The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron JamesThis article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/6/07
LeBron James is on a fast track to greatness that is unparalleled in NBA history. He has led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals at just 22 years of age, four years after he entered the NBA straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. There have been younger players who led teams to the Finals and there have been players who led their teams to the Finals prior to their fourth season--but no one who is this young and who has only played four seasons has taken a team to the Finals without playing alongside at least one future Hall of Famer.
James is used to doing things better--and at a younger age--than anyone else: he is the youngest Rookie of the Year winner and he joined Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as just the third rookies to average at least 20 ppg, 5 rpg and 5 apg. On January 19, 2005 he became the youngest player to have a triple double and on March 20, 2005 he broke Rick Barry’s record to become the youngest player to score at least 50 points in a game. Clearly, James hit the ground running when he entered the NBA and he has been sprinting toward immortality ever since.
Cleveland improved from 17-65 to 35-47 in James’ first season and then advanced to 42-40 in his second season, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. In 2005-06, James led the Cavaliers to a 50-32 record, the team’s best mark since 1992-93 and the third best record in the Eastern Conference. He finally had the opportunity to showcase his skills in the postseason spotlight. In a 97-86 Game One victory over the Washington Wizards, James posted the first postseason triple double in Cavaliers history (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists), becoming the second youngest player (behind only Magic Johnson) to have a triple double in the playoffs and just the third player to do so in his first playoff game.
In Game Two of that series, James had 26 points and nine rebounds but only two assists and 10 turnovers as the Cavaliers lost 89-84. Afterwards, James wryly commented that he had narrowly missed having a second triple double, making it clear that neither his confidence nor his sense of humor had been shaken. He bounced back in Game Three to score 41 points, setting a record for the most points scored by a player in his first road playoff game. In Game Five, James scored 45 points and made the game-winning layup in overtime. The Cavaliers clinched the series in Game Six as James had 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Most observers thought that the experienced and talented Detroit Pistons would be too much for young James and the Cavaliers and it certainly seemed that way as Cleveland lost the first two games of the series at Detroit. Game Three proved to be a different story, though, as James had his second playoff triple double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and led the Cavaliers to an 86-77 victory. After that game, some people questioned James’ shot selection and aggressiveness--a theme that would recur in this year’s series against Detroit--but James denied that he was either passive early in the game or deliberately more aggressive in the fourth quarter: "I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game. I just react to the game. If I'm doubled, I give the ball up. That's been my motto all year and it's been my motto all my life since I've been playing basketball. But I saw some creases that I could attack in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame."
James helped the Cavaliers to beat Detroit 74-72 in Game Four. The Cavaliers then shocked Detroit and the basketball world when they won Game Five 86-84 in Detroit as James had 32 points, five rebounds and five assists. James seemed to be the only person who was not surprised by this turn of events, calmly saying after the game, "They’re not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs." Throughout the 2006 playoffs, James maintained a perfect balance mentally, staying confident but not crossing over to being arrogant or surly. He repeatedly said that Detroit is a "great team and we are becoming a good team" but it became clear that his respect for Detroit did not in any way diminish his belief that the Cavaliers could beat the Pistons.
It turned out that James and the 2006 Cavaliers were not quite ready for prime time. The Pistons rallied to win Games Six and Seven. Still, James’ efforts did not go unnoticed. Scottie Pippen, one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time and an analyst for ESPN during the playoffs, declared that James was already a better player at age 21 than Michael Jordan had been. The day after Pippen said that, I asked James what he thought about such high praise and he replied, "I just go out and play. I can't start comparing myself to the greatest basketball player ever--what he was doing at 21 and what I'm doing at 21. I don't get into that, but that's a great compliment."
