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Monday, March 04, 2019

The Paradox of LeBron James

LeBron James baffles and mystifies me more than any other great player who I have observed and/or studied, so it is only fitting that as he enters the final stage of his career he continues to be baffling and mystifying.

James, a 34 year old veteran of 16 NBA seasons, is averaging 27.0 ppg (ninth in the league), 35.5 mpg (eighth in the league), 8.1 apg (third in the league), and a career-high 8.7 rpg while shooting .510 from the field. Based on a superficial look at those statistics, James seems to be having an MVP caliber season--but despite that, he very possibly will not even make the All-NBA First Team, and his L.A. Lakers are collapsing down the stretch, punctuated by an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns, who are a hard team to lose to since they are in full tank mode: the Suns have a league-worst 13-51 record, including a 17 game losing streak from January 15-February 23. Yes, James' Lakers were just beaten by a team that went five weeks without winning a single game.

James is a case study regarding the limitations of attempting to use individual statistics to quantify a player's value and/or compare the value of various players. James' numbers look impressive but those numbers do not accurately convey the large extent to which his leadership, his defense and his effort/intensity are subpar, if not entirely deficient.

It is possible that James is not completely healthy physically and/or that undefeated Father Time is claiming yet another victim--but it is almost certain that James has checked out mentally. His body language shows that he does not want to be on this team--or, at least, to play with this group of players--and it is quite evident that at least some of his teammates do not want to play with James. Keep in mind that Kyrie Irving ran away from James as fast as he could, despite winning a championship with James, and also remember that Kevin Durant has made it clear that he does not want to play with James. Paul George re-signed with Oklahoma City, choosing Russell Westbrook over James, and there is no reason to believe that Kawhi Leonard has any intention of joining James. The mainstream media narrative asserts that James is a great teammate and leader; the evidence paints a much different picture.

The Lakers last made the playoffs in 2013, when the 34 year old Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon crumpled under the weight of singlehandedly carrying the team; Bryant missed the postseason but pushed himself hard and came back to play after missing just the first 19 games of the 2013-14 season. Bryant participated in six games before suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. He played in the first 27 games of the 2014-15 season and in the process he became the oldest player to have a 30-10-10 triple double and just the third player aged 36 or older to have multiple triple doubles in the same season. Lakers coach Byron Scott rested Bryant for three straight games and for eight games over a 16 game stretch, as Bryant was dealing with nagging problems with his Achilles, knees, feet and back. Bryant's season ended after he tore his right rotator cuff while completing a two-handed dunk in a January 21, 2015 game versus New Orleans; despite the injury, Bryant returned to action that game and ran the offense while shooting, dribbling and passing almost exclusively with his left hand. He played 66 games during his final season in 2015-16, putting an exclamation mark on his career by scoring 60 points in his final game, a 101-96 victory over Utah. Bryant outscored Utah 23-21 in the fourth quarter to complete the highest scoring game by any NBA player that season.

When James Harden, who is not 37 years old and has not torn an Achilles, scores 30 points on 25 field goal attempts that is headline news and considered an MVP-worthy performance, but when Bryant doubled those numbers in his farewell performance he was belittled as an aging ballhog who was supposedly holding back the development of the Lakers' young players.

Bryant worked with those young players and pushed them to improve their games. Has James worked with the Lakers' young players? James joined the Lakers on a four year deal that supposedly signified his patience but his first season with the team was not even half over before he was trying to get the coach fired and half of the roster traded. Remember what Pat Riley said after James left Miami? Riley said that he would no longer have to deal with "smiling faces with hidden agendas."

No one knows if Anthony Davis wants to join General Manager/Coach/Player LeBron James in Los Angeles. It was not easy to be James' teammate when James was the best player in the world, and it figures to be more difficult to be James' teammate as his skills erode but his behind the scenes maneuvering does not stop.

