About Last Night
Thoughts on LeBron, failure, and the future. Call it a posse cut.
“I hope one day I become a good enough tweeter that when I have a bad tweet, people spend days talking about it.” @langwhitaker
I generally don’t tweet during games. This is mostly a matter of household geography: Our computer (a desktop — if you’re not sure what that is, ask your grandparents) is upstairs in our spare bedroom, while our television is down in our semi-finished basement, the least-trafficked room in our home. This was by design: We have young kids and want them to think of the TV as an exception, not the rule, so we put it in the room we don’t go in very often.
I am an excellent parent.
So I didn’t tweet during Game 5, just like I didn’t tweet during Game 3, for anyone wondering if I’m picking my spots. But I jumped online for the postgame fall-out, both because I feel a responsibility to the Library of Congress, and because I knew my name would be in some folks’ digital mouths. So, I said some of this last night on Twitter, but here it is again, along with some bonus content. For the 30 of you who follow me who aren’t spambots, I apologize for any repetition…
-LeBron James remains my dude. I’ve liked him as a person and been awed by his talent since I met him nine years ago, and those feelings remain unchanged. I don’t imagine most of you give a sh*t, but as the bandwagon seems to be getting lighter by the second, I felt I should make clear that I’m still on it.
And riding shotgun.
-All that said, there isn’t sh*t I can say about how he played last night. It was fine for the first quarter-plus, but as the game started to get away from Cleveland, LeBron’s lack of presence became increasingly inexplicable. I found it weird and vaguely depressing to watch, and I won’t try to justify or explain it. He can’t do what he did in Game 3 every night, but there was no reason for… this.
I didn’t watch him in the postgame, but I heard about how he handled things; it seems equally impossible to defend.
All that said…
“I’m sorry, LeBron could’ve posted a 30-10-10 last night and the Celtics *still* win that game.” @jeskeets
-The thought occurred to me last night, and Skeets put it to words this morning. I guess you could argue this, but you’d be wrong. The Celtics shot 55 percent as a team, and KG, Ray, Rondo, and Glen F*cking Davis shot a combined 59 percent (and none of those were the guys LeBron guarded most of the night; perhaps he should have, but he helped hold Paul Pierce to 43 percent, for whatever that’s worth). If these Celtics—with three future Hall of Famers, and a point guard whose been playing like he’ll be the fourth—combine that sort of shooting with the kind of defense we know they’re capable of nine more times in the next month or so, they’ll beat Orlando and the Lakers, too.
“Everyone is (rightly so) getting on LeBron right now, but when the next 4 best players on the court are on the other side…” @TheRealSJB
-Borrowing again from a colleague, I think Shannon Booher says it perfectly. LeBron shoulders all the blame for barely showing up last night, but that doesn’t change the fact that he still doesn’t have a great deal of help. His critics (a few of whom you’ll find below…) like to point out that Jordan and Kobe had won their first titles by this point, but they tend not to mention Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson and Shaq in his prime and, uh, Phil Jackson. LeBron still hasn’t had a Pippen — can you imagine a LeBron-less Cavs squad winning 55 games and making it to within a Hue Hollins of the conference finals? — and the Shaq he has now hardly counts; and as all the many Mike Brown-bashers remind us, he sure as hell hasn’t had a Phil. As for this Cavs team? As Myles Brown acknowledged to me moments ago in a rambling, possibly meth-fueled phone call, “Against all these teams, they only win one matchup: LeBron against whoever’s guarding LeBron.”
Put another way, there’s a difference between “an excuse” and “an explanation,” even if my former colleague Adrian Wojnarowski feels otherwise.
-Is the series over? Probably, but I’m not convinced. That Game 3 performance was so impressive in part because it was unexpected. We expected him to roar back last night, and he defied us again. Tomorrow? I have no idea, but if he’s physically capable and Mike Brown can figure something out to spark this team — seriously, did JJ Hickson die? — I don’t see why the Cavs can’t win the next two games. And if they don’t…
-Is he gone? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. If he leaves after this, his rep as a franchise-saver in New York, Chicago or anywhere else is gonna seem a little tainted, no? I’m not saying the Knicks don’t still want him, of course, but the tone of the questions at the announcement press conference probably won’t be as welcoming as they would’ve been otherwise.
And anyway, last night was one game, in the midst of a series in which he’s still averaging 27, 7 and 7, against an opponent that, when healthy, most of us (and maybe the Cavs as well) seem to have vastly underrated. At the risk of contradicting a previous point, this Cleveland team is not good enough, but they’re still probably only one upgrade away from being good enough; imagine this same squad with, say, Ray Allen, Lamar Odom, or Pau Gasol. Obviously, it won’t be easy to get someone remotely comparable this summer, but there’s no guaranteeing the Knicks or Bulls can do it, either.