James’ regular season statistics declined in most categories in 2006-07, though he still put up good numbers overall (27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg). The Cavaliers matched their 2005-06 record of 50-32 but this time that was good enough for the second seed, just three games behind the Pistons. James led the Cavaliers to a first round sweep of the Washington Wizards and a six game victory over the New Jersey Nets, setting up a rematch with Detroit--but this time the teams would play for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Cleveland suffered twin 79-76 losses in Detroit to open the series but, just like in 2006, James led the Cavaliers to two home wins to square the series, setting the stage for the signature game of his career so far: a 48 point, nine rebound, seven assist masterpiece during which he scored 25 straight points, including all 18 of Cleveland’s points in two overtime periods in a 109-107 road victory. I later asked James if, during the heat of the moment, he was aware of exactly how well he was playing and how many points in a row he had scored. He replied, "No, you are mostly focused on each possession and the score of the game and things like that. You are not worried about what is going on as an individual. You are mainly worried about how we can score on this possession and how we can get a stop on the other end--just trying to do what’s best to help the team win the ball game."
The Pistons responded in Game Six by literally sending their entire team at James, providing plenty of open shots for Daniel Gibson, enabling the rookie to score a career-high 31 points as Cleveland won 98-82; despite Detroit’s smothering defensive coverage, James still had 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Prior to Game Six, someone suggested to James that he "grew up" during the series but he politely disagreed: "I don’t know why (people say that). I’m still the same player. If I get doubled and the game is close, I’m going to pass it again. If we make the shot, I’m on top of the world, if not then I’m underneath a lot of trees and leaves and things like that but that’s fine with me. I’ll take the criticism that comes with it. I’m the leader of this team. I get a lot of credit when we win and I’ll take it (the blame) when we lose."
Despite all that James has accomplished, there is still room for improvement. Ron Harper, who won five NBA titles as a player and got an eyeful of James the past couple years as a Pistons assistant coach, says of James, "He is not a great defensive ball player; I mean, at times he plays good but he’s not what I would call an MJ, a Kobe or a Scottie Pippen defender who hawks the basketball, who will cut the basketball floor down. He’s starting to learn how to play and that is what young players do: they learn how to play." Harper explains the difference between those three players and James: "They are very savvy defensive players who know how to cut the angles of the floor off and know what they are trying to do when various players have the basketball. They are great players who could not only guard the basketball but are great help defenders, too. In order to be a great defensive player, you have to have the heart and the pride to say, 'I’m going to stop this guy.' LeBron is having a good playoff series, showing that somewhere down there he has that but I don’t know if he has that all the time. Those guys play that way all the time; they are not only great offensive players but great defensive players, too."
Harper concludes, "When he wins a championship is when I will compare him to MJ, to Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, to Larry Bird to Clyde (Drexler), to the great players." As for who is the best player in the NBA today, Harper declares, "Kobe is the best player in the game, period. There is not a player who comes close to doing what he does on the floor. He wants to guard the best ball players, he wants to take the hardest jump shots, and he wants to do the things he wants to do to win the ball game. There is not a player in the NBA who comes close to doing what he does."
Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, currently an analyst for ESPN and ESPN Radio, concurs with much of Harper’s assessment of James: "He’s always going to be in the top ten in steals because he gambles. Is he great on the ball? He’s average--not great, not bad. He’s average. If you go around and give me all the top scorers, when you go through their careers--Jerry West, Michael Jordan--they’re all on the All-Defensive Team. That will come. You have to remember that he came to the NBA straight out of high school. He is playing the small forward position or sometimes the two guard; those positions take a ton of shots." James guarded 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups for extended stretches during the Pistons series, which represents another stage in his development. Brown says, "That shows confidence in James that he’ll keep him in front with his size and that he’ll put pressure on him on the shot. So they have enough confidence in him to do that, which is great."
James has led Cleveland to a 19-10 record during his playoff career while averaging 28.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 7.2 apg. James ranks fifth in career playoff ppg (behind Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jerry West and Tracy McGrady) and 14th in career playoff apg. No player ranks higher than James on both lists and only two 20 ppg scorers have averaged more playoff assists than James (Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas). James is the only player in playoff history to average at least 25 ppg, 8 rpg and 7 apg. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 playoff games, second all-time to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 27 game streak.
Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry summed it up best on the eve of Cleveland’s Game Six triumph over Detroit: "Who knows what path LeBron is going to take? He’s still a young player with an incredible talent, he’s a competitor and it’s going to be exciting to watch it unfold--and it’s going to happen under an intense microscope."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:17 AM