Appreciating Greatness

LeBron James, probably the most scrutinized athlete of all time. He came up right in the advent of social media. He was heaped praise and called “The Chosen One”. He donned the #23 and copied Jordan’s chalk toss before games. We always wondered what James’ ceiling was as a professional. Was he going to revolutionize the game by his unmatched skill set? Could he leave a trail of highlights on YouTube filled with dunks, ally-oops and scoring barrages? Or was he going to be a “champions’ champion” and follow in the steps of  Russell and Jordan? Perhaps he could meet all the above and be considered the greatest of all-time.

But expectations don’t matter, results do. And right now we are seeing a stretch from LeBron that NBA has never seen before. He is right smack in the middle of his “prime”, at the “height of his powers”, LeBron’s “Sistine Chapel” etc. Athletes usually progress to the point where everything comes together and the game slows down for them. And right now, LeBron is tapping into every gift he was blessed with.

In the early going LeBron met the hype but as his star rose to the top of the NBA chain, people expected the total package. And while he delivered on 75% of that. He didn’t have the elusive ring during his Cleveland years. After a year of ranking #1 on “America’s Most Hated Athlete on the Most Hated Team” list, LeBron delivered on his potential in 2012 and captured the Larry O’Brian Trophy. While his raw numbers during the regular season look practically identical if you compare 2011 to 2012. It’s the post-season that matters. Here’s a look at his post-season stats from those two years.

POSTSEASON AVERAGES
SEASON TEAM GP GS MIN FGM-A FG% 3PM-A 3P% FTM-A FT% OR DR REB AST BLK STL PF TO PTS
’10-’11 21 21 43.9 8.3-17.8 .466 1.4-4.0 .353 5.7-7.4 .763 1.6 6.8 8.4 5.9 1.2 1.7 2.7 3.1 23.7
’11-’12 23 23 42.7 10.9-21.8 .500 1.0-3.7 .259 7.5-10.2 .739 2.4 7.4 9.7 5.6 0.7 1.9 2.0 3.5 30.3

All stats from espn.com

LeBron upped his FG%, Rebounding and scoring significantly during the 2012 post-season run. The main complaint of LBJ’s game before 2012 was that he didn’t use his gifts to the fullest extent; i.e. getting into the paint, posting up on the block and being the lead dog. All that came to a head last year in Game 6 of the Eastern Finals in Boston. Facing elimination against their hated rivals and enduring a series worth of trash-talk from Pierce and Garnett (they questioned his game, his toughness and his manhood), something snapped with LeBron, they pushed him too far. He went on to deliver a pantheon worthy performance in an ice-cold, assassin-like manner. I could describe it but you can just watch for yourself:

Die hard Celtics fan Bill Simmons described this performance from LBJ, “For 4 quarters he played like a rich-man’s version of the 5th best player of all-time”. Simmons obviously referring to the legend himself, Larry Bird. Let that line sink in just a little bit…….. James put it all together in that game and did whatever he wanted. He scored at will and from anywhere; outside, in the paint and on the block. He defended 4 different positions at an elite level. And when he wasn’t scoring he was crashing the boards (15reb) and getting his teammates involved. I considered this the launching point in James’ historic run.

We all know what followed, James continued his pace and captured his first title in 5 games. You can take a closer look at some advanced stats that indicate his immeasurable impact during the 2012 playoffs here:

http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/j/jamesle01.html#playoffs_advanced

All across the board James rose his level of play. His PER efficiency jumped from 23.7 in 11′ to 30.3 in 12′ (anything over 30 is considered extraordinary). All his FG% went up across the board; his defensive rebounding %, assist % and even win shares rose (wins a player is worth to his team). For basketball metric junkies, this improvement correlates to the difference in a 2011 Finals loss and the 2012 Finals championship. Either James delivered or the Heat would fail.

Fast forward to 2013 and the Heat look unstoppable with their 26 game win streak and counting. And if it weren’t already possible, LeBron took his game, more importantly his efficiency, to an even higher level. He became the first player in NBA history to score 30 plus points and shoot higher then 60% in 6 straight games. He also is logging the most minutes of any other player in the league. All the while continuing to lead the team in scoring  (26.7), rebounding (8.2) and assists (7.3). He is also the teams and league’s best on-ball defender (plays 4 different positions). And leads the league in PER efficiency at 31.3. His case for 2013 League MVP is air-tight (already won it 3 times). He’s the league’s best player and it’s not even close, sorry Kevin Durant fans. His team is inching closer and closer to one the most hallowed basketball streaks, the 1971-1972 Lakers 33 game win streak. If anyone one team and player can beat that streak, it deserves to be LeBron and his Heat. His level of play has ignited something special, and I for one am enjoying the ride.

He’s embraced that pressure that once crumbled him. He’s in a zone that will probably continue for the next year or so. When an athlete puts it all together, they usually go on a 18- 24 month tear where they keep raising the level of play. He’s slowly but surely tapping into every skill set and maximizing it to his fullest potential. We don’t know for sure when his peak will officially end. Sometimes it can creep up on you like a thief in the night, Tiger Woods anyone? I know there are still LeBron haters, believe me I was one of them, but he has won me over. And for nearly a year now, I just sit back and continue to be amazed at what this specimen can do on the court. What his ceiling is, I don’t know. But I sure as hell appreciate what I’m seeing.

We won’t see someone put it all together like this for at least another 15-20 years, maybe longer is he keeps this up. In the end, he’s not Russell, Kobe, Jordan or Magic. He’s LeBron and that will mean something 40 years from now. Someday I’ll tell some young fan that I saw LeBron James play. 40 years from now, I’ll tell them I saw greatness.

-MikeV87

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