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June 2011

The LeBron James Paradox

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CLEVELAND - MARCH 5:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on March 5, 2010 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Cavaliers won 99-92.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

When it comes to defending LeBron James for not being able to win an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the argument was always that he never had sufficient help around him to properly combat the likes of the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. Big Z was only on the team because of what he meant to the Cavs franchise, mid-season acquisition Antawn Jamison didn’t fit in at all with the team and Mo Williams was only an “all-star” because Chris Bosh was hurt and the Cavs had the most wins in the league at the break.

Thus, LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach was not exactly shocking. The Cavs tried their best to get one of the all-star free agents to come to Cleveland but they failed and Miami was the most enticing locale for James given Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s decisions to sign with the Heat. Of course, even though LeBron signing in Miami meant he would finally have help, help in the form of an NBA champion and top five player in Dwyane Wade and another all-star in Chris Bosh was too much for fans to give James a pass for leaving Cleveland.

Had he teamed up with humble youngster Derrick Rose in Chicago, the backlash of his decision never would have reached astronomical proportions. But because Wade already has a title and got James to come to his city, James was killed for giving up on the idea of winning as “the man” and will undoubtedly be followed by the “couldn’t win without Wade” tag just as Kobe carried the “couldn’t win without Shaq” tag prior to 2009.

I won’t kill LeBron for going to Miami if he thought that’s where he had the best chance to win a title. I actually kind of admire the fact that James disregarded the fact that any title he wins would likely be diminished so he could win one. Even if he has Wade on his team and wins a title, he still won a title and you can’t take that away from him (unless he trades his ring for tattoos – Ohio kids are notorious for that). When James accepted the fact that he needed Wade to win by signing with Miami, he humbled himself and proved to many that he was OK with not being “the man” so long as he got to taste victory.

But as these playoffs have gone on, it seems to me that James didn’t just give up a part of his legacy this summer, he also sold a part of himself to contend for a title. Everyone understood that neither Wade or James would produce the same numbers that they did when they were on separate seasons but what has happened this post-season goes far beyond how many possessions James and Wade have given up. If you’ve watched the Finals, and there’s little chance you haven’t, you’ll notice that Dwyane Wade has played no differently than he did during the regular season, or 2009 or in the 2006 Finals. He attacks the basket, he settles for jumpers and he goes all out on defense for 48 minutes.

But LeBron James has completely changed in the Finals. He’s not attacking the basket, he’s getting beat on defense, he’s giving the ball up in crunchtime and its not just to the open man – he’s openly deferring to Dwyane Wade. LeBron’s still settling for jumpers but he’s lost all touch on his jumper. Despite the poor reputation he seems to have amongst casual fans for his jumpshooting, he’s been one of the league’s better shooters from the mid-range. He’s not Dirk or anything, but given the degree of difficulty on his shot attempts, he’s been a solid shooter for several years.

LeBron has seemingly bought into the idea that the Heat are Dwyane Wade’s team and that he’s supposed to let Wade do all of the dirty work while only chipping in a few times throughout the game. When Wade went out with an injury, suddenly, James was attacking the basket and on consecutive possessions he was either scoring at the rim or creating wide open looks for his teammates as the defense collapsed. But then Wade came back in and James was back to roaming the perimeter and giving the ball up as soon as he touched it.

For whatever reason, when Wade is on the floor with him, James refuses to take over games. You can point to the Boston and Chicago series and how well James closed those games out but if you go back and watch those games, the big shots James was hitting were jumpers. He wasn’t getting to the lane and aggressively attacking, he was shooting jumpers, some of which were spot-up shots rather than pull-up attempts.

What’s funny to me is that James left Cleveland because he wanted to win championships and having Wade at his side increased the odds of that happening significantly. But now that the Heat are in the Finals, things have basically unfolded as if James never came to Miami as Wade has had to play hero ball the entire series in the fourth quarter. James has completely changed as a player. He’s not trying to attack, he’s not trying to make the big play and he’s not trying to put his stamp on the game.

LeBron left Cleveland because he didn’t have enough help, because he needed better teammates. But because LeBron has stopped being himself, it is entirely possible that playing along a great player like Wade is the worst thing to happen to LeBron James.

When LeBron was a Cav, he was unquestionably the game’s greatest talent, its best player and its most polarizing persona. When LeBron was a Cav, he was a monster and he produced numbers that nobody has put up since Jordan. When LeBron was a Cav, he was one of the game’s two best closers – in fact, I can’t remember LeBron flat out failing in crucial situations over the course of his Cleveland career (other than games five and six against Boston last year, of course).