And as last night made so, so clear, none of us know where LeBron’s head is right now, anyway. I’m certainly done trying to figure him out. But I’m not jumping ship. I’ll wait until he signs with the Knicks to do that.
LeBron is missing something.
I don’t hold last night against him too much because it could certainly be the case that all he’s really missing are teammates. Teammates who could sustain him through the occasional off night.
But it could be something else.
Seven months ago, I—no, we—declared LeBron the best player in basketball. He was at or nearing his physical peak, the numbers were astounding and he appeared ready to capture his first title.
But seven months later I still have the same questions.
I was not at all impressed by the Cavaliers’ romp through another regular season. First of all, because they’d done it before and, more importantly, because the Playoffs are a different animal. It’s one thing to trample a herd of also rans who simply aren’t equipped to compete, another entirely to defeat a true contender. And another. And the one after that. I never expected him to win anything this year and I still don’t. Call me a hater if you must, but I prefer “realist.”
LeBron James is simply a victim of his own excellence and the impossibly high standard he’s created. He’s a two-time MVP because he carried a severely flawed roster to the League’s best record for two straight years. But why are we surprised when they lose to a better team every spring? This is a game of matchups, and when facing the League’s elite, the Cavs only win one matchup. So I would never go as far as to call him a choker. But I am somewhat disappointed.
He failed to heed the warning and match the urgency of his coach, he hasn’t empowered or rallied his teammates in any sense and last night he appeared largely disinterested in the biggest game of the season. He seemed as though he had one foot out the door.
And I can’t blame him for that. I want him to leave. Then I’ll finally get some answers about LeBron James.
Through all the deafening comparisons to Michael Jordan that we’ve endured over the past seven years, I’ve become more and more convinced we should be comparing him to Shaq. Or Wilt. At least from what I hear about Wilt. I wasn’t there.
They were the two most imposing physical specimens in the history of hardwood, leather and rubber (take a pause here if you please). But from my perspective, their careers were also disappointing. They seemed overly concerned with their numbers and status, preoccupied with extracurricular activites; they reveled in the accolades but reviled the expectations that came along with it. Wilt continually lost to Russell not only because his team wasn’t as strong, but because he wasn’t as strong. Mentally, at least. Not weak, per se, just not as strong. Shaq? Sheeeeeeit. A cautionary tale in work ethic, swept out of the Playoffs six times, and the man never met a bridge he didn’t burn.
Call it heart, will, or whatever you please, but they were missing something important. They just didn’t want it as much as we wanted it for them. They’re easily cemented in the top 15 players of all time, but they shouldve been higher.
I don’t want that for LeBron. I want to see him on that big stage. I want to turn to the next chapter. I already know he’s great, but I want to know if he can be the greatest. I want to know if he’s the next Michael Jordan or the next Shaq. There’s a big difference.
Were approaching year eight. This isn’t about potential anymore. It’s about production. LeBron James is an unprecedented talent and we’ve extended him an unprecedented line of credit. No if’s, just when’s and how many’s. We need a return on that investment.
While it still may happen, it’s not going to be in Cleveland.
The way LeBron performed last night was inexcusably bad. No one should debate that. He watched the scoreboard so frequently, the best distraction-related analogy I can come up with is a columnist trying to finish a piece while some red-tanned, wannabe cruise ship captain f*cks Jenna Jameson into submission in the background (although I suppose one could argue that no one f*cks Jenna Jameson into submission, and that’s why she has four championship rings, but I digress). The scoreboard watching seemed to have a direct correlation with the horrendous defense that was played—instead of trusting their offense and focusing on getting stops, the Cavs tried to get it all back on offense. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It also showed poor leadership and a lack of trust in teammates from LeBron…ON THE FLOOR.
And that’s the thing. ON THE FLOOR. When the media takes a few choice sound bytes—that, I’m pretty sure if one of LeBron’s boys was like, “Yo, you said you only played three bad games in a seven-year career,” would lead him to eat his own face-palm—and creates a character dissection out of it, well, that’s a few steps too far for my taste. (The other possibility is that LeBron said what he said to piss people off and use the criticism as motivation, in which case, you’re all idiots for feeding into that BS.)
True character analysis takes an understanding of who someone is, their background, their body of work and circumstance and context. Understand, LeBron’s failures in these moments don’t make him any more or less of the person he is or was before they happened. To you they might, but that would make you a moron.
The balls were rolled out, two teams played, one played well and one played like mud butt. LeBron’s won more regular season games over the past two seasons than any other superstar. In Europe, he’d be a two-time champion; the Leo Messi of this sh*t, the prodigy who wins and wins when it counts. Only in America do those two things need a distinction…not that I totally disagree with the Playoff structure, but it says something sad about our fake-tits, KFC-Double-Down culture, no? Oh sh*t, we’re back to Jenna Jameson and my antiquated views on porn. Kids, wear condoms. Even when arguing.
