COMMENTARY | Give him two years and he's gone.
LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career. Since he made the decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, his game has flourished to an astonishing level. His outside shot improved dramatically last year, and it's even better this year. He's always been a locomotive in sneakers, playing with such explosiveness NFL scouts salivate over the prospects of LeBron quitting his day job in a calculated career change.
It's obvious after he departed his hometown state to, as he said at the time, "take my talents to South Beach," James has worked on his perimeter game. He wasn't a premier shooter when he was with the Cavaliers - the numbers will tell you that.
In his seven seasons with the Cavs, James shot over 50 percent from the floor just once - his last year in Cleveland. Since he signed with the Heat in 2010-11, his field goal percentage each year has been 51 percent or better. This season, he's shooting a career-high 56.8 percent. In his rookie season, he was a 29 percent three-point shooter. This season, LeBron is shooting a career-best .411 from long range. To illustrate how well James is shooting these days, on a mid-January afternoon an NBA analyst on a Miami AM-760 radio talk show said even if Kobe Bryant were to have made 122 straight field goals at the time, his shooting percentage wouldn't be higher than James. Bryant was leading the league in scoring at the time. Mind you, this is the same Kobe Bryant, who despite many critics insinuating he's past his prime, can go out and drop 40 on teams any given night.
With one championship, back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals and another Most Valuable Player award already tucked away following what was the best year of James' career last season, he has delivered in a way he never could in Cleveland. Amidst a season-high 12-game win streak, following the Heat's double-overtime win over the Sacramento Kings in which James scored 40 points, had 16 assists and eight rebounds, his team was playing its best basketball of the season.
If Miami wins another title by the end of next season, bank on LeBron heading to the bank. He's said publicly this year the end of the NBA super teams is near. If that's true, the way stars align in the league would put the kibosh on the superstar collection mold Boston, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers assembled. Reports also circulated this year LeBron suggested he's underpaid.
When James and Chris Bosh signed with the Heat in July of 2010, they both agreed to identical six-year, $110.1 million contracts. Dwyane Wade agreed to a six-year deal worth $107.5 million at the time, taking a pay cut. James and Bosh were scheduled to be paid $14.5 million apiece the first season, and Wade was set to make $14 million in 2010. James and Bosh's contracts were sign-and-trade deals, making them eligible for 10.5 percent raises each year. Each of the three took $15 million less over the life of their contracts than a maximum deal would allow, but all three have the option following the end of next season to test free agency again. Each of them also has a player's option entering the final season of their deals in 2015-16 if they remain with the Heat that long.
James and the Heat won't win six or seven titles as he alluded to in his South Beach signing-party on stage, but he has a chance to win a couple more. If the Heat win another championship this season or next, LeBron will likely test free agency in the 2014 summer. Chastised and tormented by his beloved Cleveland fans when he, an Akron, Ohio-raised star, uprooted his family for South Florida, you got the feeling, James experienced some form of guilt. Maybe he'll never admit it. In reality, he doesn't have to. It was his right to play where he wanted.
On his return to play the Cavs earlier this season, James said he wouldn't rule out the option of reuniting with his hometown team. And after playing with second-year point guard Kyrie Irving, who's quickly becoming one of the bright young stars in the NBA, as an East teammate in the All-Star Game, one can only imagine the possibilities of the two of them hooking up in the same uniform to finish off LeBron's career.
The Miami Herald went a little overboard in a subtle hint to link the two together when the paper played up an irrelevant alley-oop from Irving to James in the Cavaliers' recent trip to play the Heat. When the first half buzzer sounded, Irving sent a court-length heave toward the basket. While Irving didn't get the 80-foot heave off in time, James caught the ball at the other end of the court and sent it through the hoop.
Oh, the possibilities …
In many ways, James is a loyal guy. The masses in Cleveland probably wouldn't agree with that. After all, on the night he told the world he was bolting for the beach, Cavs fans were burning his jersey. But for a guy, who despite all the fame and fortune he's achieved, who has stuck with his high school sweetheart, Savannah Brinson, all this time, James understands loyalty. He proposed to her on New Year's Eve, a night after his 27th birthday in 2011, and he's kept his family together. This is a guy who follows scripture on Twitter, and was often reading before games to relax his mind. In those ways, James is, without question, grounded.
If he serves up another championship in Miami, there really is nothing else for him to prove.
But making up with the city of Cleveland again on a mission for another ring … now that would be the ultimate reconciliation. A true marriage made in Ohio.
Jim McCurdy is a freelance sports writer based in Miami. He has written for major publications around the country. Follow him on Twitter at @irishcurds.
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- LeBron James