Thursday, June 21, 2012

Preparing for a World Where LeBron James Has An NBA Title

Just...imagine it.

LeBron, feet shuffling nervously as he wears an ill-fitting hat that awkwardly rests upon his massive dome, looks deliriously up towards a loving Miami crowd, who for the first time in six years, have all stood uniformly at attention 30 minutes after the final buzzer has rung. They do so at the sight of a dozen men, as well as the coaching staff, trainers, wives, children and various hangers-on, impatiently waiting for the sight of a giant gold ball, like a group of kids behind the banister on Christmas morning. James is flanked dead center by his compatriot and friend Dwyane Wade, still spouting "Yes, we did. Yes. We. Diddddddddd!" phrases ad nauseum, and on the other side a humbled Erik Spoelstra, whose face erupts in a genuine joy that puzzlingly has seemed to elude a man whose reached the zeniths of the coaching ranks in just his mid-thirties.

James, who, at the final buzzer fell to the floor in celebration, ironic for a man who just had the weight of the world lifted off of him, stands tall with his chin up. Twice before he heard within 100 yards that these ceremonies were taking place, but never had he actually seen one up close. As he giddily looks side to side, with friends, family and co-workers constantly shouting out his name and the coordinating congratulatory sentiments, the Commissioner gives his usual speech about how this is a team that came together, defied the odds and ultimately, proved to be a worthy champion. All of the sudden, a smile rarely seen on the embattled Chosen One's face flashes from free throw line to free throw line. His owner Mickey Arison says a few words to Stern, but at this point, LeBron can't hear a damn thing. But it's not his surroundings. The roar of the crowd can't come close to contending with the din created by a million different thoughts racing in his head like the locomotive train he emulates every night on the court. In a moment that plays to him like a slow motion highlight, Arison turns to James, and hands him the Larry O'Brien trophy. Astonishingly, the tears don't flow; the rush of sheer jubilation won't allow for such reflection. Instead we watch as the three-time MVP, one of the greatest athletes on the planet and one of the best players in NBA history, has finally fulfilled the destiny that so many doubted he'd ever achieve. LeBron James has just won the NBA title.

Now, I'm not predicting anything here, contrary to that long, drawn out scenario I just painted. The goal of this post is to prepare everything for a world where LeBron James wins a NBA title.

The Miami Heat currently hold a 3-1 series lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder, a deficit that has only been overcome eight times in NBA history. None of those teams, however, were in the NBA Finals (though three were in the Conference Finals). While it's still possible that the Thunder pull a massive upset, especially with two of the next three possible games at Oklahoma City, that outcome is highly improbable. Not only statistically speaking, but also watching how the Western Conference champs fumbled away Game 4 over and over again.

What I'm shooting for here is not to jinx the Heat, or prematurely proclaim them champions, but rather, to prepare all of our loyal Mambinites who no doubt loathe LeBron and his ilk, for the scenario that could damn well come true tonight. I repeat, this is just a precautionary measure. Think of this as rehab - we're not only going to tackle the problem here, but we're going to help you prepare to readjust to surroundings that have changed around you. It's going to be okay.

For years, the knocks on James have been crystal clear; an arrogant, insufferable braggart, whose public missteps and thoughtlessness have only been exacerbated by his complete lack of contriteness or humility. It seemed as if his behavior and immaturity off the court had been reflected in his inability to close games; on a stage when boys became men, there sat LeBron, falling under the shadows of greater players, meekly withdrawing from the big moment. Even as we watched him amaze and thrill with a combination of size, power, skill and speed that we had never, ever seen before in any human that ever played basketball, we still dismissed his nightly achievements. Why? Because of his lack of fourth quarter prowess and off-court stupidity that quite frankly, is often matched by many of his peers. It was almost like we were all witnessing a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex every single game, but somehow diminished its presence because it walked on all fours. It's a T-Rex people. How many of those have you seen with your own two eyes in your lifetime?

If you said any of those things or felt them, I wouldn't blame you. MAMBINO has always been on the forefront of Bron Bashing, questioning why a man who consistently promised us greatness fell so far from his guarantees. However, the criticisms on him - his stumbles in crunch time, the way the Miami Heat came together, his "violations" in regards to the rules of how a team should conventionally win, The Decision, the Pre-Victory Victory Parade, his post-2011 Finals press conference - have all seemed to crumble by the wayside.

If LeBron wins this title (and still, a big BIG IF - I personally have the Thunder winning tomorrow, but losing in Game 6), I believe that a lot of these detractions aren't a basis for hating him anymore.

The first and foremost is obvious; win or lose tomorrow night, the truth is that if the Heat eventually come out on top, just four games into the series there's little doubt that LeBron James would and should be the Finals MVP. He's averaged an absolutely obscene 29/10/6 on 47% shooting, getting to the line 9 times per game, while playing an astonishing 44 minutes per contest. Those numbers are pretty close to his 2012 postseason stat line, which runs something like 30/10/5 in 42 minutes with a 30.9 PER rating. Yes, the sound you just heard was Hollinger's steel robot jaw falling to the floor.

LeBron has been inhuman for the past two months, doing so not just in games of lesser consequence - I'm not sure there have been much better playoff performances than his Game 6 line of 45/15/5 on 19 for 26 shooting in 47 minutes, as Miami looked elimination dead in the face against the Boston Celtics. Even in Game 4, with his legs painfully cramping up, he still hobbled on the court and drilled a damn near game-deciding three-pointer. The old LeBron seemes to have gone away; for good? I can't tell you that. But I'm fairly certain that he'll be banished for at least the next three games.

