Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

LeBron James is unique, to say the least. Not only to the Cleveland Cavaliers or the current NBA, but unique in terms of the entirety of basketball since Naismith invented the glorious game. Hardly has there been a more speculated about player in the Association, perhaps ever, and justly so. LeBron’s impact on the game of basketball goes beyond numbers and jersey and shoe sales, which is why he is so speculated about. He has been compared and contrasted with current NBA stars (see Kobe v. LeBron) and NBA legends (notably: Magic, MJ, Dominique, etc.), yet he is completely original in style and substance.

LeBron is some freak basketball creation that couldn’t have even been imagined by Mary Shelley. It is as if the basketball gods used the blueprints leftover from past great players and coalesced them into one human being that is potentially insuperable. Imagine, for the briefest of moments, that a player would arise that had the penetrating and high rising capabilities of Jordan, the flair and passing potential of Magic, the power and strength of Dominique Wilkins, and the end-to-end speed of Leandro Barbosa (or Iverson, or Derrick Rose). The combination is insane, not fair for opponents to try to cover or nearly anyone else to be compared to (sans Kobe and Wade).

But let’s start from the beginning, or more accurately, let’s start with what he does that is so special. The short answer is everything, the extended response contains a bit of hyperbole, some comparisons to an almighty being, and perhaps the greatest combination of assets that could be bestowed upon a mortal basketball player. He is special, an amalgamation of everything a basketball player could hope to be, all before he could be eligible to run for Congress.

Before he stepped on the court as a professional ball player, he was already a multimillionaire, if that gives you some perspective on the expectations of this man-child from Akron, Ohio. He was crowned “The Chosen One” by various sources, most notably on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still a junior in high school. Not that there aren’t expectations for high school phenoms, but this was an entire new level. Most players who jump directly from high school to the pros before LeBron weren’t so highly thought of that they warrant the first overall pick (except Kwame Brown, which we all know how that worked out). Even those drafted lower in the first round rarely make a significant impact right out of the gate, another notable exception being the incandescent Amar’e Stoudemire.

Even they weren’t so thought of as LeBron was. Before he graduated high school, experts debated where he could rank on an all-time basketball list. That is some lofty expectations for a kid who is barely out of his pubescent stages. The amazing thing about LeBron was that he exceeded expectations right out of the gate. I’m sure you have heard that before and you hardly give it any thought beyond some artificial recognition of it as truth. But to really examine it, the weight of a franchise was placed on an 18-year-old man’s shoulders and he didn’t crumble beneath the weight of expectations associated with his status. Instead, he did what all truly great players do and rose to the occasion. Cleveland needed a superstar to lead them back to prominence, and LeBron accepted his role as savior of a broken franchise, all the while still learning different aspects of his game and the league.

Beyond the back-story, the play of LeBron is what ranks him among the current greats of the game. His style is hard to quantify because it is unlike any previous players in whole. Certain parts of his game can be identified with one player or another, a Magic like pass, a Dominique reminiscent dunk, a Jordan inspired determination. But on the whole, the inimitability is what makes him so great and unstoppable on the court.

One of the easiest ways that I can sum up LeBron as a player is that he is potentially omnipotent. What I mean is that he has the capabilities, gifts, and work ethic to be capable of doing anything he wants in basketball. He has the size, speed, strength, and agility to truly be anywhere and do anything on the court at anytime, and with that versatility, LeBron can rank among the greats of all time. Sure, other players had any number of these attributes and used them effectively, but none had all of these in one combination of a player.

LeBron can play any position except for center, and that is only because he is not tall or bulky enough to continually bang in the painted area for 35 minutes, it would just be too wearing on him as a player to be effective. He has the size and strength to guard most power forwards, unless they are named Amar’e Stoudemire or Kevin Garnett (or other notables). He is quick and agile enough to stay in front of guards and wing players, using his size as an advantage in keeping them out of passing lanes and preventing unprotected drives to the lane.

That is just on defense, which says nothing of his potential on offense. He is a mismatch against any defender, which is to say that he cannot be rendered meaningless while on offense. The closest thing that a defender can do is follow the same principle as those who guard Kobe Bryant, and that is physically pester him and hope the shot doesn’t maneuver its way into the basket. That is a trademark of all great scorers, they will still get most of their points, sometimes it will take longer or be much more difficult to come by. One of the more notable defenders of LeBron was Mickael Pietrus, who used physical defense and relentless pursuit to keep LeBron in check for long stretches of the Eastern Conference Finals. Even though that is true, LeBron averaged a staggering number of points in that series while single-handedly keeping Cleveland afloat.

His potential on offense is directly proportional to his ability to solidify his shooting every outside of a dunk or layup. That is what makes many of today’s players so deadly on offense, their ability to drive to the basket or pull up and hit that shocking 18’ jumper. Michael Jordan was so effective on offense using that approach. He was the best in the league at driving to the basket in his time, finishing above the rim more often than not. But, he developed a near perfect jump shot that kept defenders weary of playing too close or too far away from him. Hence, multiple scoring titles, MVPs, championships, etc. Kobe, in his own way, has developed this extra dimension of his offense, making clutch shot after clutch shot on his way to greatness.

