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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

LeBron James Asks, "What Should I Do?"

In his newest TV commercial, LeBron James asks, "What should I do?" Instead of being interviewed by a real journalist who would ask serious questions, James prefers to either deal with a shill like Jim Gray or else have his message condensed into a 90 second propaganda video created by his shoe company's marketers--but here are some answers to James' rhetorical question.

Before dealing with what James should do, the real issue is what James should have done several months ago:

1) The first thing is that he should not have quit during the pivotal game five of last season's Boston-Cleveland playoff series. Legitimate opportunities to win a championship are precious and should not be taken for granted. While it is reasonable to expect that James' Miami Heat will win at least 60 games this season and seriously contend for the NBA title it is also entirely possible that James will never again play for a team that wins 66 and 61 games in consecutive seasons. Game five winners when a series is tied 2-2 advance more than 80% of the time, yet James played like he could not wait for game five (and the series itself) to be over--it looked like James cared a lot more about hyping up his impending free agent status than trying to lead his current team to a championship. That is just disgraceful.

2) The second thing is that he should have followed the advice of NBA Commissioner David Stern to not turn the free agency period into a three ring circus. Under the collective bargaining agreement, James and every other unrestricted free agent had the right to sign with any team in the league. The Cavaliers had the right to offer James the most money and the Cavaliers had also proven that they were willing and able to surround James with a quality supporting cast, a unit that was talented enough to post the best record in the league two years in a row. When James decided that he preferred to join his buddies in Miami he should have first privately called Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert and then James should have simply held a press conference to announce the news. Instead, James hijacked ESPN--a network that sold out any last vestiges of journalistic integrity and/or neutrality--for a one hour telecast dedicated to venerating James' overdeveloped ego. The only thing more pathetic than the "Decision" is James' suggestion that he did it to benefit children and that he would be willing to accept any amount of criticism in order to help children; James did not donate his own money to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America but rather insisted that ESPN donate all advertising revenues from the broadcast. How generous of James to "donate" someone else's money in exchange for being provided a one hour infomercial focusing on his greatness and importance!

Looking forward, what James should do now is make sure that he has his priorities in order. James has boldly declared that he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh not to win just one championship but to capture multiple titles. That means that, based on his own publicly stated standard, any season in which the Heat do not win a championship is a failure. Championships are won by defensive-minded teams that understand the importance of selflessness. James is the Heat's best player, so he must set the tone for the Heat to be a defensive-minded, unselfish team. It has become a cliche to refer to James as a Magic Johnson-type player but that is a very flawed comparison; James is one of the most dynamic scorers in NBA history and even though he is a skilled passer he is most certainly not a pass-first player the way that Magic was: during his career James has averaged 27.8 ppg, 20.8 FGA/g, 9.0 FTA/g and 6.9 apg while Magic averaged 19.5 ppg, 13.2 FGA/g, 6.5 FTA/g and 11.2 apg. James' ratio of shot attempts (FGA plus FTA) to passes (which we can roughly estimate by assist totals, though such totals should not be considered definitive) is much more similar to scorers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant than it is to truly pass-first players like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd.

James must prove that he is more interested in playing in a way that results in playoff success as opposed to simply playing in a way that augments his individual statistics. What does that mean exactly? There is no better example than the amazing impact that Kobe Bryant has had on Pau Gasol's career and legacy; before the Lakers acquired Gasol he was a one-time All-Star who had not led his team to a single playoff win in six seasons but in less than three years the perception of Gasol has completely changed: he has made the All-NBA Team twice, earned two All-Star selections and seems to be on track to earn Hall of Fame consideration once his career is over. Gasol's skill set did not fundamentally change since he joined the Lakers and his statistics have only markedly improved in two areas: field goal percentage and offensive rebounding. Gasol has shot better and grabbed more offensive rebounds largely because of the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws and Gasol has become a tougher, more dedicated player because of the standard that Bryant sets in the weight room and on the practice court.

Chris Bosh is a far more decorated and accomplished player now than Gasol was three years ago. Will playing alongside James (and Wade) have a similar impact on Bosh's efficiency and his legacy? The "stat gurus" generally insist that James and Wade are the two best players in the NBA, so it will be very interesting to see if the two of them combined can have a fraction of the positive impact on Bosh (and the rest of the Heat) that Bryant has had on Gasol (and role players such as Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown).

Former Cleveland Coach Mike Brown received a lot of criticism for his supposedly unimaginative offense, even though the Cavs ranked third in field goal percentage in 2009-10 en route to posting the league's best record. It is ironic that during long stretches of James' first game with Miami the Heat looked like--paraphrasing TNT analyst Kevin McHale's words--Cleveland South, only with a supporting cast that did not have as many good shooters as the Cavs did. I am not going to overreact to one game; I fully expect the Heat to win at least 60 games and to most likely have the best record in the league. However, if even after Wade becomes fully healthy and Miami's team chemistry improves the team's main offensive set involves James dribbling around until he decides to either launch an off-balance shot or make a pass that he deems likely to earn him an assist (as opposed to a pass that facilitates ball movement and team play) then people will have to open their minds to the possibility that the issue is not coaching but rather that James prefers--or can only function in--an offense that features him dominating the ball.

Phil Jackson's teams have won 11 of the last 20 NBA championships. Think about that for a moment--one coach has captured more than half of the titles over a span of two decades! Jackson has been blessed to coach arguably the two greatest shooting guards in NBA history plus a host of other talented greats including Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman but one of the main reasons for Jackson's unprecedented success is that he is not afraid to challenge his superstars. Part of the way that Jackson challenges great players is by insisting that they play within what Jordan derided as an "equal opportunity" system, namely the Triangle Offense. Jackson had to convince both Jordan and Bryant that even though they could create their own shots at any time the only way to win a championship is to have a framework that involves the other four players and makes them offensive threats. Sure, Jordan and Bryant can make bailout shots when the Triangle breaks down but by having proper spacing and by instilling confidence in role players the Triangle enabled guys like John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher to knock down clutch shots when opposing defenses threw multiple defenders at Jordan or Bryant. Is LeBron James willing and able to play in an offensive system that brings out the best in his teammates even if it negatively impacts his individual statistics?

While the Magic Johnson-LeBron James comparison is bogus, it is valid to compare LeBron James to Oscar Robertson. Many people may not realize that during Robertson's prime he was criticized in some quarters for dominating the ball; Robertson did not make it to the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship, until he teamed up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and accepted a less dominant role. Of course, at that stage of their respective careers it was clear that Abdul-Jabbar was a better player than Robertson, while James is clearly the best player on the Heat; it is not realistic to expect James to defer to inferior players--nor would that even be in the Heat's best interest--but if the Heat are going to win playoff series against veteran laden teams like the Magic, Celtics and Lakers then James is going to have to figure out how to get the best out of all of his teammates.

So, the answer to James' question is simple (but perhaps not easy): he needs to shift his focus from becoming a "global icon" (whatever that means) and from trying to manufacture a certain kind of public image (a process that worked well for several years but imploded horribly this summer) to changing his game from statistically impressive to championship caliber.

The question for James is whether his legacy is going to consist of successfully emulating the championship substance of Jordan and Bryant or if it is going to consist of flashy highlights, regrettable soundbites and some carefully crafted commercials.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:14 AM

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