Bron Bron's Burden

LeBron James doesn't have to be the best. He has to be perfect.
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Another week, another pair of cryptic, if not particularly interesting, LeBron James wrecks. Against the Warriors on Tuesday, a disembodied LeBron did nothing to prevent Golden State from stealing away with the overtime win. All it would have taken was a few made free throws. Wednesday, it was Chris Paul and the Clippers. In the fourth quarter, James at least tried, dancing past defenders and getting to the rim. Maybe the presence of his cutthroat lil’ buddy CP3 spurred him on. But the ball left LeBron’s hands wan and flat, as if it had lost all will to roll into the basket and live. Again with the overtime, the missed free throws, and coughed-up loss.

As James put his finishing touches on another disastrous performance, I took to Twitter—where good people meet to rationally debate and summarize important topics of the day—with a simple question: if LeBron James isn't the best player in the NBA, who is? Any query or assertion with "best" in it means very little, since it can almost always be replaced with more precise language. In LeBron's case, though, this kind of bland, overarching distinction is apt. It may tell us that LeBron’s gifts are quite often meaningless. Or it points to exactly what it is we expect of LeBron James: complete and total perfection, a standard no other athlete is held to.

Other superstars are more specialized—that is, defined in terms of what they do well on the basketball court. Dwight Howard envelops the interior, Chris Paul reconstitutes a possession's logic off the slightest bum cue. LeBron is a completist, a 30-7-7 superman who can feasibly do work at every position on the floor. I'm not here to defend LeBron's shortcomings, or suggest he has none. James lacks intangibles; his ego remains unsteady and awkward; his jumper ain't pretty; his late-game disappearances are either bad luck or a sign of deeper unrest. The fact remains, though, that LeBron James isn’t judged according to any particular function of set of responsibilities. A good game for LeBron is one where he takes over so thoroughly and so completely that basketball seems too small for him.  

Typically, we accept that even the most accomplished athletes can only do so much. It's called position, mortality, or just plain common sense; Michael Jordan, great as he was, couldn't do everything. James exists in another, far harsher, sphere of meaning. His point of comparison isn't his peers, past or present; this isn’t Kobe Bryant having to wait ten years to get out of Jordan’s shadow and earn recognition as his own man. LeBron James has a different kind of problem: he is always competing against himself, or what we know he can do. There's an imperative there for LeBron James for rule the sport. Acquire the bomb and you best come correct, as they say.

LeBron James disappears and wilts under pressure, but is very rarely seen as having been defeated. If James were simply being himself, much of his game would be a no-brainer. That's why LeBron provokes such broad, and nasty, emotions, longing and desperation cloaked in hate. James isn't the guy who comes up short. He's the guy who has no right to come up short and does anyway.

Against the Clippers, his hopeless moves to the basket bore some resemblance to this game-winner against the Wizards in the 2006 playoffs. Eric Freeman pointed to that bucket as a turning point, the moment when everyone realized that, in theory, there were no limits to what LeBron James could do on a basketball court. Games are closed out with jumpers, not by exploding past three defenders in traffic for an uncontested lay-in. While he showed up in the league fully-formed and better than advertised, it took a few seasons for us to truly realize what we were watching. At his best, LeBron causes one to reconsider the structure of the sport. Maybe it's too easy. Maybe they should raise the hoop. It's maddening that James can't live up to his calling, but also a little comforting. We hate him for what he can do; we also hate him for not doing it.

With the Cavaliers, LeBron never had enough of a team. The premise of “The Decision” was that James had to extricate himself from an imperfect set of conditions that had held him back. For James to come into his own and become that prophetic figure so many in the sport took him to be (Cleveland saw him as prophetic for totally different reasons), he needed an adequate supporting cast. Instead, he chose the Heat, betraying his own myth by going from a lousy situation to an overly cushy one. Yet Miami has always been a team cast in LeBron’s image. They won’t chase down and batter history until they go 82-0 (or 66-0); they may not even have the league’s top record in any given season. Winning one ring won’t be enough—nor would two, three, or four.

