MIAMI – LeBron James(notes) needs championships, a fistful of rings, and everything changes for him. Victory validates everything. People can disdain his decision to front-run with Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes), to talk of himself in the third person, but nothing else matters. Championships change everything.
James never wanted to be the villain, but bad advice and a worse sense of self delivered the black hat. Publicly, people started to see what those on the inside had always witnessed for themselves. From USA Basketball threatening to ban him from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to a behind-the-scenes diva act in Cleveland, his infomercial on his personal cable TV network had been the stunning culmination of a lifetime.
“We got a lot of flack this year, mostly because of myself,” James said.
These Miami Heat were always going to win championships. They’re too talented, too devastating a combination to be kept down. There was only the matter of whether the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers had a title or two left in them before the Heat took over. Only fools sold the idea that this could be a colossal failure over the long term. They don’t get to play this “we’re-proving-people-wrong” nonsense. They started slowly, struggled, because they believed it would be easy. Most of us did.
James sees it differently now, and that’s wise of him. He’s grown a little smarter, and presumably so have those surrounding him. He listens to people beyond his inner circle, and the benefits have been unmistakable this season. When James stopped saying things which necessitated apologies and clarifications, something amazing happened: The swirl surrounding the Heat subsided, the team played far more consistent ball and the James-Wade partnership galvanized on the floor.
Now, James marches into Game 1 of the NBA Finals with devastating playoff carnage left in his wake. Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki(notes) has been the most spectacular scorer of this postseason, but James has been the best player. He’s defended four positions on the floor – including an absolute shutdown of MVP Derrick Rose(notes) in the Eastern Conference finals. His ability to score with such ease is an immense testament to playing with Wade, who makes it impossible for defenses to completely load up on LeBron.
Scottie Pippen dared compare James favorably to Michael Jordan, but clearly it isn’t an outrageous suggestion. Yes, James needs his championships, but he has something that Kobe Bryant(notes) never did: a superstar perimeter teammate to make his life easier. Winning six titles won’t make either of them Jordan, just as falling short of six doesn’t disqualify them.
The requisite burden for James becomes chasing the Jordan comparisons, but James has a much, much more difficult job. Everything makes it harder to win titles now – more teams, more global stars deepening the talent pool, more difficulty in keeping a team together. Coaching is better. Preparation to stop a great player is so much more sophisticated with technology and an ability to break down holes and weaknesses on teams.
Jordan was so fortunate to have as his general manager Jerry Krause, a man who surrounded Jordan in two different eras – pre- and post-baseball – with the perfect complements. James needed free agency to find his Pippen, but Krause flipped Olden Polynice on draft day in 1987 to give Jordan a top-50 teammate. It should’ve been so much harder for the Bulls to find a superstar sidekick, but Jordan – who wanted North Carolina’s Joe Wolf in the draft – had one of the best talent evaluators ever on his side.
So much about today’s NBA is still seen through the prism of the Jordan era, and the belief that Jordan never would’ve chased a fistful of rings by running with rival stars. No one will ever know because he never had to do it; Krause put the rosters together for him. James still believes his villainous reputation comes from leaving Cleveland for Miami, but no one outside of northeastern Ohio was that bothered with his bolting for Miami. It was the walk-up to the departure, the television show, the smoke-filled stage with his new teammates in mid-July. That stayed with the public, and it stayed with those within the league.
This delivered LeBron James the villain act, but that’ll change soon because winning changes everything. The narrative will change because it always evolves. However James acted, however he rubbed people, a fistful of rings forever validates and vindicates. Everyone says the pressure’s on Nowtizki to win his title at an advancing age of 32, but this is James’ second trip to the Finals and this is the burden he thrust upon himself with the formation of the NBA’s super team in South Beach.
For all the flack James says he brought on the Heat this year, the flip side comes now: Win a title and all the praise, all the adulation, comes for him. This has never been a complicated formula in American sports, and never will. James can behave how he wants – good, bad or somewhere between – and it won’t matter. Only now, it’s the scoreboard.
Pat Riley was right: There’s winning and there’s misery. That’s all that’s left for LeBron James now. That’s the NBA Finals for him.
- Michael Jordan