The media can tout James as a great teammate, and Harden as the MVP. As a lifelong NBA fan--never mind being a commentator or analyst--I would rather watch Kobe Bryant seven days a week and twice on Sunday than watch James sulk or watch Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" (as Charles Barkley puts it) before committing a traveling violation that enables him to launch an open three pointer. Bryant left it all on the court, every game. He demanded excellence from himself and from everyone around him. When he had even a decent supporting cast around him, his teams were successful, capturing five championships in seven Finals appearances--and, even when he had subpar talent around him, he battled just as hard, and he carried some squads to the playoffs with players who barely even belonged in the league.

It has been said of highly gifted individuals that they have a "rage to master," an insatiable desire to be the best at whatever they do. That is a perfect way to describe Bryant. You can crunch the numbers any way that you want but you will not convince me that James has surpassed Bryant (and, to paraphrase Sparky Anderson's comment about Johnny Bench, don't even embarrass James by comparing him to Michael Jordan).

Based on James' durability and the sustained success he achieved as a number one scoring option, I would rank him ahead of Scottie Pippen, but Pippen's performance in one key playoff game highlights the risks of trying to evaluate players based purely on numbers; there are some aspects of greatness that are not captured by statistics.

The Chicago Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers 85-79 in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. The best and most impactful player on the court during that game was Pippen, who finished with four points on 1-9 field goal shooting. He also had seven rebounds, a game-high seven assists, and four steals. Why was Pippen the best player? He was a one man full-court press who singlehandedly turned Pacers' point guard Mark Jackson six ways to Sunday. Jackson had a game-high seven turnovers and the Pacers had 25 turnovers. The Bulls scored 27 points off of turnovers, a significant source of easy offense in a game during which they shot just .358 from the field. Michael Jordan scored a game-high 31 points but he shot just 11-28 (.393) from the field. Without Pippen's shutdown defense, the Bulls might have lost home court advantage, and could very possibly have lost the series as well; the game one winner of an NBA playoff series wins the series over 80% of the time.

Steve Kerr, now best known as the coach of the Golden State Warriors but then a sharpshooting reserve for the Bulls, said after the game, "It was an amazing defensive performance by our starters coming out in the third quarter, and that turned the game around. It's amazing to see how good Scottie is in particular. The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn’t have to score a point and he can control the whole game."

Indiana coach Larry Bird commented about Pippen's impact: "Obviously, that hurt us offensively. That was the first time that I have seen a player get up on a point guard and not really foul him but get his hands in there and dig the ball out. Next game, we need to do a better job of getting Mark open going down the court."

Pippen could not care less about his numbers. He did what needed to be done to win that game, as one big stepping stone on the path to winning his sixth title in eight seasons. When Pippen played, you could see his passion for the game, and his dedication to do what was best for the team, as opposed to doing what would cover him in the most individual glory.

James has a thicker resume than Pippen, and the capability to be a deadlier scorer, but if I needed a small forward to win one big playoff game--and if I already had a number one scoring option playing at any of the other positions--I would have to at least consider taking Pippen over James. 

After the San Francisco 49ers lost 34-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks during the 2008 season, Mike Singletary, then the  49ers' coach, issued a soon to be famous press conference rant: "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."

Davis, who went on to rank among the NFL's all-time top 10 career yardage leaders for tight ends, never forgot Singletary's words and, nearly a decade later, he publicly credited Singletary for correcting his life path: "That was the moment that turned everything around. Once I saw that, I was like, 'Wow, this guy is really serious.' There’s nothing I can do. This guy right here, he's just tough. I can't beat him. So I just have to straighten myself up, and that's what I did. I straightened myself up and did everything he asked me to do. I became a different person."

Lakers' coach Luke Walton is a dead man/lame duck walking. Wouldn't it be something if he delivered a similar speech to James? James--despite his superficially gaudy numbers--seems to be in "chill mode" until the Lakers give him the coach and teammates that he prefers. If I were a Lakers fan, I would rather see five guys on the court who are passionate about the game and care about their teammates than see a player who (sometimes) says the right things but meanwhile has sabotaged the team from within and who refuses to put forth full effort on a consistent basis.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time. Nothing he does on the back nine of his career will change that, but watching the way he handles himself one cannot escape the feeling that he could have won even more had he taken a different approach, and had he been more focused.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM