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The Case for Lebron James

I felt like last night’s blow out win by the Spurs over the Heat probably made many people feel the way I felt when Joffrey died on Game of Thrones. Sure it was good that his character ended, but you wanted a more satisfying and violent revenge, perhaps at the hands of one of the Stark children.  Perhaps that is what would have been better for Lebron haters.  Perhaps seeing him blow out both knees while being dunked on by Kawhi Leonard as his family was executed by a Dan Gilbert led death squad, like the Czar and his family during the Russian Revolution, would have been more satisfying end to the bizarre fixation that the country has with Lebron.   All of this is supposedly based on The Decision (which you all watched – you only seemed to turn righteous and pious once he didn’t choose your team, esecially you NY Knick fans) and the pep rally the Big Three had.  Really? So he lost in the Finals to the Mavericks, giving you the schadenfreude you needed, but then wins back to back titles against a young upstart (Thunder) and a great, respected veteran team (Spurs) and still all that pent up envy and resentment came spilling out after the “cramp game” four years later?  And now the world of ill informed, semi-literate sports fans whose hoops expertise often extends no further than NBA2K games  can finally declare Lebron as a much lesser player than everyone who has ever won a title.  His stats put him slightly ahead of Larry Bird (in 2 fewer seasons AND a career that started right out of high school, though Bird’s final few seasons were back-injury hampered so maybe that cancels out Lebron’s youth), his championships put him with Wilt Chamberlain and Isaiah Thomas’s careers and his overall career trajectory in terms of overall stats has no real equal at this age. So here are a few points I would like to make in defense of Lebron (it was nice having last year off, though I did love writing this right BEFORE his epic Game 6 against the Celtics in 2012):

Stop Calling Wade and Bosh Superstars

I know it is convenient to cite Bosh and Wade as superstars that Lebron ran to to get his titles, but that is not Raptor Chris Bosh and that is not 2006 Dwyane Wade playing out there.  If Lebron signed with a team that had Bill Russell and Michael Jordan on its roster would you say “Lebron’s a pussy who signed with 2 of the 5 greatest players of all time to win titles” or would you say “those old dudes ain’t doing shit for Lebron.”  Wade has allowed Lebron to carry a heavy load the last two years for him during the regular season in the name of him being healthy come playoff time.  The result has been a horrible playoffs last year leading into the Finals where Wade was admittedly solid and this year’s finals where Wade was horrific.

As for Bosh – he is a jump shooting small forward in a power forward’s body.  He was outplayed by anyone the Spurs put down low.  Legitimately Boris Diaw appeared to be a better player than Chris Bosh. Now are you willing to call Boris Diaw a “superstar?”  I didn’t think so.  That label has not applied to Wade or Bosh for a few years, but it sticks, because it is simply a tool to diminish Lebron’s standing as the great player of his day.

The Spurs Are a Great Team with a Great Coach – Better Than Any Team Michael Jordan Beat for A Title

Lost in this really has been the greatness of the Spurs.  Tim Duncan now has 5 titles.  He has won 4 with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, making them the only trio to win four titles since Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and (I think) James Worthy.   But instead of viewing the Heat’s loss to them as a great achievement by the Spurs, it if offered as proof that “Lebron is not as good as Michael Jordan.” Two points here – one – if the first insult constantly hurled at a player, whose game and body have no resemblance to Michael Jordan, is to say “he is no Michael Jordan,” then you are obviously constantly comparing him to Michael Jordan and doing it for a reason.  Like if the UN is debating if genocide is occurring, my instinct is to say “if you are thinking about it, let’s just assume for safety sake that it is genocide.”  Similarly, if you are obsessing over a comparison between MJ and Lebron then just admit that his talent and unique brilliance is there and the comparison is worth talking about halfway through his career.

The second point is that  I do not think Michael Jordan ever beat a team as good as the Popovich Spurs.  Not to say he would not have. He had a better cast and a better coach than Lebron, as well as greatness that earns him the benefit of the doubt.  But no team MJ ever beat was as good as the Spurs.  The closest two teams I can think of are the Utah Jazz and the NY Knicks.  The Jazz were a system based team led by Hall of Famers that produced good play out of mediocre supporting cast members (an upper-middle class Spurs).  But they were never as good as the Spurs. Clearly.  The Knicks on the other hand played the Bulls tough with a rough style from a great coach, Pat Riley. But they never had more than 2 stars and Ewing was a low level superstar if you want to elevate him above simple “star” status.   So if you are going to say that losing in the Finals, as Lebron has done three times (to be fair he lost in the finals twice at an age younger than Michael Jordan’s 1st Finals appearance – don’t penalize him for being too good, too young), is clear and convincing evidence of Jordan’s superiority (as I have seen many people write) then be honest and realize that these Spurs much more resemble the Rockets that Jordan never played.  Except these Spurs are better than those Rockets as well.

