Entering his 10th season, James has been a hero, played long enough to see himself become a villain, and managed to restore and redefine himself again.
He led an inferior Cleveland Cavaliers team to the 2007 NBA Finals and after San Antonio’s sweep, Tim Duncan famously told James that the league would be his one day. But over the next few years of fabulous regular season performances and fantastic postseason failings, James opened himself up for increased scrutiny about his mental fortitude.
The joy fled James when he fled Cleveland for Miami, and his desire to be defiant left him defeated during a perplexing meltdown in 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.
“Two years ago, I don’t think we enjoyed the game,” Wade said. “It was probably the worst for many guys in here.”
The lockout-shortened season provided an awakening for James because it allowed him to get centered and quiet himself. An injured Wade missed a significant amount of time and James no longer had to defer to his good friend who already had a ring. Reading literature in the locker room allowed him to stay focused and clear his mind of doubt and doubters on Twitter and TV.
“It’s not like he wants to be a 10 and he’s only a two now. He’s already pretty close to 10,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said with chuckle. “He’s in that category with Magic, and Bird, and Michael, those guys that understand the game. They know what it takes. . . . Him tuning other people out and just playing the game — like he did in the playoffs last year — that’s where I see his improvement.”
Miami overcame series deficits against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City and James was at the center of each critical turnaround, culminating in his performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, when James put the Heat on his hobbled legs and led it to victory, then closed out the series with a one-man wrecking crew triple-double.
James provided more evidence that he had fully entered a different threshold in London, where he was the best player and unquestioned leader of the U.S. Olympic team. He led them back to a win over Lithuania, making a three-pointer and dunk to restore order, and finished his summer as the only player not named Jordan to win MVP, Finals MVP, an NBA championship and a gold medal in the same year.
“Pretty good year for myself,” James said. “I don’t know if that year can be duplicated again.”
His teammates and Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra all note that James hasn’t changed his approach since winning it all, with Wade joking that he remains as loud and silly as ever.
“Before we were able to finally climb that mountain, that LeBron had already proven so many qualities of a champion,” Spoelstra said. “The leadership, the consistency, the work ethic. All of those things. But no one else really saw that until we won it. He hasn’t really changed. He’s still consistent. The external pressures, I’m sure, are not there.”
But there is more of an inner peace that comes out when he’s on the floor, a willingness to embrace Miami’s new position-less experiment and take more risks. In the first quarter against the Wizards, James dribbled a basketball back to front between his legs to freeze and shake both Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker and create a path to the hoop. Fans at Sprint Center erupted with laughter and cheers.
“I always try to have fun when I’m playing the game of basketball,” James said. “I love what I do.”
And as he enters his prime, James is hardly finished. “I’m not satisfied with my career and what I’ve done so far,” he said. “I’m going to continue to get better.”