As the Heat continue to battle what looks like a much tougher Spurs team than last year, I can’t help but notice the vitriol from some of my friends and social media on – surprise surprise – Lebron James.
I’m trying to figure out why. I understand that The Decision was an easy reason to hate Lebron for people who casually follow basketball and consider it an act of inexcusable arrogance (more on that later), but for people who actually watch the game and have idolized stars like Kobe, I really don’t get why some of them are too blinded by hatred to enjoy watching possibly the most complete and versatile player the game has ever seen do damage in his prime.
My first pet peeve has to do more with Heat hate than Lebron hate, though it quickly becomes clear that the latter is usually the reason for the former. In this Finals especially, you’ll see countless posts about the virtues of fundamental basketball, and how the Spurs embody it.
My question is: where were these fundamental basketball lovers during the entirety of this incredible Spurs run? This is a team that has won more than 50 games (and 74% of its games during the 50 game lockout season) in every season of the Duncan era – they’ve basically been contenders just about every single year. But where were these worshippers of their unselfishness and fundamentals during all those years where they didn’t win, or didn’t face Lebron? Why were they quiet in the Spurs’ series against the league’s new favorite prince Durant, and his fundamentals-be-damned partner Westbrook? Why didn’t these people come out of the woodwork over the years to support the Spurs against other superstar-dependent teams like the Lakers?
Most importantly, if you love ‘unselfish basketball’ and fundamentals so much, why do you hate Lebron? Lebron possesses every ‘fundamental’ basketball skill a player can ask for, all of them at an above-average to elite level. He has range. He is obviously a monster going to the rim. He reads and understands defenses, always willing and able to make the right passes to open teammates. He unquestionably improves the efficiency of those playing with him (the same cannot be said for many other superstars over the years). He both creates and takes good shots (though he’s taken shit for not taking more shots that most people would consider ‘good’), and his field goal percentage has improved for seven consecutive seasons to levels unprecedented for a player who spends plenty of time on the perimeter. When everyone said that he needed to develop a post game, he did so seemingly overnight, completely transforming the Heat’s offensive possibilities and spacing. Perhaps most importantly on offense, he seems to get that keeping everyone involved and in a rhythm makes them play better, and improves their willingness to struggle and fight on defense.
And oh, defense…Lebron defends pretty much every position at an elite level, depending on need. Last year, he put the clamps on David West and Tony Parker in consecutive series when called upon. Perhaps even more important and in a way in which some defensive specialists with a reputation for 1-on-1 lockdowns lack, Lebron plays great team D for a team whose defensive philosophy largely depends on it. He’s athletic enough to threaten passing lanes and protect the rim, and he can be counted on to make the right rotation. Given that the Heat have played a super-aggressive trapping style requiring razor’s edge decisions and switches to avoid getting burned by savvy offenses, Lebron’s defensive versatility is even more important for closing gaps, creating turnovers, and recovering from mistakes.
All of those skills I listed are basketball fundamentals. No player in Lebron’s era has come close to matching his ability to do all of those things at an extremely high level, even if some stars have been arguably better in some of those categories. Yet Lebron is seldom lauded by the haters for his fundamentals, because he’s too busy being hated for:
(1) Joining up with other stars in pursuit of a championship. I guess the meme that best encapsulates this line of hate would be this one.
Oh, those horrible scrubs that these guys had to carry to titles on their own. Dennis Johnson, who was Finals MVP years earlier, though no longer at his peak during Bird’s prime (does that sound a little bit like Wade?). McHale and Parrish, two guys on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list. Or poor Magic, saddled with the burden of carrying all-time scoring leader and 19-time All Star (mostly meaning age didn’t take much off his sky hook) Kareem, fellow Top 50 member James Worthy, and Michael Cooper (perennial defensive player of the year candidate/winner). Got to pity MJ, who was forced to hoist the Lebron prototype (Pippen) and the likes of Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman to the title. Let’s just forget that in Jordan’s full season away from the game, the Bulls won 55 games and battled the eventual eastern finalist Knicks to 7 games. Shit, let’s throw Kobe into the mix of pinnacle-tier players who stuck around with their first team and eventually won titles. In-between periods of title contention with Shaq and a successful rebuild that included a draft pick panning out bigtime (Andrew Bynum) and a colossal swindle (Pau Gasol), Kobe asked to be traded to the Clippers and Bulls.