Shaq, Rodman & Pippen

If you want to compare Kobe, MJ and Lebron on pure title numbers then let me ask you this – who would you pick 1st, 2nd and 3rd of these supporting stars:

1998-2004 Shaq and a loaf of bread

1995-1998 Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman

2012-2014 Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade

Lebron won 60+ games twice with Cleveland and made the NBA Finals with Anderson Verejao and Mo Williams as his two best mates (and the now fully exposed Mike Brown as coach – Lebron should also have Brown’s coach of the year award).  Kobe won his first 3 titles with the most dominant physical force in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain.  Do you honestly think Lebron could not have won multiple titles in his first 7 years as a pro if he was playing with the Black Mountain (Game of Thrones reference and my preferred moniker for Shaq in his prime)? Do you think playing with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in mid 90s form – a glue-like defender and multi-skilled offensive player and a tenacious rebounder (someting sorely lacking from the Heat) would not have been better than a phsically and mentally defeated Wade and a jump shooting Euro big man in a dinosaur’s body named Bosh?  If your answer to the above question is Bosh and Wade then as Adam Carolla says “you’re either stupid or a liar.”

You don’t hate Lebron; you might just dislike yourself (plus he became “uppity”)

This year alone Lebron spoke out in the Trayvon Martin case and took an early stance against Donald Sterling.  This may seem meaningless (though he put more than a hashtag on the line when he did so), but it was a lot more than Kobe or MJ did with their clout at leading stars of the NBA.  Since The Decision Lebron has been a great ambassador of the game, a model citizen (at least in the ways we as fans could know) and a spectacular player on the court.  So why do we hate him?  Because we can never be him. And for a split second with The Decision, he let us all know that to our faces.  He changed jobs and it was ESPN’s highest rated program of the year. We change jobs – not even our Facebook friends really give a shit.  He is a physical marvel, a savvy business man and appears to have a happy family life.  In other words – he has it all nd he did not have to be in a Dove Soap natural beauty commercial to prove it.  But unlike Tim Duncan, Lebron made us feel a bit of shame and envy. What man wouldn’t want to go to warm climate, play ball with his friends and be a sports icon?

The rich irony I have observed over the last few years watching playoff games in bars surrounded by guys who work in finance calling Lebron James a “scumbag” or an “arrogant douche” would make me laugh if it was not so insidious.  Money manipulation and moving from their cities to bigger, cooler cities like NYC are both apparently noble pursuits, but when Lebron does it, he’s a villain.  As I have said before I felt bad for Cleveland when Lebron left. I like the city and I, like many sports fans can romanticize the homegrown talent connection to sports teams.  But what happened with Lebron was worse, and yes there is a racial component to this.  He was the good boy who stayed home, helped the town, knew his role was allowed to flourish and have praised heaped on him as long as he stayed that nice humble boy from the town.  But when he wanted to go the big city he got a little too “uppity.” I would have not made these references before, but the jealousy and rage of Lebron have lingered too long to be based on any rational reason.  NBA fans, including the rage filled white fans (according to a recent poll Lebron lost popularity among black and white fans, but has since become more popular with black fans, but is still not even at pre-The Decision levels of popularity with white fans), basically had the burden of being fans’ favorite house servant – giving us amazing feats of enjoyment with humble habits right in our living rooms and sports bars.  So of course the betrayal felt even worse when he became perceived as the league’s most brash field hand (even though neither was ever true, but that is how the perception was). If you are going to be better than most of America Lebron you better not let them know it.  Barry Bonds can be a jerk and disliked because he was always a jerk. BUT LEBRON – you made us think you were a good one – someone who would entertain us, but never make us jealous – and then you turn around and act like you are better?  That is unforgivable.  We would never let Allen Iverson in our home so we would never feel duped, but Lebron, you were the humble, hard working one!  Never again!

So let’s just hope if Kawhi Leonard’s career keeps up its star trajectory that he keeps his mouth shut for the rest of his career (which actually seems like a distinct possibility).

Great watching you play Lebron and I hope you make your haters eat shit next year.  And as it should be, the final words should be about the Spurs – great run, great team and led by a guy all of America can root for – a wife cheating, former teammate-wife banging, French point guard named Tony Parker. #AmericanRoleModel

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Who is the Next Lebron James (for trolls)?