At its most staid, this system is a form of harm reduction, the Heat trying to keep from beating themselves. Cole and Chalmers are useful in part because their motion and penetration clears out more room. Most teams want role players taking open shots; the Heat need them to get out of the damn way. When this year’s Heat is truly rolling, though, they threaten, like LeBron himself, to overcome basketball. The estimable Tom Ziller currently has every member of the Big Three listed as MVP candidates. There is simply no way to defense against a team that roars down the floor, looking for the dunk or quick score, and then uses James, Wade, and Bosh interchangeably, and simultaneously, as both hubs and principal threats. Instead of confusing themselves, they confuse opponents used to identifying hierarchy, match-ups, and repetition. At their best, none of these things apply to the Heat. Basketball doesn’t really apply.

This isn’t a revolution per se. It’s not exposing or exploiting a weakness in convention, as Mike D’Antoni’s Suns once did. This asymmetric approach can bring about collapse or decay; it’s why the Suns’ most lasting contributions to the game have been other teams’ reactions to their run. Asymmetry is, of course, both ideally suited to and a natural outgrowth of teams with a certain lack to them. That’s how guerrilla teams, like those Suns or the 2007 Warriors, succeed. The Heat don’t use their weaknesses to their advantages; they use excess as a means of short-circuiting the game itself. For all of us watching, their meltdowns both a relief and strangely unsettling. When we lash out, it’s because we don’t know if we want James and the Heat to crash and burn or run through the sport without incident.


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Comments

I was going to write the same article about LeBron. Instead of appreciating one of the most impressive NBA players ever in his prime (he's 27, usually the best year for a player) fans are tearing him down at every opportunity. He's also not as bad as people say in the clutch, and in fact by most measures he's very good.

Even Jordan had his problems. His personal life is a mess, the Bobcats are terrible, and it took him a few years, a great coach, and a better set of teammates to win a title. He also retired to play baseball. Baseball! Imagine LeBron doing that, even after a title; he'd be crucified.

He literally has to be perfect on the court so people don't complain about him, and I want him to win a title and destroy the other team in the series so people can shut up about it.

This is brilliant, and I have only one quibble: "principle".

That Wilt comment is gonna take me a month to assimilate. Not sure why Shoals identifies as a "Wilt apologist"--b/c I'm not sure what about Wilt needs any apology whatsoever, but the comment is deep regardless.

BUT WHAT IF I MEANT "PRINCIPLE"????

Just kidding. I always get that wrong. Thanks, it's been corrected.

the involution of Shoals has begun, i.e. he has either lost his mind, run out of things to say about LeBron, or both (most likely option 2)

Involution?

In stitches over your brief, half sentence summary of twitter.

I feel like if this article was written in 1962 and LeBron James' name was replaced with Wilt Chamberlain's, it would be equally appropriate.

As you know, I'm a major Wilt apologist, and they face a lot of same kind of criticism. But Wilt was a dominant center. LeBron is something far more advanced.

LeBron is a magician who happens to have the ability to perform the greatest magic trick the world has ever seen.

only he can't always execute the trick with perfection. This leaves the all of us wondering if he's really a master of his own abilities and can conjure up the otherworldly performances when he pleases or is his magic a fluke.

I wish it were the case that LeBron was sparking a conversation about two things: (1) the absurdity of the expectation that professional athletes perform at their maximum ability in every situation in which the outcome of a game depends significantly on their performance and (2) the problems of memory and perception.

With regard to the first, no one does equally good work at all moments at their job, and no one in any field always does their best work when it matters the most. The expectation that athletes will do their jobs differently than the rest of humanity is absurd on its face yet so tightly woven into the fabric of the mythology of sport that it likely can't be removed. It should nevertheless be acknowledged in these discussions.

