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.