The NBA season got started last night and Lebron James and the Miami Heat easily dispatched with the fully recovered Chicago Bulls.  With three Finals appearances and back-to-back titles for Lebron in the last three seasons, only those with Tea Party-to-Obama level hate/obsession with Lebron can still find fault with the man as a player.  He has delivered in every single way that critics demanded and now he is to that next level of “Can he be the greatest of all time” phase of his career, now that he is clearly “one of the all time greats.” (Please click HERE for last year’s tour de force post before Game 7 of the Finals or this gem from right before Lebron’s 2012 Game 6 against the Celtics, i.e. I have always been right). But before the Lebron Tea Party gets fired up and starts spouting Michael Jordan stats at me, that is not the point of this blog.  The point is that in our Internet troll, never apologize, just-move-on-to-the-next-potential-carcass-for-www-vultures culture, it is time to start picking apart NBA stars who are the next “he sucks because he has not won a title” guys.  Never mind that in history, if Lebron ends up as a top 5 or better player of all time we will eventually regard players who lost to him as all time greats anyway (no one really rips Malone, Barkley, Stockton, Payton, or Ewing anymore for not defeating Michael Jordan – in hindsight it merely elevates Jordan’s legacy for vanquishing so many worthy opponents).  And never mind that all of these guys on the list are under 30 years old.  Because we are in the age and spirit of Twitter, the Internet is sure to be full of blogs questioning the heart, commitment, skills and toughness of lots of guys in the next year or so.  So here are the guys I think are up for the New Lebron (for trolls) Award:

(Quick Side note – I think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is sort of right to be annoyed that he is always left out of GOAT discussions – 6 MVPs, 5 titles, all-time leading NBA scorer and a high school and college phenom who fulfilled all of his promise – just a thought – even though his sky hook was sort of like a video game cheat move that respectable gamers would ban each other from using).

The formula I use is a non-scientific combination of talent + exposure + opportunity + fun to watch (because trolls especially love trashing people who are fun to watch so they appear more grounded and knowledgeable):

8. Carmelo Anthony – I think he barely makes the list because very few people outside of NY believe that Anthony really has the game or mentality to actually lead a team to a title.  I think after the Knicks get bounced in the first round of the playoffs this year people will sort of justifiably stop even worrying about whether Melo is a champion.  But for this year, being in NY will be enough for there to be lots of “Melo is not a winner” chatter.  I actually agree with this one.

7. Blake Griffin – one of the most fun players to watch makes him a prime target for armchair experts to question his commitment (HE’S ALSO IN LOTS OF FUN COMMERCIALS!) and whether he is working on his game enough. Because Chris Paul gets the “amazing leader/culture changer” label that Kevin Garnett got to have going to Boston, the main heat will continue to fall on the fun, but flawed star.

6. Steph Curry – Since he was so explosive last year (and as fun to watch as a guard as Griffin is as a big man, probably even more fun) that gives trolls an immediate chance to be the first to declare Steph Curry “overrated” or “lacking in championship DNA.”

5. Paul George – the darling surprise of last year’s playoffs is a very complete player. Young, rangy, plays well on both sides of the floor are all good qualities, but a year after America even discovered this guy if he loses to Lebron again, instead of giving greatness credit to Lebron they will start asking of a 24 year old, “Will he EVER win a title????”

4. James Harden-Dwight Howard – Dwight (or Da-Wight if you are any number of excitable black journalists on television) Howard is such a (somewhat deservedly) reviled doofus in the NBA that I think they will tire of bashing him and allow some of their hate to drip on to James Harden. Like George, Harden shocked dummies last year with how well he played as a number one target (which then forced people to switch from praising Harden to troll the Oklahoma City Thunder for being “so stupid” to let him go) that now trolls are hoping they can start calling him overrated and say that he and Howard are not winners, if they do not win in their first year together in a very deep western conference.

3. Deron Williams – not as good as a few of the players listed below, but trolls love burying guys forever and if Deron cannot make a serious title run with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez then he will have done the least with the most among top tier teams.  And Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson are not serious enough to hate and Pierce and Garnett are now 45 year old champions so it all falls on Deron.  He may not be considered as good as some players on this list, but haters and trolls smell a carcass near the end if he fails to win and that makes them salivate.

