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Heavy Weighs the Crown

Why we should all learn to love LeBron James

Author PAUL FLANNERY

ILLUSTRATION BY JOE MORSE

WHEN WE LAST left LeBron James, he was a beaten man. His defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals this past June had been sweeter than even his most devoted critics could have imagined. The brash two-time MVP didn’t just lose. He choked. And he did so spectacularly, to the delight of a grateful nation.

Given all LeBron’s flaws — ego, hubris, a receding hairline that’s become as hard to conceal as his lack of a jumper — the fact that his talents, which he had so brazenly taken from scrappy Cleveland to glitzy South Beach, would abandon him in some of the most important moments of his basketball life offered glorious schadenfreude.

After the deciding game, in which James had appeared passive and confused, there was the self-proclaimed king, once again without a ring, left to face the reporters who had circled him for most of the year. His departure from Cleveland (announced by way of an unforgivably tacky television special), his coronation in Miami, even his Twitter handle (@KingJames) — it had culminated in a fiasco. The occasion called for an acknowledgment, a tacit admission he had perhaps flown too close to the sun.

Instead, the world got this: “All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live.”

Maybe it’s foolish to expect humility from someone who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler, under the headline “The Chosen One.” But tempting as it is to bash, and dismiss, King James, those who do are missing out on the electrifying story of a prodigy coming to terms with his talent.

I’ll admit it: I’m a convert. And in that capacity, I offer a defense of the NBA’s most maligned player, charge by charge.

CHARGE 1: HE’S GREEDY.
The most sought-after free agent in history, James signed with the Miami Heat a year and a half ago for $110 million over six years. Big money, obviously, but here’s the thing: He’s actually the most underpaid player in the league.

John Hollinger, who is to basketball analytics what Bill James is to baseball, calculated that LeBron was worth 25.7 wins last season above what a so-called replacement, or league-average, player would be worth. Taking Hollinger’s numbers a step further, the New York Times’ resident statistician, Nate Silver, estimated that a win was worth $1.63 million. In other words, LeBron’s true value to Miami was about $42 million, or two and a half times his annual salary.

Top-tier players like James are a necessity at any price because it’s practically impossible to win a championship without them. Only one team, the 2004 Pistons, has won a title without an All-NBA first team player on the roster within four years of the win, and Detroit was overflowing with very good (if not supernova) talent at the time.

Plus, James took less money in Miami than he could have if he’d stayed in Cleveland, and even took less than the maximum value in Miami in order to help his new team sign key supporting players — a bit of selflessness that usually goes unmentioned.

CHARGE 2: HE’S NO MICHAEL JORDAN.
Jordan’s own former running mate, Scottie Pippen, did James no favors in suggesting before the Finals that James would end up having a better career than Jordan did. LeBron suffers by comparison, but that has less to do with his game than with his pitch: While the tone of Jordan’s reign was one of inclusion — he invited us to be like him and even to come fly with him — James asks us to be mere spectators to his presumed greatness. The aesthetics of Jordan’s game were gorgeous, while the 250-pound James (rumored to be more like 265) exhibits all the subtlety of a middle linebacker. His dunks aren’t the stuff of gravity-defying legend; they’re displays of fury.

But set style aside, and the differences between these two begin to look less cut-and-dried. Jordan won his first championship in his seventh season at the age of 28, silencing the critics who’d claimed that a one-on-one virtuoso would never win until he learned to trust his teammates. James lost his second championship in his eighth season at the age of 26, reinforcing the doubters who say he will never win until he stops deferring to teammates (which is a funny demand to make of someone who’s routinely derided for being egotistical).

Moreover, an objective review of the numbers shows that while Jordan was a better scorer and shooter, James is a superior rebounder and passer. Plunging deeper into the wonky realm of advanced metrics, Jordan attained his highest player efficiency rating (or PER, a mash-up of all the stats found in the box score) of 31.89 at the age of 24 — the exact same age as LeBron when he hit 31.7. Jordan and James rank first and second all-time in PER. Image issues notwithstanding, James is as close to Jordan as anyone’s ever come.

CHARGE 3: HE’S A BUST.
Before the season began, James appeared in a commercial in which he asked in apparent seriousness: “Should I be who you want me to be?” He came across sounding like a first-year liberal arts student, and critics duly seized on the line as evidence of narcissism. But it’s a valid question. Naysayers have become so bogged down by James’ persona (or actual personality — it’s hard to tell) that it clouds their judgment of his game.

He’s criticized for not taking over on the court, when in fact he does, frequently, but often at the wrong time and while relying far too heavily on a shaky jumper. If his path to the basket is blocked, he’s usually content to launch long, low-percentage shots. And he remains unwilling to play in the post. While detractors predictably chalk that up to a character flaw — i.e., he’s intimidated by the responsibility — it’s just as likely the mark of an unfinished game. Opposing teams dread the day when James gets serious about playing down low, as Jordan eventually did, because once he does, it’s all over. In other words, King James still has ample room for professional growth. Which is amazing, when you think about it.

When he does ultimately succeed — and that’s when, not if — he’ll undoubtedly attract his share of animosity. But there will be some vindication in the fact that by then his critics, in all their righteous indignation, will have missed the arrival of one of the greatest athletes of our generation.

PAUL FLANNERY writes for WEEI.com and teaches journalism at Boston University.

 

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A WIN MAKES
No sport defines its superstars by championships like the NBA. A title brings validation and a happy ending; a loss, years of bitter scrutiny. Here are three examples of a win changing everything.

KOBE BRYANT
Pre-title reputation: Petulant young star who forced the Lakers to choose between him and Shaquille O’Neal
Confusing subplot: Is he clutch — or just a compulsive chucker?
Post-championship glow: So pathologically competitive he doesn’t need to explain himself to anyone ever again

DIRK NOWITZKI
Pre-title reputation: Talented but soft European who is to defense what sand castles are to high tide
Confusing subplot: Being German, he’s a fan of David Hasselhoff
Post-championship glow: Pioneer of the great foreign migration; often finds himself compared to Larry Bird

KEVIN GARNETT
Pre-title reputation: Loner betrayed by his misguided loyalty to Minnesota and refusal to take over games offensively
Confusing subplot: Is he manically intense or intensely manic?
Post-championship glow: Unselfish defensive linchpin for grumpy-old-men Celtics who set the blueprint for the Heat’s current superteam

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