Friday, April 17, 2009

The coronation of King James

Up to this moment, LeBron James has been just another NBA superstar. Sure, his career has produced statistically significant numbers but it hasn’t produced historically significant accomplishments. That’s certainly not meant to be a knock since he’s still only 24 years old. I’m just pointing out that King James has now played six full seasons without an NBA Championship or an MVP. If his career continues down that path, he will come nowhere close to living up to the billing of “the chosen one.” If you don’t win NBA Championships or MVPs, your legacy peaks somewhere around “Dominique Wilkins.” No offense to the Human Highlight Reel but considering LeBron’s skill, youth, and athleticism most would likely view that fate as a colossal disappointment. It takes multiple MVPs and championships to put you in the same class as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not to mention Michael Jordan. You can’t be the greatest of all-time without passing those players first. Considering Jordan has six NBA Championships and five MVPs, LeBron has a long way to go. Just for comparison, Kobe Bryant—the closest thing offensively and defensively we have seen to Jordan—only has three NBA Championships and one MVP. It’s not easy to climb the ladder of legends. LeBron needs to get on the path of greatness stat if he’s going to challenge the aforementioned legacies. Most fans have assumed that at some point he will eventually put together a dominating run similar to what MJ did with the Bulls. The question hasn’t necessarily been if it will happen, but when it will happen. I didn’t see it coming but I think that time is now.

Michael Jordan—as great as he was—didn’t break through with his first championship until there was a lull of great teams in the NBA. Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit had finished their respective runs and there was no other contender to challenge Chicago. Breaking through with the first championship is the hardest part. It took the Bad Boy Pistons years and years of frustrating playoff losses before they were able to break through. The fact that the Lakers and Celtics were passed their prime certainly helped. Similarly, it took Jordan’s Bulls years and years of frustrating playoff losses before they were able to break through. The fact that the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons were passed their primes certainly helped. It doesn’t always work this way but historically great teams have paid their dues and then, when the opportunity arises, seize the championship. It’s a combination of a crescendo of skill perfectly timed with opportunity. I don’t know for certain that it’s going to happen this year. All I can say is that the maturation of LeBron’s game—and the Cavs as a team—combined with the relative mediocrity of the rest of the NBA has a giant, blinking neon-sign in my head screaming, “This is where it begins.”

It didn’t occur to me until yesterday, actually, that all of this was not only possible, but maybe even probable. LeBron not only has a good shot of winning a championship but he could make a major move in terms of historical significance if he can obtain the holy trifecta of single-season accomplishments: MVP, NBA Championship, and Finals MVP. He has all but locked up the MVP. Kobe and D-Wade had fantastic seasons but Cleveland is a one-man show—no offense to Mo Williams, Big Z, and Sideshow Bob—while the Lakers have three tremendously skilled big men (Pau, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom) to complement Kobe. Plus, I think LeBron has made his move in the public relations department as the default best player in the league. The Finals MVP will not be a major hurdle since it’s functionally tied to Cleveland winning the championship. So really, the trifecta comes down to whether LeBron can lead Cleveland to the NBA Title. I don’t think I ever would’ve said it was impossible but if you asked me two months ago if Cleveland was going to win the championship, I would’ve said, “not likely.” A lot has changed not only in the last few months (Bynum’s injury) but also in the last day. News that Boston could be without KG for the playoffs is a huge boost for Cleveland’s title chances. In fact, I think that news bumps it up to damn near 50%. The Cavs are the #1 seed in the NBA Playoffs which obviously comes with homecourt advantage. Cleveland went 39-2 at home this season with one of the losses coming in the season-finale with LeBron, Mo Williams, and Big Z on the bench. With KG out, there isn’t a team in the Eastern Conference with a legitimate chance of beating Cleveland. The only team in the Western Conference with even a remote chance of beating Cleveland is LA. If that’s going to happen, LA is going to have to win on the road. This is where I mention that Cleveland’s only legitimate home loss this season was to the Lakers. Interestingly, if the Lakers do end up winning, I could write virtually an identical post discussing how much a fourth NBA Championship (first without Shaq) and a Finals MVP impacts Kobe’s legacy. Either way, someone is jumping into some new company in two months.

If LeBron pulls off the trifecta, he will immediately become historically significant beyond regular season statistics. There have only been nine players in the history of the NBA to accomplish the trifecta in the same season. The list goes a little something like this: Michael Jordan (x4), Larry Bird (x2), Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, and Willis Reed. Only Jabbar (24) was younger than 27. LeBron is only 24. If he were able to accomplish the feat this early in his career, he would be carving a path that not even the greatest player in NBA history—MJ, obvs—was able to take. Next year has been dubbed the Summer of LeBron due to off-court reasons. However, there is a good chance that the Summer of LeBron is going to come a year earlier than anyone thought.

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