2. Derrick Rose – Injuries and hate of the Heat have given Derrick Rose a pass (hate of Lebron forced people to ignore that Lebron shut Rose down late in the 2011 series when they played), but now that he is healthy, has a team people think can challenge the Heat and he stayed out all last season (the haters and trolls started to take a whiff of Rose when he sat out the whole playoffs, as if preparing for a full attack on him if he fails to dethrone Lebron in 2013-14).  The nation loves Rose as an anti-Lebron, but he may become their new Lebron if he fails to make noise this year.

1. Kevin Durant – I saw it happen last year on social media and it pissed me off.  Durant went from “I might take him ahead of Lebron if I had to start a franchise today” guy to “He cannot lead a team and is not complete enough (even though he went to the playoffs without his two best players that he had going to the Finals the year before).”  Ignoring that he was a 3 time scoring champ by age 24, that he led a team to the NBA finals at 23 and that his game continues to methodically improve, haters did not have Lebron to hate anymore so they moved on to the next best thing. Which is the best compliment one can give to Kevin Durant.

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Why Lebron Will Never Please You

The question of who is the greatest basketball player of all time is not historically settled, by the very nature of History – people are always making it and adapting from and surpassing the past.  It is of little debate that at the present moment, by almost any standard one can apply that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.  He has the stats, championships, individual and team accolades and perhaps most importantly, a series indelible marks left upon the imaginations of millions of Americans.  Jerry West may be the logo of the NBA, but Michael Jordan is its most shining symbol of glory.  Others who have tried to lay claim to the throne have fallen short, most notably Kobe Bryant, the closest approximation to Jordan in style (if not in success) to the point that if Kobe could have killed Jordan on a boat, assumed his identity (along with press conference cadence, fadeaway jumper and gum chewing) and called himself The Talented Mr. Jordan, he might have.  But the danger in replicating a great is that no matter how great you are, unless you surpass the original in every way you can never be considered greater.  And this goes beyond stats and number of titles, but also the spirit of the legend.  Which is why I have found Lebron James so damn intriguing.

Lebron James, I have always said, is the only modern player with a chance to surpass Jordan (read the words haters – a chance – not a declared certainty or a present-day fact) because he is a different model.  Kobe challenged Jordan on Jordan’s turf. Lebron’s eventual legacy will challenge Jordan from a new template – a point guard mind- power forward body phenom.  He will never score as much as Kobe or MJ, but he impacts the game in a way I have never seen.  He is a defensive force and only Scottie Pippen has been as versatile a defender in my life.  What other player in NBA history goes chest-to-chest with Tim Duncan and rejects his post shot and then resumes guarding Tony Parker out on the perimeter?  Defensive player of the year Marc “Hodor” Gasol?

To watch the San Antonio defense you would think no one on the court exists except Lebron  They guard him with multiple players, a layered scheme and are only willing to concede the worst shot statistically in basketball – the 17-19 foot range jumper.  He is a gifted passer, a savant of the game and a physical freak, but he has only shown glimpses of an assassin’s mentality on the court and because Jordan set the framework and Kobe followed it, the fact that Lebron does not adhere to that model means in the hater/hoops-simpletons’ minds that he can never be as good or better than those who operate with that mindset.

And yet, Lebron is one game from winning his 2nd NBA title a year before Michael Jordan won his 2nd NBA title.  He has collected 3 triple doubles in his last 7 NBA Finals games.  He has thrived offensively in a league that, although not as physically dirty than the one Jordan played in and that Kobe began in, is much more sophisticated defensively and the statistics bear that out.  Better athletes, more zone defense and more complex stats and schemes make scoring a bigger chore in today’s NBA (not necessarily individually, but the game is a lot slower than in the 80s).  Am I in any way suggesting the MJ would not thrive in today’s NBA?  Of course not.  I think he would excel.  But this is more to defend Lebron.

Lebron is playing under a microscope that no other NBA player has ever played under.  Jordan felt the glare, but that was the glare of an adoring spotlight for most of  his career.  He was a Madison Avenue darling very early on and became the toast of the league for the second decade of his career.  Once MJ broke through, he was never questioned again, at least not pejoratively.  This has not been the case since Lebron won.  Lebron has had the spotlight, but much of it has come from the ever present 24 hour news cycle and the 200 foot troll of a magnifying glass known as social media.  Every game Lebron plays is not specific enough evidence of greatness or failure – he has every play dissected.  After willing the Heat back from the brink of destruction all 4th quarter in Game 6 last night, the instant reaction from haters was that Ray Allen had “bailed Lebron out” with his incredible three pointer.  What is Lebron Moses?  He gets to lead his team to the Promised Land, but not get to experience any of it?

