Enough with the ‘what’s wrong with Lebron?’ narrative already. There’s nothing wrong with Lebron. He’s not injured, he’s not tired (at least not anymore than anyone else), he’s not dealing with ‘issues’, or anything else. Everything in life, or basketball, doesn’t have some deeper meaning or some nuanced explanation.
Sometimes things just are what they are. Lebron is a highly skilled basketball player blessed with superior physical attributes to anyone else in the league right now, maybe ever.
From a standpoint of skills and physical ability, he is the best player in the league. No one in the league combines scoring ability, ball-handling, passing, rebounding, and defense at the high level that he does. He could easily lead the league in any major category if he focused on it, and will probably add a defensive player of the year award at some point to go along with his MVPs and rookie of the year awards. The only noticeable absence from his physical game is a post up game, but he still may add that later in his career like MJ did.
But he’s not MJ, or Kobe in two aspects: For one, he doesn’t do humiliation of others. Both of them were driven by a need to not just win, but to crush people in the process. Jordan didn’t get 55 in the Garden because he woke up that morning wanting to score 55, and Kobe didn’t wake up thinking about getting 81 points.
They did both go into those games thinking ‘I’m gonna f@#! somebody up tonight!’ There’s a difference. That desire is what pushed them to go beyond just trying to do well, or just trying really hard to win. It’s not about thinking ‘I need X number of points tonight’, it’s about thinking ‘one way or another I’m getting my team across the finish line and crush my opponents’. That’s the thinking that makes you keep going to hole no matter how many times you get fouled, makes you find a way to get points if you’re jumper isn’t falling, makes you keep scoring if your team needs it even if you’ve already got 40. Some great players try to just do well, and if they’re not defended well they get 40 but if they get D’ed up then they only get 15. That’s Lebron. He takes what’s there. Jordan and Kobe and others didn’t just take what was there, they took (and still take) what isn’t there. That’s the difference between being an All-Star, or even a regular season MVP, and being an all-time great.
The other way Lebron has been different is in his preparation. The freezing up isn’t just about nerves, it’s about not having an answer for what’s being thrown at you. Now I don’t know his routine, and I’m sure his people would tell you that it stacks up with anyones’, but I’m not buying it. I’m not talking about being in shape; I’m talking about adding things to your repertoire so that you have a way of attacking no matter what the defense throws at you. Jordan came into the league a driver and dunker with a so so jumper; over time he became a decent three point shooter and developed a killer midrange and post up game. Had he not done those things there probably wouldn’t have been a second three peat for the Bulls.
A 30-something year old Jordan still trying to rise up and dunk over everybody wouldn’t have been as successful as he was when he came back to the Bulls in 1995, and he wouldn’t have been able to remain an effective player when he came back again with the Wizards in 2001. Lebron is still relying on size and athleticism after eight years in the league, and has yet to develop the various tricks and nuances that will allow him to excel even when the opposition knows what he’s going to try.
Michael Jordan was a force of will, not just of nature. Standing in front of him was like facing a hurricane; he was going to keep coming and keep coming and sooner or later you were going to fall. And if by some chance you didn’t fold, your teammates surely would. He would find a way to beat you; by driving or shooting or passing or defending.
By comparison Lebron is just a player. A great player? Yes. A Hall of Fame player? Yes. He’s not Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady or Dominique Wilkins. But he’s still a guy who just comes out and plays. His physical ability and skills make that approach work for him on most nights, but when you face an opponent who can match your skill, like a Dirk Nowitzki, and that opponent is dialed in and going for it all, then you have to do more than show up and play. You have to push, and that’s what he doesn’t do. Most of us have grown up on Jordan, so we’re spoiled. And we were sold Lebron before he ever got into league as if he were Jordan 2.0, the one who would finally claim the throne that eluded Kobe, Vince, T-Mac, Grant Hill, etc. And enough of us bought into it, so now we’re mad that instead of the Godfather 2 we got Revenge of the Fallen. Spectacular, eye catching, visually stimulating, but once it was ended you’re thinking ‘Really?’
And don’t look for it to change. Lebron may get a ring, maybe several. But it won’t be because he reached out and grabbed it, it will be because he played well and the opponent couldn’t match it. He’s not Batman, he’s Nightwing (the Robin thing is way off for anybody who actually knows the characters). Nightwing can hold it down on his own most of the time; he polices a city on his own separate from Batman. But if the Joker shows up, then he’s calling Wayne Manor and falling in line. No disgrace there at all, to be honest. The only sin is calling himself Batman when that isn’t the case.
And guess what folks, Nightwing may be all we get from Lebron. There’s no point in saying, ‘I bet he goes off on everybody next season’ because he’s not wired that way. Expect the same frontrunning show we got this year; if it happens to be good enough then he’ll get his ring. But if it isn’t expect next year’s Finals to end the same way this year’s did.