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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Difference Between Analyzing LeBron's Game and Hating LeBron James

"Hate," "hater" and "hating" are rapidly becoming three of the most tiresome and overused words in our collective sports vocabulary. There is a vast difference between an informed analyst offering objective, constructive criticism and a misinformed person--whether that person is a fan, a paid commentator or anyone else--simply venting mean-spirited vitriol. Many negative things have been said and written about LeBron James in the past two years and it is very significant that James proved that he can distinguish between constructive criticism and nonsense; after winning his first NBA championship, James did not arrogantly wag his finger at his critics but instead he candidly admitted that he had previously been immature: "I just looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'You need to be better, both on and off the floor.'" That is exactly the message that James' informed critics had been conveying all along:

1) The manner in which James fled Cleveland displayed staggering narcissism and immaturity, culminating in James' ridiculous assertion that winning multiple titles would be "easy." Tellingly, James now admits that winning just one championship is the hardest thing that he has ever done. James must surely now appreciate how difficult it was for Michael Jordan to win six titles and for Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson to capture five championships apiece (not to mention Bill Russell leading the Celtics to 11 championships and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar collecting six rings). Perhaps paradoxically, the fact that James now understands the challenging nature of this task makes it more likely that he will eventually be fortunate enough to win multiple titles.

2) As the best player in the game, James has a responsibility to dominate the action--particularly against elite opponents in the playoffs. Instead of denying that he shrunk in the face of that challenge in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, James now admits that he did not make enough "game changing plays" to help his team win.

3) James cannot fully exploit his physical and skill set advantages unless he is willing to post up regularly and/or relentlessly attack the paint on the drive. James hurts his team and helps the opposition every time he settles for a shot outside of the paint or passes the ball without drawing a double team. It is obvious and indisputable that James attacked the paint far more frequently and far more efficiently during the 2012 playoffs than he previously did. James' paint attacks distorted opposing defenses and created scoring opportunities for his teammates.

Whether James literally listened to his critics--or simply drew the appropriate conclusions through intensive self-reflection--he dramatically changed his mindset, transforming himself into the player that his critics had been imploring him to become. James would not be an NBA champion now if he had not recognized his shortcomings and taken measures to correct them. He deserves credit not only for undergoing this transformation but for publicly admitting that he has changed; in the moments after his greatest triumph it would have been easy for him to lash out at everyone who criticized him--but the very fact that he has become more mature is demonstrated by the way that he did not let anger or defiance get the best of him.

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It is unfortunate that the legitimate criticism of James' on court and off court immaturity--criticism that James himself has publicly validated--is often confused with the mindless blabbering of fools. There is a guy--I do not like to give extra publicity to idiots, so let's just call him Rip Brainless--who relentlessly bashes James and who probably can hardly find a good thing to say about James even after James' tremendous 2012 playoff run. Legitimate basketball analysts should not be confused with or compared to people like Rip Brainless.

Then there are the shameless Cleveland sportswriters and commentators who spent seven years effusively praising James--and ludicrously asserting that James was already a better player than Kobe Bryant--only to instantly and completely change their collective tune as soon as James abandoned Cleveland for Miami: now, in their befogged eyes, James would never be Bryant's equal and would forever be Dwyane Wade's sidekick, a ludicrous assertion on many levels. Pandering to the home fans does not count as analysis and the ironic thing is that those writers and commentators were wrong twice: Bryant was better than James until 2009 but James has been the best regular season player in the NBA since that time and it made no more sense to elevate James above Bryant prior to 2009 than it did to instantly denigrate James after he left Cleveland. James' greatness and productivity have been evident for quite some time but the final hurdle for him to clear involved developing the necessary mindset to fully apply his skills at the highest level of the sport; as James repeatedly said during the 2012 playoffs, he could live with the result as long as he knew that he had tried his best--that is the closest James came to admitting that he had not in fact tried his best in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs.

James did not shut up the "haters." The "haters" were, are and always will be fools who should be ignored, whether they have a national platform or whether they preach to a local choir of fans. Regardless of what the revisionist historians will say, what actually happened is that James internalized legitimate criticism, drew the proper conclusions and became a more mature person and a more complete basketball player: he became a champion. The legitimate critics and analysts do not deserve credit for what James accomplished but they also do not deserve to be lumped in with the "haters" who never had any understanding whatsoever about how to properly evaluate basketball players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:18 AM

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