The problem for Lebron is not that he is not talented or clutch or great.  He is all of those things.  The real problem for Lebron is that he is the greatest athletic specimen we have on the planet, other than perhaps Usain Bolt, and that shames a lot of the public.  See, we live in a society now where everyone’s opinions, thoughts, pictures and mundane activities are on display making us all feel like important celebrities in our individual, mundane circles.  Mediocrity has never been more famous and self-important and Lebron has been reminding us for the last three years that he is better than us. 

We were OK when he was a nice kid from Ohio, toiling away, earnestly failing to achieve his profession’s highest goals.  But then he made THE DECISION.  I did not like it, but I got over it, mainly because I enjoy watching him play so much.  But what Lebron said is “watch me America – I am important and you will watch me.” And we did watch and then we hated him for showing us how much we cared and how shallow we all felt (THE DECISION was a huge ratings success).  We became champions of Cleveland’s dignity, even though many people watching were just hoping their team would be the one to break Cleveland’s heart (Hello Knicks and Bulls fans). Rather than apologize for our own hypocrisy we turned Lebron into a massive villain. 

But don’t forget he was arrogant at a free pep rally fgor Heat fans!

And then he lost in the Finals to Dallas and it proved that he was being punished for his hubris and we could all feel good.  It was a text book case of schadenfreude.  We determined he deserved a comeuppance,  he got it and we delighted! Good riddance King James! Except rather than fade away into the Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter wing just outside of the NBA Hall of Fame for underachieving athletic freaks he bounced back and destroyed his rivals en route to his title in 2012.  Yes he played with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but only a truly delusional hatred could ignore that Lebron was the Sun that the other Heat players revolved around.  And he never had that iconic moment in the NBA Finals last year because he destroyed the OKC Thunder so thoroughly.  So other than Boston Game 6 (and Indiana Game 3 if you paid attention), his 2012 playoffs did not give us Jordan over Ehlo or Jordan (shoving) shooting over Russel.  Another strike against Lebron!

So we arrived at 2013. The Heat win 66 games, 27 in a row and Lebron puts together the most or oneof the most efficient seasons in NBA History.  And then the playoffs happen and it appears that by the Pacers’ series Lebron is no longer part of a big three.  He is the Big One and is alternating between dragging his teammates and creating for them.  He single handedly vanquished a very tough and balanced Pacers team that specifically were strong where the Heat were weak.

And now the Finals.  Standing in Lebron’s way are a 4 time champion player and coach, a team with size and a team with a devastatingly good point guard – all weak spots for the Heat. And with some help, finally, Lebron is one game away from defeating the team that swept him when, like a Mozart of basketball, he took a terrible Cavs team to the Finals in 2007 with only his individual natural brilliance.  But now Lebron has mastered basketball.  Does that mean he is perfect? No.  Did Jordan shoot below 33% in the final game of the 1996 Finals?  Did Kobe go 6-24 in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals?  Yes and yes.  Does that diminish their legacies? No.  Yet Lebron for that he has accomplished before the age of 30 and the brilliance with which he plays is still having every dribble examined with heightened scrutiny.  So if he were to score 40 and go 15-15 from the field on Thursday, but Tony Parker hits a buzzer beater to win Game 7, this will somehow render Lebron’s admission to the upper elite of the sport null and void.  He cannot please these people because they want him to fail.  They need him to fail.

Lebron James has shown us that he is great. Greater at what he does than we will ever be at what we do.  He has also shown us that he knows he is great and better than us.  Not in a brash Terrell Owens sort of way where it feels cartoonish. Rather, Lebron was blessed by God, fate or nature with incredible potential for greatness.  He was not born Peter Parker or even Bruce Wayne – he was BORN as Spider Man and Batman. And what is worse is that he is fullfilling that great potential and enjoying it in beautiful Miami.  Lebron is better than us, knows it, but what really stings is that we could never be him.  No matter how hard we work and dedicate ourselves he was always going to be better. Kobe and MJ gritted their teeth, yelled at and in MJ’s case, punched, teammates – they had the gifts, but they also exhibited the grit that made us feel better about them being better.  Lebron is just enjoying a game he has mastered and fullfilling his promise, but with something closer to a child’s enjoyment than a mob boss’ ruthlessness.  And in an age where we all think we are so important and special he has shown us that we are not.  But that he is.

Good luck in Game 7 Lebron.  And get ready to hear “but MJ and Kobe threepeated” or “now Tracy mcGrady has as many titles as you” right after.   And then have a hearty laugh.

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