May 13, 2010
If you don't think I understand the ridiculousness behind someone like me advising LeBron James(notes), a man who has spent thousands upon thousands of hours in a basketball gym just in the years since I've discovered high-speed Internet, then you're off. I know how this comes off, and I don't like it.
But outside of NBA coaches, scouts, executives and Brian Windhorst, I think I've watched more hours of this guy playing basketball than just about anyone else I can think of. I've seen him succeed time and again, and have endured the painful result of having my credibility questioned when I point out that I've seen him succeed time and again, more efficiently and more effectively than any other player in the NBA.
But there are nights off, and there are NIGHTS taken OFF. And Tuesday night was, well, absurd. It was so unrepresentative of James' gifts and stature and abilities and production levels, that I don't know how to discount it even if he averages 45-12-12 from here on out and leads his team to a championship before signing a contract extension. That isn't to say I'm dismissing him regardless of the production or expecting the worst. It's only to say that, when you've seen someone act as weird as he has, it has to be considered as an option. However unlikely.
If LeBron James has a torn ligament in his elbow? I'd believe it. Well within the realm of the possible. But the way he's supposed to play, the things he is capable of doing? Quite doable even with the bum elbow. And, yes, I realize the absurdity of me trying to coach this guy from my living room, but after a night spent watching this particular series against the Celtics over and over again and a career spent documenting this guy, I think I'm well within my rights. Even considering the elbow-heavy context.
I'm moving along as if James has a torn ligament in his shooting elbow. And now I'm telling him how he can keep his season alive. Assuming he wants to.
The guy needs to attack, quickly.
He can't keep acting the part of Larry Johnson, circa 1999. And, if we're honest, L.J. was in a more desirable spot to work the triple-threat. LeBron sets up on the elbow-extended, 20 feet from the rim, while L.J. worked from the actual elbow a few feet closer. No lame pun intended.
This sort of service trumps all. When James gets the ball, he needs to dive into a move as quickly as possible. Not because his instincts will always be correct or that a drive or a pass or a shot will be the smartest and most effective tool possible, but because it will keep the defense on its heels and any sort of quick penetration is better than studied and thought-out penetration (and, as Tex Winter will tell you, a shot toward the rim counts as penetration; usage counts).
When James belabors the point and holds the ball, it gives the defense a chance at a coin-flip situation. It allows the opposition to have at least a passing guess at how things will go. And even if the eventual move is the right move, it doesn't have near the amount of effectiveness (short and long term) of diving into a quick decision and making life hellish for his opponents.
It is, without question, the most important tactical change James needs to make. Besides, of course...
Demanding the ball
Listen, if the cable TV guys are seeing it between baseball highlights, then you know you're doing something wrong, LeBron.
For years, people have wondered how good James could be if he played alongside an all-world point guard and was allowed the chance to work off the ball as an honest-to-goodness small forward. And though Mo Williams(notes) is about as natural a passer as a four-banger Cadillac Cimarron in the left-hand lane, James still acted as if his best role was that of a Bowen-esque baseline hanger in Game 5.
Now, if he acted the part of a Shawn Marion(notes)-esque baseline hanger, this would be different. Assuming the worst with his elbow, running up and down the baseline while acting ready for the lob (even if the lob never comes) would do nothing but great things for the Cleveland offense. It would make him the most fearful decoy in NBA history, and even a dodgy passer like Williams couldn't help but find him for a lob now and then.
To say nothing of opening up the strong side for cleaner screen-and-roll action between Mo and whoever pops up to set a screen. And if that S/R turns into a missed shot, that doesn't mean LeBron can't...
Crash the offensive boards
You don't need two working elbows to do this. You just need the instinct inherent, the knowledge of the coaching staff (that will tell Antawn Jamison(notes) and Anthony Parker(notes) to zone up and get back should the crash go wrong, denying transition leak-outs for the Celtics) and James' incredible hops.
Really, this is TBS/TNT-analysis from the early 1990s. This is something Tommy Heinsohn told CBS viewers in the 1980s. Shot not falling? Head to the glass. Get your hands on a spinning ball. Go up for a putback, or kick it out. When you grab and guess at a carom, it forces you to think quickly, using your hands and arms, while in the air. It forces you to work on the fly. Tell me that doesn't mirror what you do when you pull up for a contested jump shot. Which James will need, because he has to...
Hit more jump shots
This might be out. If the elbow is shot and he's not allowed another injection until May 17, then this particular part of his game just isn't going to happen.
I still think it can, though, with tweaks.
James fell back on his jumpers on Tuesday for no reason. Faded and didn't follow through, and was short, consistently, as a result. And if he has the pain threshold to pull up and fire from 21 feet over and over again, then he has the pain threshold to stand up straight (no elbow), square his shoulders (no elbow), put his elbow under the ball (that's gotta hurt) and follow through (that definitely hurts).
This isn't me being flip. If we're in a worst-case scenario with this elbow, James will have to do things -- possibly superfluous things -- that will hurt. But if he wants a championship, he'll have to hurt.
Because as much as we remember the twisting drives and finishes from Game 3 on Friday, James also hit jumper after jumper. Short of acting quickly, this was the most important facet of his game. Beyond, of course...
This guy is 6-foot-9, cut and scary. He is quicker than every player on this court, save for Rajon Rondo(notes), and will top Rondo in a rim-to-halfcourt sprint every time. He changes shots, changes plays and scares people on both ends.
In Game 5, James wasn't scaring anyone. He wasn't following defensively, he didn't help defensively and, save for his first field goal of the game (2 1/2 quarters into the contest), he wasn't leaking out in transition in any meaningful way. And even that took a perfect pass.
Now, Cleveland has had issues defending the Celtics in this series. Williams is an absolute millstone while the Shaquille O'Neal(notes)/Antawn Jamison pairing appears to be quite the sieve. But James can help on all this, even while charged with guarding Paul Pierce(notes). We've seen him do it before -- shading on impending screen-and-rolls, helping to contest the eventual shot even if his man isn't involved -- against the Celtics for the last three years. He can do it again Thursday night.
He'll have to do it again Thursday night. He'll have to do a lot Thursday night. He'll have to...
This is his game. For someone who wants so badly to be the center of attention, he has to be the guy that people would flock to and stare at even if he weren't wearing the loudest clothes or talking the biggest game.
Presence has to be something you earn, not something you strap on or sign up for, and James didn't earn that in Game 5. He floated, he tarried and he floundered. He made himself irrelevant by taking the night off before trying to act all-world with his post-game mannerisms and ... well, the only way to describe those quotes a few days later is with the word "sad."
No, James has to take over this game in a way that forces any NBA novice in a pub or airport or living room to take him in a way that says, "I don't know who that is, but I know that has to be somebody."
He has to dominate this game. His team isn't as good as other teams, but he's way the hell better than everyone else. This team was built around his other-worldly stats and not around some mug who is pretty damn good most of the time. This team was built around the difference between James and Kobe Bryant(notes), the difference between James and Dwyane Wade(notes) and the difference between James and Chris Paul(notes). It was made to feed off the remarkable and heretofore unseen.
And if he isn't playing like the greatest thing we've ever seen, then the Cavs will falter. And what happens beyond Game 6 -- both in LeBron's career and the rest of the playoffs -- is of no concern to me. It never has been.
What concerns me is players betraying their own abilities. Their own chances to be something special. And that's why Game 5 hurt so much. Because LeBron, even with one arm, is something special.
And the reality of his situation -- with that coach and that roster -- is that he has to be something special if he truly, honestly, wants a ring. That he has to move into areas that don't instinctually fall into his lap. That he has to move beyond the point that tells him to care about what people are thinking about him. That he has to, pardon the cliché, leave it all out there.
That's the only way to win. The only way. Here's hoping he gives that path a shot in Game 6.