Less than three years ago LeBron James was a failure.
It’s a measure of the dog year’s pace of the sports calendar about how quickly things can change, but it’s worth remembering.
The Miami Heat all-everything (seriously, he has a position?) took the Heat to the NBA Finals and soiled the bed, in part due to a healthy dose of zone defence designed by then Dallas Mavericks’ assistant coach Dwane Casey.
The dismantling was so thorough that it helped Casey get the head coaching job in Toronto that summer, with Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle making a call on behalf of his assistant to then Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo from the champagne-soaked dressing room.
But the truth is James muzzled himself as much as anything else. James averaged just 17.8 points a game on 48-percent shooting in the Heat’s six-game loss to the Mavs, worse he scored just 13 points combined in the fourth quarters of the series.
On a massive stage, he’d choked, and not for the first time. There were serious questions if he’d ever become the player his gifts said he should be.
And then he did.
On Tuesday, James came to Toronto as undoubtedly the best player the NBA has seen since Michael Jordan and suddenly on the verge of making a very serious run at being the best player in league history.
He’s won four MVP awards at age 28. If he wins another he’ll join Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as five-time winners. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to have won six. James has won two NBA titles and the Heat are favoured to win a third. This summer, he’ll be a free agent and could position himself for several more.
He failed and came back as a stronger alloy than ever before.
“Sometimes the ultimate pain makes you have to change and adapt,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra as he held court on the subject of his great players’ greatness Tuesday morning.
Spoelstra is the man charged with trying to smooth over the nicks in the basketball version of Michelangelo’s David.
“If you’re playing at this high a level and to continue to find another level, that is unique,” says Spoelstra. “But we don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”
Fortunately in James he’s got the rarest gift of all: a 6-foot-8, 250-pound locomotive who is still eager to run more efficiently; to iron out any perceived glitches.
“It’s about stepping outside my comfort zone [and doing things] I may not have done before and get better at it and be the best player I can be,” James said. “Every time I step on step on the floor I have to put myself and put my teammates in position to succeed, and if I’m short-changing them I’m cheating the game.”
Last season was a masterpiece; the best of James’ career and one of the most complete seasons in NBA history as he tied a career-high of 9.6 field goals made per game (on a per/36 minutes basis) while taking a career-low 16.9 shots a game. The result was the best shooting percentage of his career at 56.5 overall while also setting career-bests in 3-point shooting (40.6) and grabbing 8.0 rebounds and dishing 7.3 assists a game.
The goal this season, his 10th, is to get better.
“I’m working on some things,” he said, smiling. “I don’t want to give it up, it’ll make it easier to scout me. Just know I’m getting better.”
Against the Raptors, a little bit of everything was on display
He posted up; he moved the ball with great economy. He took shots that were wise and created equally good shots for others. He made 13-of-20 shots for 35 points to go with eight rebounds and eight assists and looked casual doing it.
The Raptors made it a game through three quarters but were overmatched in the fourth. However, given the crowd was at least as interested in seeing James, the 104-95 final score didn’t seem to matter as much; there was still a crowd gathered at the edge of the stands shouting his name at the end of the night.
And why not?
What they’re watching is something amazing. His continued evolution indicates that his character is as remarkable as his rare collection of athletic gifts.
“One of the more unique qualities about him is that drive, that fear of failure, the constant push to make himself uncomfortable,” says Spoelstra. “What’s unique about that is he’s been crowned the best in the game [for his age] since he was in the seventh grade. … that usually distorts your perception of what matters and how much you should be working.
“But he understands the whole puzzle – not only individual work, but to be out here every day – shootarounds; practices; film sessions -- he’s lacing them up. He doesn’t always feel great, but he’s going to be there to make this work. That’s as big as anything he does for himself.”
One of James stated goals this season – in addition pushing himself to be the best player that has ever lived – was to become a better leader, to figure out what he can do outside of simply playing at a level almost no one ever has to make his team great.
It was interesting to hear his answer when asked if – in the wake of the bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins – there was a need to take the temperature in his own dressing room:
“We’re OK here. We don’t have to take a step back. We’re a very, very, close group,” he said. “Obviously we laugh and joke and get on each other, we always get on each other, but we never cross that line man … we know what we’re about.”
It was the perfect answer. The tone-deaf mogul-to-be that nearly swamped himself in negative publicity with his ill-fated choice to televise ‘The Decision’ – his announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010 -- and made a fool of himself when he predicted as many as seven NBA titles when he arrived in Miami, seems to have fallen by the wayside, shed like skin.
It could simply be the culture he was lucky enough to find his way to after leaving home. After his first season in Miami ended in failure, the Heat, led by their iconic president Pat Riley, did what most teams never do: They changed almost nothing other than adding Shane Battier, the role player’s role player.
They won in 2012 and won again in 2013 with James earning Finals MVP honours each year.
“Usually there’s changes; you blow it up, you point fingers and blame comes from either from ownership, management, players, coaches -- at some point it gets short-circuited,” said Spoelstra. “But that was a powerful, powerful step for us, where we said ‘OK, it’s all of us, just us, let’s figure this out’ and whether we win or we lose it is going to be a shared responsibility.”
As the face of the franchise and the face of the league, inevitably it was James that bore the brunt of the Heat’s early struggles.
That seems like another lifetime ago. The brash kid on the stage, counting rings; the one pledging to ‘take his talents to South Beach’, the guy shrinking in the Finals -- gone.
He’s either truly matured -- he’s married; he’s saying the right things – or he’s got his lines memorized.
But given how his play has grown and continues to grow on the floor, where there is no place to hide and you can’t fake a thing, the betting here is that it’s the former; James has grown up and learned from past failures.
After arriving in the NBA with an unprecedented wave of hype and expectation, James has exceeded both, and the best is yet to come.