More importantly, Kobe joins Bird and Magic on this list as players whose initial teams were already very good or outright contenders. Just as Jordan wouldn’t have realistically come back from retirement to play for another team, these guys were surrounded with enough talent that they didn’t have much reason to leave (except for Kobe, who tried and very nearly did leave). Guess who the Finals MVP of Bird’s first title run was. Not him, but Cedric Maxwell. And Nate Archibald, all-star game MVP that year (a distinction which just means he was clearly still very good), was also on that team. James Worthy and Kareem each took Finals MVP honors once during Magic’s championship runs. The Finals MVPs of Kobe’s first three rings went unquestionably to Shaq (I won’t go too far off on this tangent here).
Can you imagine a single player on Lebron’s Cavaliers, or even right now on his Heat, who could win a Finals MVP over him? Me neither. The Cavs following his departure, playing with basically the exact same roster, went from 61 wins to 19, and had showed no signs of being able to draft or sign useful pieces to help him contend. So yeah, Lebron left partly because he couldn’t win a title ‘on his own’. Noone ever really has.
(2) The Decision and Lebron’s general demeanor and personality.
Going to dig a little deeper for this one.
People hated Lebron for The Decision. Before and after that, they hated him for appearing indecisive or not trying hard enough to win as a hero-baller. He disappeared when it counted, they said, evidence notwithstanding. Kobe seemingly spoke for the masses when he implored Lebron to shoot for the lead at the end of an All-Star game, instead of throw another pass that led to a miss. In short, people wanted him to embody their idea of what a top-dog athlete should be. He needed to be selfishly dominant. He was not accepting his place at the top of the food chain by deferring, by leaving responsibility and outcomes to his inferior teammates. Maybe if Lebron had shit on his former teammates, bullied or fought them in practices and games or reduced them to tears like some of the superstar two-guards he’d drawn comparisons to, he would be seen as the type of alpha competitor that the media could love. Maybe if he insisted on taking every shot at the end of games, people would eventually remember the makes over the misses (as they always do), and he would eventually win recognition as being truly ruthless.
With that in mind, I want to make two points about The Decision. The first is that much of the hype, buildup, and even idea/execution of The Decision does not fall on Lebron’s shoulders. We’re talking about a player who was the most sought after free-agent EVER. A player capable of bringing any franchise he chooses into immediate contention was going to make his choice. This was a can’t-miss sports media event, and everyone built it up. Reporters and bloggers scrambled to share the latest rumors and insider information. Teams made elaborate yet desperate pitches. Everyone in the basketball world wanted to know where he was going.
Would everyone have really preferred that Lebron’s agent just quietly announce his destination? Should he have refused to participate in the short presentation and show given to him because he didn’t want to embarrass…who? Cleveland fans who booed him in the playoffs? How many people expressed their hatred and disgust at The Decision before Lebron actually told Jim Gray he was taking his talents to South Beach? Were they actually appalled that such a spectacle was happening? Because I never sensed, read, or heard that they did. I thought that if Lebron had chosen his words just a bit differently, or his destination differently, he would have averted most of the backlash that seems to continue following him to this day.
His biggest mistake that day was, ironically, embracing his importance as the game’s best player in a way that didn’t fit people’s perceptions of him. Just try for a moment to imagine if Kobe or Jordan were entering free agency, with the possibility of signing with a different team. Would the media not engineer a similar spectacle for them? Would they be perceived suddenly as distastefully arrogant or selfish just for leaving, or if they said something that mentioned their own value as players? I’m almost sure they wouldn’t. I’m almost sure people would respect them more for it. They make a similar statement, and it’s confidence and the will to win, rather than arrogance. Because their public on and off-court personalities would match a tone of self-importance. People probably perceived Lebron as a super-skilled beta who was suddenly trying too hard to draw attention to himself, when he’d been seemingly shying away from the spotlight for most of his career. Now you want to be the center of attention? Like this?
And I think that goes to the essence of Lebron hate. It was less about his skills than the way he deployed them (why greats like Duncan don’t move jerseys). It was less about his competitiveness and will to win than the way he projects these qualities in a way people expect the world’s best player to. It was less about his actual place on the totem pole than the way he chose to highlight the obvious in reaching for the mountaintop that every player wants. He went from entitled underdog straight to titled villain.
I just hope the hate makes him even better than what he already is – maybe the most complete basketball player ever.