one-on-one defence; swing past defenders; and finally explode vertically for a trademark slam. Add to this already impressive repertoire his chase down block, an ability to read errant passes and steal, and a gifted court vision, and what you get is a two-way player with an unrivalled armoury of offensive and defensive moves. And we haven’t even discussed James’s passing skills. He has the third highest number of assists in the playoffs and is one of only two players who are in the top 20 in both points scored and assists made.
When James burst onto the scene in his rookie season, he put up impressive numbers but lacked the all-round game that defines him now. Then, it centred around making runs from the perimeter rather than being assist-oriented. When defended, James preferred to pull up for a jumper or tried slashing his way through for a contested layup. In 2007, on the back of James’s ‘Jordanesque’ performance in a conference final game, the Cavaliers faced the Spurs in a matchup that proved to be disastrously one-sided. The Spurs guarded the paint, forcing James to rely on his shaky jump-shooting and make plays that simply weren’t part of his game. A look at James shooting statistics would reveal that, in the years that followed, he improved radically, adding a layer of mid-range game to his offensive arsenal.
In a low-point in his glowing career, James, then playing for Miami Heat, lost to Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 finals after holding a 2-1 lead. James worked with legendary centre Hakeem Olajuwon in the following summer to improve his post-game, learning to capitalise on usual mismatches close to the basket. These tweaks in gameplay and willingness to adapt to a team’s specific requirement is part of what makes him a great basketball player. More often than not, good players transform into great players by relying on tenacity and an ability to quickly correct mistakes. Think Tendulkar’s fabulous 241 at Sydney, where he cut off the cover drive from his shot-making, or Rahul Dravid’s monk-like batting in England. No one would deny that rookie James was a force to reckon with, but far from a finished product. The James that we see now has the makings of a complete player, at least as complete a player as has ever been.
His current season with the Cavaliers has been marvellous if only for how efficiently he has moulded his gameplay to suit the needs of his team. Because he is able to play a post up game and bully defenders with his physique, James has gravitas, drawing defenders away from the perimeter. Using his height to advantage and equipped with brilliant court vision, he can then make passes to sharp shooters lined up to make open, uncontested three-point shots. In a second round series playoff game, the Cavaliers shot an NBA record of 25 three-point shots in a game, scoring a staggering 77 three pointers in a four-game series. James assisted on 44% of those shots made when he was on court. An earlier version of James would have tried to drive in after a brief dribble on the perimeter.
Now, all of 31 years old, it is evident that James lacks the zing in his step and vertical elevation that he possessed when he was younger. Nonetheless, he has evolved to become a one-man offensive, a player who can singlehandedly control the game with his playmaking abilities. It is a testament to the countless number of hours spent at the gym, working on his game, as much as it is evidence of the man’s mental toughness, basketball IQ and championship spirit. His supreme dedication to basketball is embodied with a touch of lightness in a Nike advertisement. He is asked by Serena Williams to join him for a tennis match in Spain; he refuses citing practice as a reason. Serena shakes her head in despair and says, “I should have asked [Kevin Durant].”
A question of greatness
With his dominating style of gameplay and leadership on court, James has received his fair share of criticism. Early on in his career, he was lambasted for not concentrating on defence. His jump-shooting has always been under scrutiny and even though he has come far in that category, now able to execute even tough fade-away shots, it still remains a visible weakness in his game. Few athletes have been more polarising than James. His move to Miami was severely criticised, with many singling out James for not staying back at Cleveland and winning a championship as a leader. Often has his greatness come into question over his inability to convert finals appearances into wins – three of his four losses having come against the San Antonio Spurs (2007 and 2014) and the Golden State Warriors (2015), two historically great teams.
In a rematch of last years NBA finals, LeBron faces the reigning MVP, Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry. The two could not be more different. Curry is lean and almost half a foot shorter than James. His go-to move is a flurry of crossovers that ends with a sudden flick of the wrist, the ball looping in a high arc trajectory for a splash-bucket three pointer. James’s trademark dunk is all power, jumping more than three feet up in the air, gliding from close to the foul line to the basket, the ball slammed home in a one-handed tomahawk.
After a humbling defeat in Game 1, if James loses this current series, it will be his fifth loss in the finals out of seven appearances. It would give his critics another opportunity to dredge up his failures and remark on his supposed inability to show up in crunch situations. But the truth is James has nothing to prove. In a season where people are going gaga over the Splash brothers at Golden State – or fawning over Kawhi Leonard’s locked in defence, or teary eyed over Kobe Bryant’s heavily publicised farewell tour – a 31-year-old veteran has notched up impressive numbers yet again, as he has for most of his illustrious career. James has lead a young, relatively inexperienced team to its second straight NBA finals, his sixth on the trot. There is no shame in admitting that he might be nearing the end of his career, even if you could argue otherwise.
In a playoff game against Toronto Raptors this year, James took a pass on the post, beat DeMarre Carroll, a tall imposing defender, with raw pace and threw in a hammer jam. For a moment James basically reversed the age clock. As a viewer, you were left with a sense of awe. And James has given us plenty of awesome moments to relish over the years. Even if he were to retire today, he’d have had an overbearing stamp on the game of basketball, and walked out as one of the game’s modern greats.
But he isn’t ready to hang his boots just yet. He recently admitted, “… for me to feel like I’m in my 20s again, early 20s, it’s a great feeling.” In a world with Russell Westbrook’s raging athleticism, with the ballet-like grace of Steph Curry, with the classic offence of Kevin Durant and with the undeniable front court presence of Anthony Davis, LeBron James is still – and will always be – a relevant topic of discussion. And that sense of long-lasting effervescence and consistency is what defines his greatness.