LeBron James earning the right to have fun with his incredible play


What, me worry? (REUTERS/Tami Chappell)

 

Holding on to his red, velvety king’s crown with fluffy white trim, and with accompanying cap tied around his neck and draped over his shirtless torso, LeBron James gyrated, shimmied and shook with uncontrollable exuberance during the defending champion Miami Heat’s entry into the Harlem Shake dance craze.

The video of James dancing with his teammates was the latest example of him letting down his guard and showing little concern for the never-ending scrutiny that has followed him for nearly half of his life. In the past two months, James has tackled a fan who made a half-court shot to $75,000 from his foundation, fumbled over his words as he spoke to President Obama at the White House, played catch with a fan wearing his jersey after the ball made its way into the stands, and has even turned pregame warm ups into the greatest slam-dunk show on earth.

James has dabbled in silly before, going back to his powder-toss, choreographed-pantomime-picture-posing days in Cleveland, but it was often followed by more criticism about his focus and respect for the game. The three-time league most valuable player – and a decided favorite to become the fifth to claim four MVP trophies – has earned a license, however, to truly have fun after following up his first NBA title and an Olympic gold medal with a sublime regular season.

Having met or exceeded many of the outsize expectations that greeted him when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003, James’s accomplishments are rarely appreciated or acknowledged as much as his failures have been magnified. But if his memorable meltdown against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals represented rock bottom for his eventual Hall of Fame career, then his current run – especially in the month of February – could actually signal a limitless apex.

The Heat started last month with a loss in Indiana, where James had a rather ho-hum – for him, at least – 28-point effort. James then put an assault on the record books and began his own personal pursuit of perfection. Over the next six games, James scored at least 30 points and shot better than 60 percent in each game – a first in NBA history. Miami would end the month on a 12-game winning streak, with James capping the run with 40-point, career-high 16-assist, eight rebound performance against the Sacramento Kings that put him alone with Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history with multiple games with at least 40 points, 15 assists and five rebounds.

James finally seemed to grasp his own strength during the NBA Finals, taking full advantage of his power, speed and court vision to dominate Oklahoma City in the post and on drives. When James decides that he wants to get to the basket, there is little that can impede his path. He has also mastered understanding the best shots that he should take while continuing to set up ideal scoring opportunities for his teammates.

With few wasted motions and little hesitation, James has scored at will and made Miami and unstoppable offensive machine with him on the floor. James averaged 29.7 points on just 16.2 field goal attempts and shot 64.1 percent in February – making him the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in March 1983 to shoot at least 64 percent for an entire month (minimum 200 attempts), according to  the Elias Sports Bureau.

He missed just 78 shots in 13 games last month and never shot worse than 52.6 percent.  James did most of his damage near the basket, converting 84 of 105 shots (80 percent) from eight feet and in. But he also displayed great range, as he fearlessly stepped back and shot 15 of 38 (43.2 percent) from beyond the three-point line. James’s player efficiency rating – the per-minute measure for productivity – for the month was an incredible 37.7, or roughly 23 points higher than the league average.

James has raised his field goal percentage in each of his 10 seasons in the league and is shooting better than 55 percent for the first time in his career. How high was his climb? His three-point percentage this season is now almost identical to his field goal percentage (41.7) as a rookie.

As of Friday, James had a player efficiency rating of 31.9, which would put him on pace to eclipse Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time record of 31.8, set in consecutive seasons between 1961-63. James, Chamberlain and Michael Jordan are the only names that comprise the Top 10 player efficiency ratings ever.  When he won his first most valuable player award in 2008-09, James tallied a 31.7, which ranks third all-time for a full season.

Heat President Pat Riley, who coached Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar and was routinely tortured by Michael Jordan, has already begun referring to James as the B.O.A.T. (Best Of All Time).

Riley recently explained his reasoning to the Miami Herald by stating, “I think people really miss the point with LeBron. There’s a possibility he may be smarter than all of them, maybe the smartest player ever. He has watched all of them, sincerely studied all of them, benefitted from what came before. And he has become a hybrid of all of them. At 6-9, 260 pounds, he has taken a piece of everyone’s game. That’s what history does. He has got everyone in him. He’s a better ballhandler than all these guys. He delivers the product in a way we haven’t seen before. Athleticism, strength, power, force — we’ve never seen this explosiveness in anybody.”

James appears unburdened and his pregame, between-the-legs dunking exploits signal a player who has regained the comfort in himself that he may have lost immediately after “The Decision.” But he remains aware of the criticism that awaits him at almost every step, which led to him almost shutting down the show for fear of a backlash.

Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra referred to the contrived controversy as the “theater of the absurd” and James has since decided to have fun, no matter what.

And if he continues to play at his current level, James will keep casting a skyscraper-sized shadow on the rest of the league and only have to worry about adding a few more championship rings to go with the crown and cape that the rest of the world now knows he owns.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee | March 1, 2013