I’ll tell you since when. Ever since the sublime talents of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant deceived star worshippers into thinking that NBA greatness is defined by lone wolfness. Ever since their stunning scorer’s mentalities seduced their admirers into forgetting that without Phil Jackson, and his relentless insistence on sharing the ball, neither won so much as one ring. Not one.
There is something off in the way James is being treated by his critics. Yes, he had a pass-first mentality and lacked aggressiveness in the fourth quarter of the last couple of games, as he himself admitted. But there is a weird overreaction going on here. James is being punished by those who found something unmanly in his decision to leave Cleveland and accept less money to share the limelight and the ball with Wade and Bosh in Miami. His failure to score down the stretch has been taken by his critics as proof of this central weakness. There must be something wrong with a guy who doesn’t want to go all ball-hog.
As Charles Barkley famously said, “There would have been something honorable about staying in Cleveland and trying to win it as ‘The Man.’”
Sure, it’s thrilling to see a great player put a team on his back, as Dirk Nowitzki did in the final minutes of Game 4 to tie up the NBA Finals at two games apiece.
But what’s made such a wonderful, taut series is the fact that both teams have superb casts with pass-first, defense-first philosophies.
James is simply following an old axiom: When your shot fails or you’re being swarmed by double teams, don’t force; instead find the open man and look for other ways to fill up a box score.
James missed 8 of 11 shots Tuesday night. Yet he’s had 16 assists in the last two games, which means he has accounted for 36 points, and they count the same whether they come off his fingers or Wade’s or Bosh’s.
Could he have forced his way to the rim instead of settling for outside shots, and gotten to the free throw line more?
Yes, but it’s a minor criticism.
“Definitely didn’t play great offensively,” James said. “I got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively, not staying out of rhythm offensively the whole game. But I think one thing I try to concentrate is, if I get two guys on me, try to make my teammates better, hit those guys for open looks. But at the same time I have to keep myself in rhythm while I’m doing that as well.”
James has been superb this season in knowing when to dominate and when to sublimate his massive skill set to those of teammates. It’s a tricky balance. This constant refrain that James somehow is underachieving because he plays well with others, doesn’t impose his will and posterize himself at every opportunity, is ludicrous and perpetuated by people with less talent who wish they lived in South Beach.
To restore a little perspective, go back and listen to some vintage Phil Jackson.
“The fact is, selflessness is the soul of teamwork,” Jackson said a few years ago to EnlightenNext magazine. “We have a practical rule in our game: When you stop the basketball — when it resides in your presence and you hold it for longer than two counts — you’ve destroyed our rhythm. When the ball is in your hands, you become the focal point. And when you become the focus, our system breaks down. It’s that simple.”
This isn’t to deny James’s immense ego — witness the way he left Cleveland, designing a TV special around himself. The LeBron Show was undoubtedly a mistake.
If you admire him less because of that vulgar display, or because he wears a tattoo that says Chosen One, fine. But that has nothing to do with basketball.
James doesn’t need to prove he can take over games for his legacy. Anyone who watched his head-smacking performance in 2007, when as a 22-year-old he put Cleveland on his back and dragged it to the NBA Finals, already knows he can do that. What he needs to prove is that he can anchor a championship team.
It’s refreshing — and healthy — to see James turn the NBA ethic right-side-up again, to have a great star whose every instinct is not selfish but collaborative.
If you need further reminding of the value of that to a team, read some more Phil Jackson.
“It doesn’t matter how good individual players are — they can’t compete with a team that is awake and aware and trusts each other. People don’t understand that. Most of the time, everybody’s so concerned about not being disrespected. But you have to check that attitude at the door — that defensiveness, that protection of your own image and reputation. Everybody needs help in this game.”