Look, I was just happy once the 2012 NBA Finals finally started. It was one thing for every national sportswriter, blogger, Governor, and late-night TV host to offer their fly-on-the-wall predictions. And it was entirely another for every Hollywood Celebrity, family member, and professional colleague to throw down their own gauntlet. But once my 85 year old neighbor decided to throw her hat in the ring with an “OKC in 7” prognostication, I had officially hit my limit. It was time to start already.
And start it did. Once the dust cleared, the Miami Heat had defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games, thereby establishing a new NBA hierarchy, and validating what many of us have known since 2009 – that Lebron James is officially the undisputed “Best player in the NBA”.
I needed a few days to gather my thoughts and put the LeBron James phenomenon in proper context. For the record, I am not a Lebron James fan, although I am a fan of basketball excellence. During the 2012 NBA Playoffs/Finals, I did not root for LeBron or the Miami Heat, but instead rooted against them at every opportunity. Perhaps I am still turned off by “The Decision”, and subsequent Hip-Hop concert that ensued less than 24 hours thereafter. Perhaps, I continue to remain riveted at just how much longer a basketball nation can continue to grow their dog pile on a player who goes year upon year without a ring. Perhaps a part of my heart still goes out to Cleveland, a city that absolutely and unequivocally revered Lebron James, not just as an athlete, but as a hometown hero and a savior, whose economic and social impact on his community during a recession extended far beyond that of a mere basketball player. Perhaps, as a Bulls fan, I am still bitter that Lebron spurned Chicago during his 2010 Free Agency, and now our current superstar, Derrick Rose, may never again be 100%. Or perhaps there will always be a small part of me that will look to defend the legacy of my childhood hero, Michael Jordan, against any potential on-comers, even though in the eyes of most, his legacy remains beyond reproach.
No, I am not a Lebron James fan, but over the years, my objectivity has compelled me to become a Lebron James apologist. Why? Because it is simply unfair to hold one player to a completely different set of unreasonable and hypocritical standards versus the others.
Now that Lebron James has won his first ring, some of the pundits that have historically levied their criticisms against him will begin applying some of their same false logic to the next “ringless” superstar. Will their target be Carmelo Anthony? Dwight Howard? Chris Paul? The intensity will never be the same as it was for Lebron because of a multitude of reasons (some of which were generated by Lebron himself), but a portion of their collective energies will nonetheless now be redirected.
The majority of pundits however, will remain steadfast in their position in continuing to criticize Lebron – a person who is deserving of some of that criticism, but certainly not all of it.
Those critics will still point to Lebron’s failures as an Alpha Dog in 2009, 2010 and 2011 – permanent black stains on his resume, that somewhat negate his recent accomplishment. Of course, what they will fail to mention is that Magic Johnson also failed as an Alpha Dog 3 times (1986, 1990, and 1984), Kobe Bryant 4 times (2003, 2004, 2011, and arguably 2008), Wilt Chamberlain twice (1961, 1968), Jerry West 4 times (1964, 1969, 1970, 1973), Shaquille O’Neal twice (1994, 1995), Moses Malone twice (1979, 1984), Larry Bird 5 times (1980, 1982, 1983, 1988, 1990), Oscar Robertson twice (1962, 1965), Hakeem Olajuwon once (1987), and Kareem Abdul Jabbar a whopping 6 times (1972, 1973, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981). Yep, every one of these legends were the Alpha Dogs of teams that lost in the playoffs to inferior opponents, and by the same standards, “failed” just as Lebron did. Moreover, in most instances, each of these legends played terrible in a losing effort. Yet, they arguably remain 11 of the 14 greatest players to ever play the game, with failures that are either never mentioned, or merely forgotten.
Can you say “double standard”?