To clarify, LeBron has shown enough promise shooting from outside the arc that he has a better percentage than Jordan and isn’t too distant from Kobe on some occasions. Even without a reliable pull-up jumper to count on, LeBron is a top-flight scorer. That is largely a result of him being the best drive-to-the-basket player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. His combination of skills (see above) makes him unstoppable on the way to the basket. And with his reputation as a superstar, he receives as many foul calls as he earns while driving. He is too quick for bigger forwards who would guard a Dirk Nowitzki or Rashard Lewis to stay in front of him. Yet, he is too powerful to just have the average guard try and prevent access to the bucket (which is why a powerful guard like Pietrus can be so effective, also Artest is a fleet footed forward with an attitude that could care less about LeBron’s status). He should be unstoppable, and for most of the league, he is.

The same should then hold true if he tried his hand at posting up as a power forward. His strength would lead one to assume that he can handle himself on the block, able to throw his 260-280 pound frame (changes depending on the source) around and earn some easy baskets. If the defense throws a behemoth his way, then a quick spin move should facilitate easy shots while leaving defenders left to explain themselves to the coach on the sideline. If you listen to any Northeast Ohio sports show, then you have heard the griping of many fans about Mike Brown’s unwavering stance towards LeBron routinely playing the 3, which leaves me with no complaints until further notice. Sure, an occasional appearance down on the block would change the complexion on the floor for a couple of plays, but to do that would take away from the challenges he poses beyond the paint.

What truly separates LeBron from his competitors is not just his ability to pass, but also his flair for passing. A lot of forwards can glide between being a wing player or a post player (Nowitzki immediately pops into my head, Rasheed upon further review, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu upon even further review). But very few are able to pass with any sort of efficiency. And of those whom can (Turkoglu as stated above), few do it with the majesty and the panache that LeBron continuously demonstrates.

I realize that there has been the comparison with Magic Johnson even before LeBron was drafted, which would necessitate that Carmelo is Bird, but the standard is there for a reason. Typically, as has been noted throughout history, big men simply do not or cannot pass. Magic Johnson begins and ends the list of notable big men who can pass like a point guard. This is not the same passing that a Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan do to pass out of a double team. This is a fast break leading, no look razzle-dazzle that electrifies the crowd and makes the SportsCenter top 10 plays the next night. This is the passing brilliance that has made Chris Paul and Steve Nash potential and former MVP recipients. It is the court vision and basketball IQ that enables him to hit his teammate who is cutting through the back of the defense on his way to an uncontested layup, or put the ball between the numbers from more than half court away, or fight out of a double team to spot a wide open teammate for a potential game winning three point shot.

He is capable of going out on the court on any given night, against any given opponent, and notching a triple-double. He is better at that than everybody else in the league, regardless of position. To be fair, I think Chris Paul earning a triple double is more impressive than LeBron who already has a distinct rebounding advantage and has more access to the lane given his size, while Paul relies on blinding speed and quickness. That is beside the point, which is that LeBron is the first and potentially last player for the foreseeable future to have the potential of averaging near a triple double over the length of the entire season.

Let’s move back to the defensive side of the ball, the one where LeBron usually gets a pass. Sure, he greatly improved his defense last season, or at least his highlight defense improved significantly. He gained some notice on defense by using his almost unmatched speed to chase down the fast break, then his insane leaping ability to jump up and his strength to reject the dunk/layup that the offensive player thought was a given. And his one-on-one defense also improved, somewhat a function of his participation on the USA Olympic team.

Still, it could be better, and I feel guilty for nitpicking, but it remains true. With his athleticism and combination of skills, LeBron could be an All-Time great defender (like a Michael Jordan). I understand that in this era of the NBA, for him to expend his energy on defense to the extent that is required for him to be a consistently great defender would take away from his offensive impact to some degree. He is capable of shutting down any wing player if he sets his mind to it, or he should at least have the potential to do so. Obviously, he won’t stop a Kobe or Carmelo, but that complies with the same principle that makes LeBron near invincible.

Beyond what he has already accomplished, LeBron is in more headlines and rumor stories because of his impending free agency in the summer of 2010. He currently plays for his “home team” Cleveland Cavaliers, who have done everything short of getting on their knees and begging him to stay, and they might have even crossed that barrier. Despite Cleveland’s loyalty and fandom towards LeBron, he has remained largely uncommitted towards the idea of a contract extension thus far. This has only fueled rumors that he will be fleeing the city by the lake towards the supposed greener pastures of the New York area.

The New York area obviously referring to the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets (partially owned by the great Jay-Z, a good friend of LeBron), have been the main area of speculation about LeBron’s landing spot. This all took off because of a variety of factors that were not exactly quelled by LeBron. He has long stated his desire to become a billionaire, and various reports have speculated that his Nike contract includes some incentives if he moved to the marketing capitol of the world. He is also a well-known Yankees fan, that has nothing to do with basketball, but he could watch a lot more games in New York than he could at Progressive Field. Plus, many assume that it is an obvious pairing of the supposed Mecca of basketball and one of the greatest players in the world.

