Miami Heat superstar LeBron James has more ability than anyone playing basketball today. He won his third NBA MVP award this season; only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have won more. This week, James delivered consecutive virtuoso performances while carrying the injury-weakened Heat to a three-games-to-two lead in its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers.
Yet James remains one of the most criticized players in the game. If the Heat’s season doesn’t end in a parade, James will be blasted more than President Obama would be at a birthers convention.
The widespread contempt for James, who at 27 is in his ninth NBA season, challenges the long-held notion that all fans care about is success. He is as polarizing as Tiger Woods or Michael Vick, despite never having been embroiled in scandal. James’ s offenses seem far more common: narcissism and a failure to deliver championships.
The mere sight of James didn’t always bring to mind sinister organ music. But then in July 2010, James and ESPN partnered on his ill-conceived announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami. “The Decision” should have been entitled “The Debacle.”
Cavaliers fans burned replicas of James’s jersey in effigy. A whole book was written about James being a duplicitous fraud.
Before that, James was just your average once-in-several-generations player. He had a sense of entitlement, NBA people say, but that didn’t make him unique in a league full of mega-ego multimillionaires. James’s botched exit from Cleveland — I mean, really: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” is just asking to be ripped — made him seem arrogant beyond any known standards.
To the guys who sit in the cheap seats and the old-school NBA legends alike, James appears to be someone who simply doesn’t get it. Even if James were to win his first title this season, would the basketball-loving public ever embrace him as it does the Jordans, Magic Johnsons and Larry Birds?
In the NBA, no one is more respected than Bird, who excelled as a player, coach and roster-building boss (he’s the only person to win the league’s highest award in each field). When Larry Legend talks, the hoops world listens.
Earlier this season, Bird made an unflattering comparison between James and Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, essentially saying James is not as committed to winning as Bryant. Asked whom he would choose to build a team around, Bird said, “If you want to win and win and win, it’s Kobe.”
Bird’s quote was like a surf-and-turf dinner for James’s hungry critics. By implying James’s priorities were not in order, the revered elder statesman stuck it to James as he once punished Boston Celtics opponents.
James is winless in two appearances in the NBA Finals. Bryant has five championship rings. In the all-about-the-scoreboard world of pro sports, James has thus far come up short. His fourth-quarter vanishing act in the Heat’s Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks last season reinforced the perception, which isn’t entirely accurate, that James disappears in what Johnson calls “Winnin’ Time.”
Although James has shied away from taking the big shot in some games, he has scored timely points, too. In one of the all-time clutch postseason performances, James scored 29 of the final 30 points for the Cavaliers in their Game 5 victory over the Detroit Pistons during the 2007 Eastern Conference finals (the Cavaliers won the series in six games).
So it’s really not that James finishes games poorly, it’s just that James is so spectacularly gifted, he should be basketball’s best closer.
Call it the Jordan Factor.
It’s simply unacceptable, after Jordan, for the most talented player (Bird is among many NBA executives who acknowledge James is without peer in sheer ability) to lack a sports killer instinct. Jordan reveled in being the Man. He craved the spotlight. The greater the pressure, the more he shouted with his play, “Get out of the way!”
Instead of sticking it out and trying to win a title with the Cavaliers, James fled Cleveland to team with fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. It was a very un-Michael-like thing to do. Jordan wouldn’t have left a team, entering the prime of his career, because he believed he needed more help to win, NBA insiders say. He just would have shouldered more of the load.
Around the league, other players notice. They wonder what truly drives James. Kendrick Perkins, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s center, is one player who articulated the sentiment well.
During his Twitter beef with James in February (it started when James tweeted he admired Blake Griffin’s highlight-tape dunk on Perkins), Perkins offered this razor-sharp observation: “You don’t see Kobe [Bryant] tweeting. You don’t see Michael Jordan tweeting.
“At the end of the day, the guys who are playing for the right reasons, who are trying to win championships, are not worrying about” individual plays. “I just feel [James] is always looking for attention and he wants the world to like him.”
Just like a championship, adoration is something that has eluded the world’s best basketball player. And it’s beginning to seem appropriate to wonder: Will James end his career with either?
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.