What's nearly as remarkable is that LeBron has done this against the backdrop of a stunningly silent extracurricular calendar. The master of the regrettable postgame conference or shootaround quotation idiocy, James has largely shut his mouth, played the game and employed the Mamba media strategy: focus on the games, concentrate on winning and talk about nothing more. Shortness and brevity, which in normal human interaction is a major social faux pas, is mistaken and admired in NBA circles as intensity and professionalism.

With LeBron acting his age in regards to his off-court antics, let's turn to the on-court product again. The criticism of the Heat was not just the manner in which they came together, or the fanfare at which it happened, but also the very concept of the team itself. Built around three highly paid stars, the restrictive NBA salary cap would mean that Miami and its President Pat Riley would have to build the team with low salaried players, cast-offs and scrap-heap finds. In short, the consequence of the Heat's "Big Three's" presence would greatly handicap the team's ability to create a "complete" team. Thus, the Heat employed no less than five different starters at center this year, some the likes of rookie Dexter Pittman, mid-season cut Ronny Turiaf and the 6'8" Udonis Haslem. The team has relied on washed-up ex-stars like Mike Bibby, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Juwan Howard for major contributions this season and last, which in turn consistently aggregated the need for James, Wade and Bosh to play even more as the three-man team they set themselves up to be in July of 2010.

Many people cried that the Heat would never be able to win with this model - it had never been done before. Besides the three All-Stars, the team faced a nightly disadvantage at two of the five positions on the floor, even moreso if any of the Big Three were hurt. The contributions that the others gave Miami seemed few and far between, with scoring binges between just Wade and James happening at a more rapid clip than even the biggest detractors could believe. As the Heat watched the Mavs, a team built around one star and role players stepping up as a unit, win the championship, it seemed even more doubtful than ever that Miami, with their team constructed, could prevail. The way their team seemed to inorganically came together defied all the laws we'd come to know and love as NBA historians. Looking at the 2012 Heat, no team had ever had less talent on paper - just three guys, in fact - and won a championship. It simply spat in the face of history and the fundamental rules of basketball.

However, on this team, the highly paid Chris Bosh is no more than a bit player in the grand scheme. Yes, he's made two All-Star teams, but he's largely done so playing outside of his true comfort zone, hitting jumpers on the elbow, scrapping for loose rebounds and generally, just hustling really hard while accomodating two of the best players in the world. Yes, Bosh is a part of Miami's "Big Three" and in our estimation one of the most indispensable, but his role, especially in big games, has been whittled down to that of a glorified role player.

The other guys - Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Joel Anthony - were all acquired in manners not too foreign to other, less embattled team in the L. Joel Anthony was signed as an undrafted rookie during the 2008 season, where the Heat went 15-67 behind a crippled Dwyane Wade. Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole were late Heat draft picks, Cole being the only one of the three obtained in the first round (with the 28th pick, no less). Shane Battier is a veteran working on a cut-rate $3 million dollar, one-year deal, hoping to win the ring that's eluded him in the NBA. Wade is a homegrown product, drafted by the Heat in 2003 and has evolved into the greatest player in franchise history.

Except for the acquisition of James and Bosh (whose role has greatly diminished the impact of his original signing), this team has been put together in largely the same way as the very team they oppose in the Finals, as well as the Western Conference runner-up. Yes, there are stars who came to Miami behind perhaps insidious and unscrupulous terms. However, the role players were acquired through the same channels that all great teams build their role players. Still, I heard loud criticisms about how this team is still merely an artificial, inorganic three man team.

If you've watched this Heat team play, you'll see that they're more a team than anyone gives them credit for. Yes, James, Wade and Bosh scored 58% of their Miami's point this season, but that's truly not that crazy of a statistic; Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant were responsible for 60% of their team's offensive output in 2012. Even so, the Heat consistently get railed for essentially just being a three-man unit. However, the NBA game is a two-way street. Starting with LeBron and Wade and trickling on down, the Heat play some of the most lethal team defense in the NBA. They consistently rotate swiftly on changing assignment, fight through picks and rarely over-expose themselves on post defense. With Chalmers, LeBron, Battier and Wade playing on the perimeter, the Heat have four of the best wing defenders in the league on their side. Miami is oddly configured without a true shot-blocking big man, however, LeBron and Wade's extraordinary prowess as athletic defensemen in the post allow them to routinely reject attempts at the rim. The Heat are an intense, physical unit, who love to clog the lane and allow their perimeter players to shut down the opposition. It's extraordinarily surprising to see how efficient they are considering their lack of height, but the team's collective strength and willingness to defend make them one of the most unique teams in NBA history. How can you not appreciate that?

Much to the chagrin of the common NBA fan (re: LeBron haters), the Heat are a true team and LeBron has turned into a true star that's led them to the precipice of greatness. Win or lose tonight, the Heat will have shown through at least four games that no, they do not shine on in spite of 60 years of NBA history and 100 years of team-building fundamentals. As the season has worn on and the pressure has intensified, the Heat have done as all great teams do; the role players have filled their roles, the stars have starred and the squad has come together and withstood the onslaught of "the moment". This will not be an aberration, this will not be a freak occurrence. The Heat will have won because they were the best team, and they deserved it.

All these years, what we've criticized LeBron, Dwyane and the Miami Heat for has been a disrespect for the history of the game, their place in it, a disdain for the fundamentals of team building and their lack of confidence when faced with the prospect of true greatness. If they win tonight, or Sunday, or Tuesday, they will have silenced all those critics. If you're reading this blog right now, hopefully you're the kind of NBA fan that doesn't just love basketball, but highly respects those that show dominance and excellence. If that's the case, then it's okay to respect LeBron. It's okay to respect the Miami Heat. If they prevail, they will have earned it. A world where LeBron James and the Miami Heat win the title isn't a violation of the game you know and love so much. You can breathe easy. The sun will rise tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment