Ball Don't Lie - NBA

LeBron James and the limitations of his position

As we, rightfully, pile on LeBron James(notes) in the wake of his disappearing act in Game 4, is it possibly time to redefine the second arrangement again?

The more that I watch this guy play, and the more that I marvel over Dwyane Wade(notes) while beating my head against the wall over Kobe Bryant(notes) and his inability to play up to his standards within the Triangle Offense, I have to start wondering if it's our own expectations regarding these players' positions that might be getting in the way of us accurately analyzing LeBron.

Does that excuse James' passive nature in Game 4 and (to a lesser extent) Game 3?

Does this gloss over the play-calling that allowed for Dwyane Wade to dominate the ball in orthodox (if not altogether inefficient) screen-and-roll sets?

No, and it shouldn't. There are good, pragmatic reasons for James acting as he did in Game 4, but the chorus that yells at him for gliding through a Miami loss is spot on in its harmony. James screwed up, both in application on and (especially, to me) off the ball. But at some point I wonder if this is also a function of his position, and our own unreasonable criteria for the position in the wake of what Michael Jordan showed us for all those years.

It's been correctly stated several hundreds of times over the years that James is more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. And though his height, position, passing skills and rebounding acumen should tilt our analysis into thinking he's a Larry Bird-type, his inconsistent long-range shooting precludes opponents from obsessing about his ability to pull up in the same way that made Bird so scary to defenses charged with stopping him.

No, LeBron is a wing. This guy, for all his gifts, still remains a wing. Perhaps the greatest ever, someday, but a wing nevertheless. And wings need help, because this still isn't a game that wings can easily take over to a championship standard, in spite of what we've seen over the last 25 years, with MJ leading to Kobe leading to Wade leading to LeBron.

This is what Jordan did to us, making us believe that wings can take over games and win championships from not just the outside in, but the outside and to-the-side inwards. What we're forgetting, as we obsess over the last 20 years of a professional sport that is 65-years in, is that Jordan and to a lesser extent Kobe Bryant are aberrations. And that Dwyane Wade's remarkable turn in perhaps the best NBA Finals performance ever in 2006 was an aberration, not unlike the 44-win Washington Bullets and 47-win Seattle SuperSonics meeting in the 1978 NBA Finals.

I apologize for continuing to sound like a Triangle Offense obsessive, but that's what helped Jordan and Bryant take their gifts to a higher level. And Miami's screen-and-roll orthodoxy (with either Wade and a screener moving with James sent to the side, or James working with the rock and Wade banished to the side) just cannot be compared to the sort of spacing that allowed for Jordan and Bryant to work with such freedom, and impossible-to-guard spacing in front of them. Miami's orthodoxy might well win a championship, they have home-court advantage in a best-of-three as I write this, but let's not forget the way in which they're trying to win this thing.

James needs to find a way to slow down, and he seems increasingly incapable of doing so. For all his "more Magic than Michael" gifts, things don't appear simple to him once the defense ramps up, and takes away the initial, B-level, or even tertiary option. This is not an excuse, because he has to do better. He has to work harder, cut faster, improvise better, and post up more.

And his mental makeup, despite some spectacular and nationally televised documentation to the contrary, just doesn't appear to be that of a stone-cold killer. The guy floats. OK for the rest of us, not good for the man who should be The Greatest Ever.

LeBron James and the limitations of his position

We also need to reconfigure our expectations of his position, though. We have to allow for the pre-June of 1991 mindset to take hold, if not over. Wings just aren't supposed to win these things, while acting as typical wings. It was the brilliance of Jordan and Bryant (and Kobe working with a little help from the most dominant big man of his time, no small addition) working in concert with an atypical offense that led to 11 championships in 20 years while our vision was skewed.

This shouldn't stop you from destroying James. Go right ahead, as he floats and plays the martyr. In Game 4 especially, LeBron gave up. There's no way around that art crime.

This shouldn't stop you from criticizing Miami's offense, as it cruelly focuses on one thing at a time, instead of a series of options that can widen its particular frame. And this shouldn't have you believing that Miami, which has looked astonishingly potent over the last seven weeks, won't win it all.

It's just another thing to consider, moving forward, as we discuss a game that features five to a side.

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