Anyway, I spent three years (LeBron’s fist three) around the Cavs and, even though I’ve rarely spoken personally with him, I’m pretty sure, due to things like “intuition” and “observation,” that the guy behind the preening and the crown isn’t a douche worthy of the level of scorn he’ll take for a few comments made to a group of cliche-driven people who are widely dismissed by more modern forms of media…until the exact moment something like this happens when we can all join in on the reputation-smashing pants party.
Who, what, when, where and why. The five W’s. Life’s biggest questions. To me, the last one is always the most important and most interesting. If you can’t tell me WHY, and think critically about WHY it is that something is the way it is, I can’t fully respect your opinion.
I’d tell you why I think LeBron is the way he is, but I’d have to spend more than a deadline-induced two hours on it, and I have a soccer match to watch.
Oh, my team is in the Europa League mostly because of something called “away goals.” Rose Perez in White Men Can’t Jump was right. Sometimes when you win, you actually lose. Sometimes when you lose, you actually win. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose (win in this case…because of away goals).
Context. With text.
The good kind. The analyzed kind.
If you want to act like a biblical basketball scholar, maybe you should put in some time with the “King James” version. I’m pretty sure the overall picture of what you’ll see won’t be nearly as off-putting as you think.
I find the vast majority of the mainstream media’s reaction to all of this fascinating. Most seem to take LeBron’s failures last night personally, as though he let them down in some strange, twisted way.
The loss—humiliating as it was for the Cavs, and James himself—has also become a sort of bizarre referendum on LBJ’s personality, and his ambitions in life (on and off the basketball court.)
Even though LeBron played an awful Game 5, the Cavs are still alive in the series, albeit only somewhat. Regardless of what some writers and television talking heads may stupidly claim, his performance in this series has nothing to do with “not wanting it badly enough” (à la Kobe, MJ, et al.), or only caring about becoming a global icon with fat bank account.
All the past (and current) great NBA champions—at some point or another, and for some, more than once— have played way below their usual standards on the Playoff stage. Yes, all of them. Things are no different for James.
He is human, and he has failed, and will fail again. The key is in bouncing back, which he will undoubtedly do—be it in Game 6 (and potentially, Game 7), or at some other point in the near future.
Greatness is not without its flaws and bumps in the road. To forget this in light of last night’s events is even more disappointing than what James did, or didn’t do.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: This should absolutely be important enough to LeBron James. He knows what a championship would mean for his legacy. He knows the history of the game, what separates the greatest players from the merely great. And he can’t help but see the glaring gap in his own resume. He’s won the scoring title, earned the MVPs, broken the PER meter, sold the shoes and the books and the magazines and the video games and the fast food. At 25, his career is already a virtual palace, an unmatched celebration of self. Only he’s built it upon no foundation, and the whole structure is beginning to shift. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go.
Maybe all of this was the worst thing that could have happened to LeBron James. He was given the accolades and respect of a champion before becoming one. The assumption was that he would win championships. Plural. That he would change the game, transcend the sport, fill up all those empty words and phrases with true greatness. But sometimes that’s just not the way it works.
In 1959, a dude named Wilt Chamberlain entered the NBA. There were only eight teams back then. He posted 43 points and 28 rebounds in his very first game. For the season, he averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds, won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP. I’m sure plenty of fans and observers declared that young Wilt would win everything there was to win. As it is, he played 14 seasons and won just two titles. Oscar Robertson, who joined the league a year later, averaged a triple-double over his first five seasons combined. He won one title, and not until he teamed with a center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before that, his team had missed the playoffs entirely for three straight seasons. Elgin Baylor forever changed the way the game is played, paving the way for Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and yes, LeBron James, and he never won a championship at all.
Of course it’s not like LeBron’s career is over. Hell, this series isn’t even over. Conceivably, the Cavaliers could come back, win this series, and go on to win it all. But does that seem likely at this point? Seven years along, do we know whether LeBron has what it takes to win a title? Do we know whether he knows how? Maybe he’ll be like Shaq – dominant yet ringless until he’s paired with one of those dysfunctional people who obsess over winning at the expense of all else.
At the start of this season, all seemed predetermined. Like Jordan, LeBron would triumph in his seventh season and usher in a new era. But unlikely as that now seems, would it even be enough? LeBron wasn’t meant to follow anyone’s blueprint. That’s not what we were promised. Those weren’t the expectations we placed on him like a crown, the expectations he gladly welcomed. He was supposed to be different, be better, establish new benchmarks, push the very game to new heights. Seven years and 25,000 minutes in, it’s all still possible. But more than ever, there’s reasonable doubt.