These same critics will point to the fact that Lebron’s championship is tainted because he teamed up with another future Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade, in order to finally win his first ring. Of course, what they will forget to mention is that Wilt Chamberlain teamed up with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in order to win a championship in 1972, Oscar Robertson teamed up with Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1971 in order to win his first ring, and Moses Malone teamed up with Julius Erving in 1983 in order to win his first championship. You see, not every great legend is gift-wrapped a championship caliber supporting cast the way that Magic, Bird, Kobe, and Russell were. Others had wait to for their fortune. And while it is true that Wilt, Oscar, and Moses were traded, and did not willingly choose to team with one another, it is important to remember that NBA Free agency only began in 1976, years after Oscar and Wilt had retired, and years before the concept of using Free Agency as leverage even existed. It was a different time, and a different culture, but do you really think that Oscar, Wilt, and Moses would have remained silent had they played in today’s era? Do you really think that they would have refrained from forcing management’s hand, or using free agency to test the waters? Do you really think that they would have won a championship had they not teamed up with another superstar? And by the way, Wilt, Oscar, and Moses are 3 of the 14 greatest players of all time.
The critics will continue to declare that Lebron James is unclutch, that he disappears during big games, and cannot be relied upon for big shots. However, they will conveniently gloss over the fact that throughout his career, Lebron has repeatedly hit big shots throughout the playoffs, has a respectable 45% FG in playoff crunchtime, has a better career playoff GW shot percentage than the current “clutch” standard, Kobe Bryant, and has already amassed 3 of the most legendary
“Big games” in NBA History – two of which are runaway choices for Top 10 of all time:
- 2007, Gm 5 vs. Pistons, – 48 points, 9 reb, 7 assists, 18-33 FG, and scored the 29 of his team’s final 30 points
- 2008 gm 7 vs.Boston– 45 points, 5 reb, 6 assists, 14-29 FG, including 10 points in the fourth quarter.
- 2012, gm 6 vs. Boston – 45 points, 15 reb, 5 assists, 19-26 FG in which a stoned/highly medicated Lebron had perhaps the greatest single game playoff performance in NBA History.
No, the critics will conveniently leave this out, forcing emotional arbitrage on folks such as myself, who simultaneously root against Lebron James with the right side, while defending him with the left.
But regardless of whether I want to appeal to my logic or emotions, 3 things became clear to me once the NBA Finals ended. It became clear to me that in 2012, Lebron James peaked on both sides of the ball like only 4 others ever have: 1991 Michael Jordan, 1962 Wilt Chamberlain, 1971 Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and 1995 Hakeem Olajuwon. It became clear to me that Lebron James was a player that had endured more scrutiny and hypocrisy than any other in the history of sports. And it became clear to me that Lebron James had become a person who managed to turn the other cheek, rise through rubble of the one of the most embarrassing performances in NBA Finals history, and begin a transformation from villain to victim similar to only Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, a bi-polar girl named Janet that I dated back in 2002, and the overpriced plumber that miraculously unclogged my toilet 3 weeks ago.
The critics will continue, the inaccurate perceptions will continue, and the false narratives will continue. But for those who care, for those who share a passion for the history of the game, for those who seek truth, for those who value basketball excellence, and for those who believe that every player should be held to the same set of standards, the reality will in fact remain far different.
It’s interesting, because one of the readers on Chasing 23, Paulie Walnuts, has always maintained in our Comments board that a player with the talent of Lebron James would eventually win a championship for the simple reason that a player of Lebron’s caliber has never not won a NBA championship. Lebron got his first, and the scary thing is that he still has yet to reach his ceiling. There is no doubt in my mind that he is already a Top 10 Player of all time, and his evolution is nowhere near complete.
To all of the critics, you now have 2 choices: You can continue to root against Lebron, much like myself, but measure him against the same standards as those who came before him. Or you can continue to ride your high horse, root against him in ignorance, and apply 2 different sets of rules, with a moving goal post, and false logic. Feel free to like him or hate him as a person, but his talent and accomplishments as a basketball player remain unquestionable.
The choice is yours.
It’s tough not to love everything that this team is about; not just the players, but also their management and fans. Throughout the playoffs, we repeatedly heard about the unique bond that existed between the city and the team, and that was never more evident than upon the team’s return from Miami after being defeated in the NBA Finals.
Going forward however, the Thunder need to ensure that they avoid becoming the 1995 Orlando Magic: a young team with an extremely talented core that peaked when losing in the NBA Finals, and ultimately got torn apart by injuries and free agency.
