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Happy LeBronukkah

July 8, 2011

Today is the first anniversary of the Miami Heat’s free agent signing of LeBron James, a day the Heat received much more than they ever expected, and a day forever to be known as LeBronukkah.

Surely you remember that LeBron kept the world waiting until literally the eighth night of free agency (see, LeBronukkah is just too perfect) last July before announcing that he would be playing basketball in Miami the upcoming season. His decision, every bit his right to make, but made publicly in a forced-spectacle TV special, was attacked by critics worldwide as insensitively and immaturely executed.

Needless to say, if you pay any attention to sports news, you know LeBron didn’t win a championship this year, and it thrilled most of the world. So what do we know about LeBron that we didn’t last year? Maybe not much. His game still alternates between passive subservience and the aggressive, attacking style of a demon at large, a style that we’ve never seen before in any player, let alone one nearly as big as Karl Malone. Yet his ego is still insatiable, he whines on the court, and he carries just enough hipster gear to deserve caption treatment.

Death Cab just speaks to me.

I had minimal plans for the pun, but Hanukkah might actually be a sound theme for this article, at least as far as weakly-formed sports blog articles go. Here’s a quick refresher on Hanukkah from an admitted non-historian: when the Jews reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem from earlier conquerors, they found ritual olive oil largely defiled, with only a small amount remaining for use. The oil that was left should have only been enough to light the temple menorah for a single night, yet it lasted a full eight nights, a miracle that is still celebrated in the Jewish calendar in modern times.

Let’s go back to the NBA, where the LeBron story could connect in any number of ways:

  1. LeBron can be a greater jerk than we ever could have imagined, and he proved it last year.
  2. LeBron has far more game than we believe he does, and he’s proven it, but no one’s paying attention.
  3. LeBron’s self-righteous fire will simply outlast his critics, and he’ll prove it over time.

A mixed group of positions to take, right? Keep reading…

LeBron James has taken his team to the playoffs in six consecutive years, and has never lost a first-round series, but in many cases, he’s been derided for “early” playoff losses, or for “quitting” on his team. We forget that in his second-ever playoff season, LeBron took the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals despite having Larry Hughes as a sidekick, ultimately to be dismantled by a dynastic Spurs team that won its fourth title in a nine-year stretch. It was a classic case of a veteran team putting a trigger lock on the young guns, which is nothing new in the world of sports.

Yes, THAT Larry Hughes.

In the next four seasons, LeBron-led squads lost in the playoffs to teams that either won the NBA championship (Celtics in 2008 and Mavericks in 2011) or lost in the NBA Finals (Magic in 2009 and Celtics in 2010). Include the 2007 run and that’s five consecutive seasons of playoff losses to one of the best two playoff teams in the league. Those are disappointing results without question, but hardly the story of a legendary loser.

Now, name a player drafted since 2003 (year 0 by the LeBron calendar), who has led his team to a championship. I’ll save you some time – Dwyane Wade is the only one. Take a look at a quick-and-dirty table of his peers’ playoff performance that I just HTML’d, and take measure of how well James has played in the postseason compared to most of his post-millennial colleagues.

Player Playoffs First-Round Exits NBA Finals
LeBron James 6 of 8 years 0 2
Carmelo Anthony 8 of 8 years 6 0
Dwight Howard 5 of 7 years 2 1
Amar’e Stoudemire 6 of 9 years 3 0
Chris Paul 3 of 6 years 2 0
Chris Bosh 3 of 8 years 2 1

Despite all this, ESPN analysts refuse to focus on anything but his inability to deliver championships.

Maybe LeBron can’t win a championship. Or maybe a better explanation is that only twelve players per year can, and he hasn’t been one of them yet, and neither have most of his peers, because there are still too many members of the old guard winding down outstanding careers. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Dirk Nowitzki come to mind immediately. All of those players were at various points in their careers labeled not quite enough. Nobody says that anymore.

Whatever the case, LeBron is hardly a choker as described – in fact, his career playoff win percentage (0.609) is just barely below his overall regular season win percentage (0.620).

I’ll admit there are all kinds of problems with statistics like that, such as limited playoff downside (if you start losing, you eventually get knocked out and can’t lose any more), limited range of opponents in the playoffs (matchups matter and can skew a record easily), and the fact that I’m attributing team statistics to individuals, a deadly but common sin in the world of sports stats.

But account for the fact that regular season win percentage is biased upwards by games against non-playoff teams, and maybe everything balances. Maybe.

A Step Back…

There’s a problem with making excuses for LeBron, though, which is that he made a stupid, stupid statement last summer, when he said before a live crowd that he had come to Miami to win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” championships. He eventually stopped, presumably predicting eight or more championships (he didn’t explicitly exclude zero, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt).

See, LeBron James has a body of work that doesn’t necessarily indict his playoff performance as a step down from his regular-season brilliance. Rather, he falls short of what we want from him, and the expectations are ours because they were originally his, and instead of quietly converting expectations to output on the court, he arrogantly made them into words that critics will hold him to for the rest of his public life.

Prediction: way more fun than actually doing the job.

Let me take a breath and be honest – I can’t stand LeBron James. It’s been one of the most conflicting writing experiences of my life to organize the paragraphs above, but this is a compelling story if there ever was one.

I don’t want LeBron to win a championship. I like seeing him frustrated by losses, and I think he’s a childish jerk. I didn’t want Michael Jordan to win either, because I thought he was too cocky. What do they have in common? Neither player cares for a second what I think.

But they have something else in common – neither will be remembered for his early career. There was a time when Michael Jordan had never won an NBA championship. In fact, Jordan too had to wait for his opportunity while players who came earlier stole the show. He spent his early seasons watching the Celtics, Lakers, and Pistons win titles (does that sound similar to recent years?), and Jordan’s first championship came only when the prior cohort of veterans cleared the stage in his seventh season, at the age of 27.

LeBron turns 27 this December.

There was a time when a single night’s oil had never burned for eight days consecutively. There was a time when even MJ was an unproven postseason player. There was a time when no NBA player had announced a free agency move in such an attention-hungry way. There was a time when we thought LeBron was a failure.

Failing to learn from history is a classically cited blunder, but it’s equally dangerous to think that because it has never happened, it will not happen.

Believe not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. anon permalink
    August 3, 2011 11:40 pm

    lebron hipster? more like blipster. see kanye west circa 2008.


  1. Two LeBrons Don’t Make a Right | HoopTherapy

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