When LeBron was a Cav, he would constantly put together some of the most ridiculous runs of scoring, passing and defending that we’ve ever seen. Its easy to forget now that he’s left town, but remember when LeBron scored 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007? Or when he averaged 39/8/8 against the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009? Or when he scored 16 points in two minutes against the Bucks with four ridiculous three-pointers? Or when he scored 18 points in the final three and half minutes of the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz to erase a nine-point deficit before Sundiata Gaines stole the thunder?

LeBron James as a Cavalier was always in attack mode, he was always ready to seize the moment in the fourth quarter, he always had a swagger about him and he was always the best player on the floor. Mo Williams knew that LeBron was going to make the decision that decided the game and acted accordingly. Mike Brown didn’t even think twice about what to call – it was always a one-four clear out for LeBron.

Now that James is in Miami, we’ve seen both he and Wade struggle to close games all regular season long and, after a string of made jumpers in the previous two rounds, those issues are back, only that James isn’t even attempting the majority of the big shots anymore. Spoelstra has no go to sets and teammates no longer know that LeBron is going to decide the game. LeBron can decide the games, but he’s no longer allowing himself to. Instead, he’s letting Wade make the big plays and take the big shots, and he lives with the results, even if its loads of criticism for his low fourth quarter scoring.

When LeBron chose Miami, he did so because he was finally going to be surrounded with good teammates, but as it turns out, having good teammates may prevent us from seeing the best LeBron James that there is. Having good teammates has not brought out the best in James, its brought out the worst version of him that we’ve ever seen, at least in these Finals. LeBron James left Cleveland and went to Miami to win championships, but in the process, he’s morphed into a lesser version the two-time MVP that constantly took over games when he was a Cavalier.

LeBron may end up successful in his pursuit of a title as soon as next Tuesday, but even if James piles up titles over the next few seasons, I don’t think we’ll ever see the same LeBron that suited up for the Cavs. I know it was expected that Wade, James and even Bosh would see a reduction in numbers and touches when they all joined together in Miami, but in James’ case, he’s put up (slightly) worse numbers while playing a totally different game.

Perhaps I’m just selfish because I’m finally realizing that I’ll never see LeBron do anything like this again, but I am starting to wonder whether or not James winning titles in Miami, even if he wins three or four, while clearly deferring to Wade in the fourth quarter is better for his legacy than staying in Cleveland and never winning would have been. If LeBron wins three or four titles with the Heat will being Wade’s equal, then of course it was the right move. But if he does that with Wade indisputably being “the man”, wouldn’t he have been better off not pairing himself with a superstar and staying in Cleveland, where he could have easily won somewhere near six or seven MVP awards?

Obviously James did not have a great supporting cast in Cleveland, but he was so good that, with Williams showing up in the playoffs, the development of J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao and the addition of one solid bench scorer (think Delonte West but not Delonte West because, well, you know), he could have taken that team to the Finals at least once or twice over the next few years while also piling up MVP awards. I mean, if Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu don’t hit some incredible fourth quarter shots in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009 (while Mo Williams disappeared), and whatever caused LeBron to quit last season didn’t happen, there’s a chance that James could have taken the Cavs to the Finals twice over the past two seasons.

Instead, the Magic did hit incredible shots and LeBron was sorely effected by off-the-court issues, and LeBron was forced to decide where to playout his prime years. He chose Miami because he thought Wade would give him the help he needed to win a title. I’ll admit that James could come out and dominate games six and seven and regain that mojo that he had in Cleveland and everything I said above would be nonsense. But right now, the fact that James left Cleveland to play with better teammates may have gotten him to the Finals for the first time in four years, but its also caused him to turn into a different player. Instead of seeing Cavalier LeBron on a different scale, we’ve seen a new LeBron James and frankly, this is not a player I enjoy watching.

When the Heat were formed this summer, despite all of the hate and venom spewed towards them, I think everyone would agree that they couldn’t wait to watch James, Wade and Bosh all on the same team. But now that its happened, even though the Heat have been involved in some of the most entertaining Finals series in recent memory, I still think that watching LeBron James take over that game against Detroit in 2007 or close out his opposition night after night as a Cavalier was better than anything we’ve seen out of him this season.

Perhaps moving to Miami will pay off in the long run for LeBron James in the form of championships – and hey, that’s why he went there – but right now, LeBron James is not as good of a player that he was in Cleveland. He has the ability to be the same guy, but with Dwyane Wade on his team, he refuses to embrace that role. Again, he has ample time and opportunities to change that, to start taking over games once again like he did in Cleveland. But as of today, James is a changed player, and even if he wins a title next week, I still think he’d be better of as a Cav, throwing up triple-doubles every other night, taking over games with ease, playing with the mindset that he is the best player in the world, racking up MVP award after MVP award and playing some of the best basketball we have ever seen.

Boy, I really do miss #23. And I’m not talking about Jordan, either.

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