The Thunder have the unenviable task of trying to sign both James Harden and Serge Ibaka within a salary cap system that will become especially punitive in the near future. Both Harden and Ibaka are eligible for extensions this summer, but become unrestricted free agents at the end of 2013. Given the new CBA and subsequent luxury tax penalties, OKC’s ability to re-sign both players will be near impossible unless they either trade or amnesty Kendrick Perkins, but even then, will still remain a challenge.
Ironic that the same set of rules that were put in place to protect small market teams such as OKC will simultaneously prevent them from retaining their talent core in the future, huh?
The Thunder will also need to understand that their loss to the Heat is merely history repeating itself. Outside of the 1970 New York Knicks, and 1991 Chicago Bulls, no other first-time NBA Finals team had ever been victorious when pitted against an opponent with NBA Finals experience. For the Thunder, this is par for the course, part of the painful growth process that the majority of budding dynasties inevitably endure. The 1970 Knicks and 1991 Bulls were the exception, not the rule, although it can be argued that they too still had their series of Conference Finals heartbreaks.
The good news going forward though, is that the Thunder will now have the requisite NBA Finals experience, championship talent, character players, shrewd management, and home crowd that is second to none, as they enter the 2012-2013 season. Next year, there is no reason to believe that they will not make the NBA Finals next year, and perhaps even win.
And lastly, my personal 2012 NBA season farewell to the following:
Dwyane Wade: Back in 2011, I wrote that the only way for the Miami Heat to succeed would be for you to become the Alpha Dog, and for Lebron to become the #2. Not because you were the better or more talented player, but because it would be easier for Lebron James to unselfishly adapt to the #2 role, than it would be for yourself.
I was wrong.
Not only did you transform before our very eyes, you definitively settled into the #2 role by deferring to your more talented teammate, provided your team with a second scoring option, and continued to play ferocious defense despite being limited to one leg. The only question that now remains is at 31 next season, how many more years do you have left, and how long can you keep the ride going?
Unlike other players, you have continually relied on unparalleled athleticism to define your game. Will you be able to adapt once that athleticism leaves you? Will you develop an even more deadly outside shot? Will you enhance your post game? Will your game continue to compliment Lebron’s?
Regardless of what happens, just know that no one will be able to take from you 3 things:
1.) Your 2 championship rings
2.) Your 2006 NBA Finals MVP
3.) Your unofficial 2011 NBA Executive of the Year Award.
Kevin Durant: You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Not only was your 2012 playoffs (29 pts, 7 reb, and 4 assists on 52% FG and 63% TS) lights out, but your 54% FG shooting in playoff fourth quarters, and 14/28 (50%) shooting in crunchtime, were amongst the best in playoff history. You are not only the best scorer in the NBA given your seamless ability to generate shots from multiple spots on the floor, but you are also the best scorer that the NBA has seen since Michael Jordan.
You are humble, likable, and a person that the NBA feels safe in entrusting with their future. Unfortunately, you simply ran up against a rival that was more experienced, more mature, and more battle-tested than yourself.
However, the good news is that you are only 23, have yet to peak, and will only get better over the next few years. Get into the gym this offseason, work on your post game, work on your elbow game, work on your defense, and build 15-20 more pounds of muscle. Then, we will all have the privilege of watching you quickly progress into one of the greatest players of all time.
Lastly, thanks again for crying on your mom’s shoulder after Game 5. That not only appealed to the casual fan, but also won over the emotions of every female around the world, enabling basketball degenerates such as myself to steal a few more games next season that we would have otherwise lost:
“Hey honey, you remember Kevin Durant don’t you? That was the guy who was so sweet and sensitive and started crying in his mother’s arms. That guy you really liked? Do you remember?Do you remember how you said “Sure, I’ll watch him play next season. I’ll support him. He seems so nice”. Well, guess what, he’s playing right now, and again 3 more times this week! So you get the Chips and Salsa, and I’ll get the Wild Turkey!”
Russell Westbrook: Yes, we all know that you can score. We all know that you are arguably the most athletic point guard in the league. But your shot selection is absolutely maddening.
Look, if you really want to win, your primary focus should be to get the Durantula the ball at the Elbow next year. If you have any questions, feel free watch tapes of Dwyane Wade during the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Trust me, if he did it, you can too.
