Wednesday, May 10, 2017

LeBron James: Breaking Records On His Quest For Another NBA Championship

Sometimes an athlete is so singularly great for so long his deeds become common, if not soporific.

This NBA season morphed into the Russell Westbrook show, the pyrotechnic point guard stuffing the stat sheet like no one since Oscar Robertson. Somewhat lost in the personal greatness was the professional failure. If winning is the main metric of the greats, then Oklahoma City’s season didn’t match the hype, with 47 wins and a rather disappointing, first-round boot from the playoffs.

Meanwhile, LeBron James is suffering from Michael Jordan syndrome. Anyone with a faint interest in basketball knows Jordan was the best player in the world every season he played. But it became rote to vote for him, and therefore folks looked elsewhere, as if they were clever or even avant garde by picking Charles Barkley or Karl Malone or Gary Payton or any of the fine but still lesser players for NBA MVP.

So it is for LeBron. The disregard for his talent has become so pronounced, he not only loses MVP ballots, they actually voted for Steph Curry as unanimous choice. And this year has already been dismissed as a two-horse race between Westbrook and James Harden — both fine players, for sure. But neither has a single title, much less LeBron’s trident of championships. Or his soon-to-be seventh straight trip to the NBA Finals, unheard of in NBA annals since Bill Russell.

If you need more statistical proof, consider whom he just passed on the all-time playoff scoring list. This week LeBron leapfrogged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, narrowing his sights to the GOAT, Michael Jordan.

When your peers are a conga line of single-name or nicknamed legends, there isn’t much more to say. From now on LeBron will only be juxtaposed with such nicknames, from MJ to Magic to Shaq.

This latest milestone caught the sports world by surprise. Because James has such a wide swath of skills, we forget what a sublime scorer he is. If LeBron wanted to score 30 a night, he could. Or 40, frankly. If he wanted to set his passing baseline to a dozen assists per game, he could. Likewise, he could easily snag a dozen rebounds per game.

LeBron has become a fixture in the NBA Finals, never mind the playoffs. Fans got another reminder of how consistent, and effective, a presence he has been in the postseason when the Cavaliers star moved into second place in the league’s playoff scoring ranks, passing Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"I’m just blessed, and I have taken advantage of the opportunity I have been given," James said. "I didn’t take [my talents] for granted, and I still don’t, even at 32."

"I been in this league for 14 years, and I don’t take the opportunity for granted. I’ve had some great teammates along my 14-year career, I’ve been in the postseason for 12 straight years, so those guys and the coaches that I’ve had put me in positions to be successful, and it’s just up to me to go out and do it.

"When you hear a name like Kareem, a guy who has done so many great things, not only as an individual but as a teammate, winning championships in the eighties and how many points he put up. … I didn’t get an opportunity to actually watch him play, growing up, but I read about his accomplishments, so it is pretty cool."

James is 210 points behind Jordan, meaning that he has a realistic shot at dethroning His Airness (in one playoff category, anyway) this spring. Through six postseason games, all Cleveland wins, James is averaging 33.2 points, meaning he would need to play seven more games at that pace to set a record. Of course, if James does not establish the mark this year, he’ll be all but a lock to do so in 2018.

But LeBron really isn’t about stats. He doesn’t see the game in numbers, but in wins. And while Westbrook and Harden and Curry have breathtaking talent, they can’t dominate a basketball game in nearly as many ways as LeBron James can. Which is why, when the world scrambled to find a historical comparison, so many leaned on Magic Johnson. Just like the Magic Man, LeBron James is about the organic growth of the team, not dunking on the man in front of him.

While so many delight in the highlight, in the SportsCenter loop, on posterizing someone, LeBron’s poster includes a dozen men — he and his teammates. LeBron James isn’t just the best basketball player in the NBA, or the world, he has been so for a decade, and the margin between he and the next best is laughably large.

Say what you will about his postseason success or how many rings he has at this point in his career, but that sustained level of success is unheard of. Playoff upsets seemingly happen every year in some form or fashion, but to not only make it past the first round every time, but also to pretty much never lose a game while putting up those gaudy numbers? Simply remarkable.

Even at the age of 32 he's still exciting as ever to watch. When Akron’s most famous son, takes flight to dunk, I am tempted to call it poetry in motion—if we agree that poetry can be stormy as well as smooth, thrillingly true yet downright mean as it lures you one way, pivots and drives its point home.

Who could have imagined that a basketball boy wonder, a prodigy from the projects, would bridge class and racial divides to evolve into King James of the International Courts?

By making good on his pledge to bring a championship to the Cleveland Cavaliers and by investing in the promise of future generations through his foundation, LeBron James has not only bolstered the self-esteem of his native Ohio but also become an inspiration for all Americans—proof that talent combined with passion, tenacity and decency can reinvent the possible. Poetry in motion, indeed.

(By Jason Keidel & Des Bieler)