LeBron James is in his ninth NBA season. He has zero championship rings. It would be ignorant to say that James is not the most talented — if not the overall best — player in the league. And yes, he took the easy way out when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade in Miami. But Wade has already led a team to a championship. This is all about LeBron.
James has transformed from a hero into a villain so quickly these past two years that he can no longer win. (As a reference, Forbes ranked James the sixth most disliked athlete in sports earlier this year.) That is, unless he — with help from D-Wade, and not the other way around — leads the Miami Heat to an NBA championship.
These playoffs are huge for James — for both his legacy and his image, on and off the court. The Finals are so wide open at the moment that if he fails to perform again in the playoffs, he is in serious jeopardy of losing his kingship; Prince James he may become. After all, kings have rings, don’t they?
This season, James posted typical LeBron numbers (27.1 points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game, 6.2 assists per game and 1.9 steals per game) to become the frontrunner for the NBA MVP award. He leads Miami in all of those categories. Yes, even the increasingly overrated Chris Bosh has been unable to muster up a measly eight rebounds a game.
Once again, these numbers mean nothing when all is said and done. We have seen him do this before, year in and year out. And sadly, it is not impressive anymore. The best get it done when it matters in the playoffs, and James has yet to deliver.
He is 0-2 in the NBA Finals, although he should be commended for carrying a mediocre Cleveland team all the way to the Finals in 2007, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. There are no excuses for last season. James cowered in the biggest moments late in the games, deferring to Wade, who outperformed him throughout Dallas’ 4-2 series win. In the 2011 playoffs, James’ production dropped from the regular season, as he averaged 23.7 (versus 26.7) points per game on 47 (versus 51) percent shooting.
This year has to be LeBron’s best shot to date at acquiring that elusive first title. Miami is a relentless team, constantly applying pressure on both ends of the court. One of the best- rated defensive teams, the Heat capitalize on their superior athleticism and decision-making in the open court. Erik Spoelstra has done a commendable job patrolling Miami’s sidelines, making sure that his team refuses to beat itself; the Heat rarely take bad shots and make its opponents work extremely hard to execute on offense. James and Wade will always be two of the best three players on the court, Bosh is no scrub and the Heat have the personnel to hit open shots as well as battle it out inside. Serious depth may be an issue, but I have got to think that Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (along with younger guns Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole) have just enough left in the tank to provide an impactful moment or two at some point in Miami’s playoff run.
It’s weird because, despite how much fun James and the gang SHOULD be having this season while running opponents out of the gym, it doesn’t really seem like they are enjoying themselves too much. Sure, they win and put up gaudy numbers every night, and have all of the cute and over-the-top celebration routines down, but I still rarely see smiles or anything resembling genuine fun. It’s all business for LeBron now. He realizes people don’t like him, and his ever-presence under a microscope has made him shrink like George Costanza’s member after swimming in a cold pool.
The biggest caveat of this year’s Miami Heat team is exactly the same as last year’s: crunch time. Who is going to take the last shot? Can LeBron and Wade coexist and successfully play off of each other in the playoffs, against great defenses, in close games with the clock winding down? Both seem to perform better individually while the other is not on the floor, indicated by the Heat’s current 14-1 record, as Wade has missed several games this season due to injury. It remains to be seen.
The Miami Heat should make the NBA Finals again this season. Its biggest roadblock, the Chicago Bulls, is hoping its garden of Rose will be back in full force for the two teams’ inevitable meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. If they can get by the Bulls, you would think that they are the NBA Finals favorites. Then again, that is probably what you thought last year. In the end, it will come down to LeBron’s and Wade’s ability to coexist as dominant, ball-hungry wing players on the same team.