by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports
It was a year ago that LeBron James shocked the world by telling us he was taking his talents to South Beach. It was the most publicized, scrutinized and harshly criticized free-agency decision in sports history. Some fans hated it because he was “stabbing Cleveland in the back.” Others hated it because they saw LeBron shunning the chance to be “the man” in New York to go to “Dwyane Wade’s team” in a “bad” sports town.
LeBron defenders had their own arguments. He took less money to play with his friends and try to win “not five, not six, not seven—multiple” Championships. Shouldn’t that be admirable? This is a young man with two other players, taking control of their destinies. Why is that so threatening? Also, if you were 26, unimaginably wealthy, and could live in Cleveland or South Beach, where would you choose? But despite all the off-season noise, the answer would blessedly be settled on the court. After 82 games, four rounds of Playoff action and a six-game loss in the NBA Finals to the Mavs, do we have a Decision verdict?
First, in the regular season at least, LeBron was nobody’s second banana. He made First-Team All-NBA, the only member of the Big Three to do so, averaging 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7 assists per. This was in line with career averages of 27.7 points, 7.1 boards and 7 dimes. James also shot a career-high 51 percent from the field. Given that he was playing with two other All-Stars, was asked to run the offense and often guard the other team’s best player, the numbers are remarkable. The team itself was less smooth. At times the Heat looked like no one could hope to beat them. Other times they looked mortal, especially at crunch time. Overall, in my judgment, they looked a year away from greatness.
But then the Heat did something unforgivable: They overperformed in the Playoffs. LeBron was carrying an ailing Wade in the early rounds and the consensus was that he had erased all concerns about his ability to come through in the clutch. To see him bully and dominate MVP Derrick Rose was to see a baller at the height of his powers: a King. The ease with which they dispatched the Celtics and Bulls made the sports blabocracy believe that the future was, in fact, now. By the time the Heat were up big in Game 2, the storyline was going something like this: “This isn’t a Finals. It’s a coronation.”
The rest of the story we know. There’s Dwyane Wade taking on the primary scoring load. There’s LeBron playing hot potato with the ball—passive, deferential and unwilling to take it to the rim. In an article titled “LeBron Just Wasn’t LeBron Throughout the NBA Finals,” Israel Gutierrez of the Miami Herald wrote, “James was playing the same game he had been playing since the series started: standing around the perimeter, whipping passes side to side, hoping offensive execution would mask the fact that he wanted no part of taking over games. Think about this for a second: How many times this year did you get upset because James stalled the offense by standing in front of his man and waiting until the final seconds of the shot clock to put on a move? Regardless of what the result was, that was one of the most memorable and repetitive scenes we’ve seen in his first season in Miami. Now, how many times do you remember him doing that in this series? Hard to remember even a couple. Did he choose this series to suddenly perform within the offense at all times? If so, why? No, these are the kind of inexplicable parts of LeBron James’ performance in this series that will haunt him, will haunt this franchise, will linger with him for the entirety of next season.”
Now the same commentators who praised LeBron early in the series are rushing to see who can bury him most extremely. All the success from the regular season and Playoffs forgotten—rejoice in his misfortune! That I will not do. If you are a fan of this beautiful game, James’ potential on the biggest stage is something you should hope he can reach. You don’t have to root for him to win. But you should hope to see him—win or lose—play to the height of his powers. One thing is certain: We still don’t have an answer as to whether or not the Decision was correct.
Clearly, this team has the potential to win multiple rings. Clearly, this is the work in progress many of us thought it had to be. To ask whether LeBron would do it all again is to assume the journey is done.