Second, if one were to review the stats and video of every pro athlete perceived as clutch, one would find that every single one of them failed in crunch time. A lot. But for reasons that have nothing to do with fact, the story line about their clutchness persists. People believe the stories they want to believe, and in this case, people want to believe that LeBron isn't clutch. Which just brings us back to the point of Shoals's post.

I think it would be absurd to expect athletes to perform at their maximum ability at all times, but Professional Athletes possibly should be. My reasoning is that Pros are like astronauts - they have been trained and culled and trained and culled for years. From being the best on their high school teams (1 of 100s of 1000s) to being the best on their college teams (1 of 1000s, and yes I know Lebron didn't go to college) to being 1 of 100s at the professional level. Sports, unlike our quotidian 40hr/week jobs, are a true(r) meritocracy, where performance is everything, perhaps the only thing. Work ethic is lauded and things like "basketball IQ" are certainly thrown around to fill in the editorial dry spots, but it is how they perform when the clock is running, the cameras are on, and everyone is watching is exactly the point. There is far less room for subjective judging in sports because the end-results are binary. And although it is a collective, collaborative journey to get there, we can objectively expect more from certain Pros.

I suppose the corollary I could endorse with a slight alteration of your point is that we should only expect Pro Athletes to perform the same way any other extremely specific, hyper-specialized worker performs. I.e. nuclear physicist, oncologist, astronaut, structural engineer, 5-star chef, etc.

I like the chef analogy. If you go to a pizza place in Des Moines you expect to eat pizza. It will be round, covered with sauce, cheese and whatever else you specified. If Daniel Boulud opens a pizza place in SoHo, and it is given three stars by the NYTimes, you will go there expecting a transformative dining experience. You will go there expecting something more than pizza. You will sit down eagerly anticipating the Lebron James of pizza experiences. (Meaning the pizza will be great, but the dessert will let you down. Badum-bum.)

I agree that it is reasonable to expect consistent excellence from pro athletes. But this only gives Bron more leeway in my eyes, and other players who fail to meet our heroic expectations, in the clutch or elsewhere. Yes, he has been picked for stardom and guided there since a young age, but so have many players he faces. It's not like he's playing against D-League competition. As LeBron would surely have an easier time taking a potential game-winner over a five footer, so would Daniel Boulud have an easier time giving the average American diner (if that exists) a transformative experience. Luol Deng would make things harder for Bron, as would a food critic for Boulud. But still, Bron has been playing against the best at his age level for so long, so...

Do we deserve Lebron James?

I didn't realize it until you posted this comment, but I ask myself that a lot.

The LBJ theme of 10/11 seemed to be narrative, and the convolution of expected story arcs. Our savior turned ├╝ber-wicked but then stepped back at the climactic battle, forcing Dirk to become some the one-legged hero we never thought we needed (and probably didn't.)

Can we guess that 11/12's LBJ theme will be the failure of statistical summaries? 30-7-7 as a measure of perfection is interesting as it fails to account for ugly shooting and lack of enthusiasm in the paint, despite being a gorgeous numerical trio. (note to self: develop "attitude metric.") I don't really know. Like LeBron, I lack confidence at the close. I'll just set this down and walk away.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting the best player in the league to take over and close out games. His failure to do that has nothing to do with expecting "perfection"

As for your description of Miami, it seems like there is a way to defense against them: play zone or wait for LeBron to wilt under pressure

One of the reasons I like this essay so much is because we both like theory a lot and theory is still the only way to talk about Bron. He's trapped there. Like those explosions of brute force are the only times he both transcends his myth and is, somehow, human after all. Because even that 2006 game winner shoulda been an and-1, and his reaction isn't celebratory but bratty, throwing up his hands for a call but also resigned to the fact that he mighta just saved the day. I cannot think of another player in another sport who confounds as much as thrills. (Except for Kobe Bean, maybe.)