Oh yeah, on a side note, there is one other thing that I wanted to say: Thank you! For the past 6 years, I, like most men, have struggled to figure out what ridiculous costume I am going to sport on Halloween. After 9 consecutive years, I had painfully exhausted Run D-M-C, Luke Skywalker, or ‘Guy with a bunch of paint on his face to try and look scary’ in an effort to appease the masses. But now, between your Sesame Street pajama shirts, Dwyane Wade’s inoperative accessories, and Amare Stoudamire’s Crocodile Dundee getup, I have enough to last me until 2028, and perhaps beyond.
James Harden: Congrats on earning the 2012 NBA Finals LVP. In truth, there wasn’t even a close second. With an anemic 12.4 ppg on 37.5% shooting, the only person who should be more embarrassed than you, is me – for jumping on the Bruce Blitz podcast and actually declaring that you were better than Russell Westbrook.
Shame on you, but even worse, shame on me.
Kobe Nation: The bad news for Kobe Bryant fans is that you can no longer use the “Lebron can’t win” or “Lebron has never won a ring” argument. Lebron has not only won a ring now, but has earned more MVPs, peaked at a higher level, is statistically more clutch in GW shots and Crunchtime, and has performed better in Big games (Elimination Games, Do-or-die Game 5s/7s, etc..).
The good news though is that you have one last card remaining in your arsenal: Kobe still has 4 more rings than Lebron James, which places Kobe only one ring short of the immortal Jim Loscutoff and 2 rings short of Robert Horry. Good luck in your pursuit!
In the interim, the rest of us will watch in anticipation to see whether Lebron James can win his second ring and match the legacy of the immortal Dickey Simpkins, or perhaps if lucky, a 3rd ring to match resumes with the legendary Luc Longley.
I know that I am picking on you, but at what point do we finally acknowledge the fallacy of ring counting, and at what point do we finally acknowledge the ongoing double-standard that has existed for the past 4 years between Kobe and Lebron? I’m excited to see how much longer you can keep this up.
Chris Bosh: Now that you’ve won a championship, how much longer are you going to be content watching your career waste away as a 3rd Fiddle? Just curious.
Erick Spoelstra: Congratulations on officially becoming a member of the Barry Switzer club. Fair or unfair, the jury will continue to remain out until you coach a team that does NOT have Lebron James on it. Until then, you remain a question mark.
Scott Brooks: A very distant #2 in this year’s LVP voting, but nonetheless a viable candidate. Your failure to switch Thabo Sefolosha on Lebron James came way too late, and your failure to establish solid defensive rotations and mix up your schemes (I dunno, perhaps a zone or two might have been nice) was absolutely baffling. The good news is that you’ll have next year to grow and become better. In the interim, we will all continue to wonder: are you a championship caliber coach? Or merely a stepping stone coach? Only time will tell.
David Stern: “BRI”, “Union” , “Owners”, “Players”, “Commissioner”, “Board of Governors”, “Player’s Union”, “Luxury Tax”, “Salary Cap”, “Flex Cap”, “System”, “57/43”, “53/47”, “52.5/47.5”, “51/49”, “50/50”, “Revenue Sharing”, “Revenue Split”, “Big Market”, “Small Market”, “Competitive Landscape”, “Sources”, “Decertification”, “Disclaimer” “Amnesty”, “Labor Relations Board”, “Hawks, “Doves”, “side deals”, “escrow”, “concessions”, “49-51 band”, “litigation”, “settlement”, “George Cohen”, “rookie scale”, “sign-and-trade”, “extend-and-trade”, “escrow system”, “B-list issues”, “nuclear winter” and of course, last but not least, my favorite, “Trust Me”.
In the words of the immortal George Carlin, just 27 additional ways of saying the word, “BULLSHIT”. However, in the end, you delivered a profitable business model to your owners, relinquished yourself of a major liability in the New Orleans Hornets, landed a marquee LeBron vs. Durant matchup that should sustain the NBA for the next 5 years, and garnered record Finals’ ratings. You really are the Cat that ate the Canary. Congrats! I look forward to 2012-2013.