I am well aware that the Cavaliers can offer him millions more than any other franchise, but the major money lies in the marketing, which New York could offer him some façade of a major market (could he be on any more national television games?) that Cleveland can’t. Plus, if the Knicks keep the highly compensated Mike D’Antoni, LeBron could flourish in the stealth bomber pace that has become associated with the Italian stallion. His athleticism and fast break expertise would be the perfect fit for that system (maybe Amar’e is, that is a whole different debate).

I personally think that LeBron isn’t going anywhere for a multitude of reasons. The first of which is that I think he is just posturing for as much leverage as possible, which I thought he already had. The next ties in with the first, in that he wants to keep Cleveland’s management on their toes, trying to constantly improve the team. The bottom line is, LeBron wants to win championships, and he will leave if he thinks he can win somewhere else.

But why is this even a topic of discussion? Rarely has a free agency of a player been so thoroughly investigated, prodded, and analyzed, as has this particular one. The reason is because of everything discussed above. He may be the most singularly impacting player in the league, capable of determining games all by himself. He can/will change the future of at least two different teams in 2010, perhaps more if he throws a screwball into the equation.

If he leaves Cleveland, the Cavaliers immediately go into a freefall that will send them from championship contenders to a potential playoff team. He and possibly Wade and a younger Kobe, have more impact in the wins and losses column than any other player in the last five years (Iverson circa 2001 would qualify as well). If he decides to flee the Cavaliers, whatever team is lucky enough to pull off this coup will see their fortunes immediately switched. Yes, he has that much impact on a team that they will become mentioned as a possible championship dark horse after being a struggling franchise.

If I were being an optimist, I would hope to see LeBron joined by another one of the now infamous future free agent class of 2010. The usual suspects are D-Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amar’e Stoudemire, each uniquely qualified for a max-contract or something in that neighborhood. The chances of pairing these players are slim to none, but anything can happen. The Wade-LeBron pairing will not happen, it can’t, so it is not even worth debating. Although, if it did it would be so awesome I would imagine the effect would be something close to opening the Ark of the Covenant, wherein all spectators have their faces melted at the mere sight of it. On a real analytical level, it would combine two of the greatest slashing wing players ever and leave two established leaders in an awkward position of not knowing whose team it truly is.

The other two players joining forces with LeBron have a greater chance of occurring than Wade. The Bosh joint venture would make the most sense since, at least if LeBron stayed with the Cavs. However, the resigning of Varejao makes this possibility slightly more obscured. Bosh could finally fill the roll as the post player who plays the weak side that the Cavaliers have been desperately seeking since LeBron arrived. He seems to even be able to not let his ego control his every action and be able to let LeBron take most of the credit. Again however, the roller coaster of an economy would dictate that Bosh would stay with Toronto or leave for New York. Despite all of that, it makes the most basketball sense if these two were paired because they can both fit into a sound system of basketball besides a fast break.

More than anything else, I desperately want to see LeBron paired with Amar’e, whether it is in Cleveland or New York. The New York scenario would obviously be a lot more aesthetically pleasing, two power players who know how to get a response from a crowd with a thunderous dunk running down the court with one another. The Cleveland scenario is admittedly not as sexy, but still at least cute. That would be the one you could take home to meet the parents, while the New York one would be the ridiculous weekend trip to Vegas played out over multiple years. Amar’e and LeBron on the same team would be like a thunderstorm combined with a tornado of raw power and leaping ability (or a tornado circling a hurricane, whichever satisfies your deadly storm preference).

However, the plausibility of this combination is a bit farfetched. Amar’e has, however, expressed an interest in rejoining former coach Mike D’Antoni in New York. The freewheeling style that D’Antoni implements is a perfect fit for Stoudemire’s unique abilities as a power forward. He likes to get out and run the court, hopefully throwing in a monstrous jam at the very end (which, coincidentally, is very similar to LeBron’s style). D’Antoni’s system relies on everyone moving at a rapid pace, scoring with a feverish fashion, and eschewing almost all notions of a standard defense. So, sure, if they both decide that the Knicks are the team that they want to join, and some funny numbers work themselves out, then the world is in for one of the greatest spectacles on the basketball court ever.

So, what have we learned? I think that we have learned that LeBron is a truly special player on par or greater than the rest of the league, and possibly of all time. His skills have positioned him to become not only insanely rich, but one of the top players ever. The crowned King of the NBA, LeBron has accomplished so much so young in his life, yet he still has a long way to go. The looming free agency on the horizon aside, the future seems very bright for LeBron and whichever team he decides to play for.

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2 Responses to Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

  1. The Champ says:

    epic, you redeemed yourself custodian.

  2. The Custodian says:

    Well, I don’t know about that.

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