For many basketball observers, Jordan will remain atop the list of all-time greats regardless of James’s accomplishments when his career is finished. And Jordan’s commanding presence was as much a part of his iconic status as incomparable dunks and game-winning shots.
This, though, appears to be the beginning of James’s time. The NBA is potentially facing a new era of team dominance. It would seem LeBron James and the Miami Heat are ready to start a championship run unparalleled since the days of Jordan.
Beginning Tuesday night with Game 1 of the Finals at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, the Heat will face the Dallas Mavericks to complete one of the sport’s greatest postseasons. After an exciting NCAA tournament-esque start, the playoffs have been all about the Heat’s dominance in the Eastern Conference and the Mavericks’ success out West.
For James, it has been an artist’s canvas. On offense and defense, James has reasserted that he is without peer in today’s game.
He is its most skilled player at both ends. There has not been someone so big (James is officially listed at 6 feet 8, 250 pounds) with his instincts, passing ability and willingness to help teammates score since Magic Johnson led the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.
After his poorly handled exit from Cleveland in July, James has led the Heat to the Finals. The determination and passion of the league’s two-time most valuable player has been evident every minute he’s on the floor.
James is racing to claim the only prize that eluded him during his first seven spectacular, albeit frustrating, seasons with the Cavaliers. His intensity has been displayed from the start, fueling Miami’s impressive 12-3 playoff performance.
The NBA’s best player has set the tone on offense, averaging 26 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists while Miami needed only five games each to defeat Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. James has shouldered the load on defense, accepting the challenge of the opponent’s best scorer in the fourth quarter — and usually winning.
Late in Game 5 of the semifinals, James stunned the Celtics, last season’s East champion, scoring the final 10 points in two-plus minutes to end the series. His lock-down defense overwhelmed Bulls point guard Derrick Rose — this season’s MVP — in the conference finals, and James in the clincher sparked an 18-3 run down the stretch to erase a 12-point deficit.
Obviously, James hasn’t done it all on his own. Even Jordan wasn’t capable of leading Chicago to six titles, which they won during an eight-year span in the 1990s, until the talent around him improved.
But no player in NBA history has faced as much scrutiny and animosity as James encountered this season. Granted, much of the contempt has been self-inflicted.
James and his advisers displayed awful judgment in that poorly handled television special to announce his decision to sign with the Heat. And for years, NBA people have shared anecdotes about James’s immaturity and the star treatment he and his friends expected, and were often afforded, in Cleveland.
Heat President Pat Riley stirred jealousy across the NBA for his accomplishment in luring James and Bosh to the Heat last summer while also retaining Wade. James was an easy target during the Heat’s season-high five-game losing streak spanning late February and early March.
A long lockout is expected this summer, at least in part, because most owners are demanding new collective bargaining rules to make it difficult for teams to replicate the Miami model. Under pressure, James and the Heat have thrived when it matters most.
Miami finished the regular season 15-3. Combined with its playoff mark, the Heat is 27-6 since March 10.
The Heat overcame the Celtics’ veteran know-how and the young Bulls’ defensive toughness. With each step, James has elevated to a higher level, and one more obstacle remains.
Dallas will be Miami’s biggest challenge.
Dirk Nowitzki has dazzled with his shooting, leading the Mavericks to a 12-3 postseason record. Dallas swept the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers in the West semifinals, removing Bryant’s name from the current Jordan discussion.
Nowitzki was as important to Dallas’s victory over Oklahoma City in the conference championship series as James was to the Heat advancing past the Bulls. Savvy veteran Jason Kidd is one of the greatest point guards in league history. Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic are three of the best three-point shooters to ever play.
They are not, however, James and Wade.
Wade was selected the Finals most valuable player after the Heat overcame an 0-2 deficit against Dallas to win the 2005-06 NBA title.
He averaged 34.7 points against a Mavericks team that wasn’t as good defensively as this bunch, but Wade’s support system is better now, too.
James is only 26 and Bosh is 27. At 29, Wade is the eldest member of the trio.
With so much young star-power, Miami’s window is wide open. And to the disappointment of its opponents, it may remain in that position for a long, long time.