The Miami Heat are the 2012 NBA champions, which means that LeBron James is finally an NBA champion himself. He and his team endured a two-year roller coaster ride, which began with bumpiness, went through great turbulence with the loss to Dallas in last year’s Finals, and came within one more loss to Boston a few weeks ago of perhaps having the core thrown out. In the end, however, he and his team came through, with both toughened by the hard ride. LeBron and the Heat have achieved vindication with their championship, and King James’ coronation as the best player in the league bar none is now official.
This raises the question: what are we to make of all this? What are we to make of the evolution of LeBron James?
My answer: this is how it had to be. It’s an overused cliche to say that everything happens for a reason, but in this case, everything had to happen the way it did for LeBron to grow into the leader of a championship team. Everything that happened in the past two years served to forge LeBron into the player and champion that he now is, starting with the very beginning of this two-year journey:
1.) He had to leave Cleveland in order to reach full bloom. If LeBron had re-signed with Cleveland two summers ago, then how hard would Cavs management, the coaching staff, and the fan base have pushed LeBron to improve his game? LeBron was a gigantic money maker for the team, and the Cavs had, by Dan Gilbert’s own admission, coddled him throughout his stay there. They would have likely been too happy about him staying to risk pissing him off. In all likelihood, the coddling would have continued and the demands for improvement would have been soft-pedaled.
In an environment like that, it is a certainty that LeBron’s game would not have advanced as much as it could have in Miami. In order to get more out of himself, he needed to ditch the cocoon of Cleveland for an environment where more would be expected out of him, where there would be no coddling, where team management was led by someone who had the guts and gravitas to lay down the law on LeBron if necessary. All of that added up to Miami.
2.) He needed to go to Miami, and to lose the 2011 Finals with Miami, to understand that he wasn’t good enough and needed to get better. Of course, Miami also offered the advantage of being able to pair up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, star power which no other 2010 suitor could match. But this blessing became a curse last June when the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the Finals, because it meant that LeBron had nowhere to hide and no one else off of whom to deflect blame. Wade had a great 2011 Finals until he got hurt in Game 5, and Bosh played well in that series too. The supporting cast, while flawed, was not the reason the Heat fell short.
When LeBron signed with Miami in 2010, the message that he seemed to convey to many people was “I’m good enough, and now the team around me is too.” The 2011 Finals shattered the first part of that notion. LeBron’s poor play in last year’s Finals was the biggest reason why the Heat lost, and as he admitted after this year’s title-clinching Game 5, it made him realize that he needed to get better, both in s and in his mind.
3.) He needed to go through everything (“The Decision” and the resulting backlash, the 2011 Finals loss and the resulting backlash, and the adversity faced in the 2012 playoffs) to learn, to develop mental toughness, and to understand that his proper role on the Heat is to lead. I consider “The Decision” to have been an egregious and unnecessary mistake, notwithstanding the fundraising that it yielded for the Boys and Girls Clubs. But in a way, LeBron needed that too. If what LeBron has said about his state of mind during the 2010-11 season is to be believed, then the backlash to “The Decision” put him in a revenge-focused mood which threw him out of whack and may have worn him out; many observers noted after the 2011 Finals that LeBron simply looked fried in the last few games, and I have to believe that part of this was as a result of his self-described “something to prove” mentality. He needed to learn that the mental approach he took post-“Decision” was the wrong approach to take and deprived him of mental strength at the worst possible time. In that sense, he needed to learn the hard way what not to do so that he could figure out what to do.
The 2011 Finals loss humbled LeBron by showing him the need to improve his game, and it hardened his resolve to get better and to get over the hump. But for much of this season, he and the Heat struggled with the familiar dilemma of who should be the real leader of the team. Then two moments of true peril presented themselves in this year’s playoffs. The first came in the East semifinals, when the Heat were decked by 19 in Game 3 at Indiana, fell behind 2-1, and seemed on the verge of implosion amid the sideline tiff between Wade and Spoelstra. LeBron responded by putting together an utterly ridiculous 40-18-9 showing in Game 4, helping the Heat turn that game and series around. The second came in the Eastern Conference Finals, when the Heat lost Game 5 at home to fall behind the Celtics 3-2, and faced elimination in Boston, which in turn raised the prospect of a break-up of the Big Three. Going on the road against a team that had ended his season twice in the previous four seasons, LeBron responded with an already-legendary 45-15-5 in Game 6 (that particular combination had last been achieved in the playoffs in 1964) to save the Heat’s season, then came through with 11 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 as the Heat pulled away late to get back to the Finals.
These were situations in which the LeBron on display in 2010 vs. Boston, and 2011 vs. Dallas, would have crumbled. The 2012 LeBron produced not only perhaps the two best playoff games of his career, but given the circumstances, arguably the two best playoff games by anyone in recent years.
What was different this time? Part of it was mental toughness which LeBron had gained from his previous failings, and part of it was his improved skills (making his low-post game a focus, more consistently attacking the paint, improving his midrange game and expanding his range and repertoire on defense) and decision-making. But in my opinion, the biggest difference was that this time LeBron took control of these situations by taking control of his team. I have to imagine that his mindset was something to the effect of “No matter what, I’ll get the blame if we lose, so I might as well do everything I can to avoid losing. I can’t just be a part of the team or along for the ride, I have to be the biggest part and the biggest of the Big 3 for us to succeed.”
This mentality carried over into the Finals. One thing to understand about LeBron is that for him, leadership does not equate to scoring a ton of points, although he can do that too. It means doing a bit of everything, from attacking the paint to crashing the boards and guarding every position if necessary. Most of all, it means getting his teammates involved. I have to think that Game 5 of the Finals, with so many of his 13 assists resulting in open 3s, represented basketball nirvana for him. He had to have been thrilled to death not just with the title, but the particular way in which it was clinched.
All of this raises another question: where do LeBron and the Heat go from here? My answer: there will be more evolution to LeBron’s game, and more title contention for his team. As Wade declines (a process which may already be underway), LeBron will assume a more pronounced and overt leadership role on the Heat, which will eventually include LeBron becoming the go-to option in crunch-time and last-shot situations. Looking further ahead, LeBron’s low-post game will gradually become the dominant part of his arsenal and he will eventually become a full-time power forward. In five or six years, as his speed and agility decline with advancing age, he will not be able to operate on the perimeter as effectively as now, but he’ll still be able to score, rebound, pass and defend effectively in the blocks-even better.
As for the Heat, they now find themselves in a place where the tumult and scrutiny of the past two seasons may actually help them. They won’t be fazed by wearing the bulls-eye of defending champs because they’ve been wearing a bulls-eye for the past two years. Internally, the Heat can play free and confident because they now know how to win, which will be an immense aid in trying to do it again. One has to like their chances to at least get to the 2013 Finals, with Derrick Rose expected to miss at least the first two months of next season, the Celtics staring at a roster shake-up, and the Pacers still short on star power. Longer term, the Big 3 are signed for two more seasons, and if they win another title before then (and quite possibly even if they don’t), it is certain that they will re-up in tandem. The Heat won’t win 8 titles, and Kevin Durant and the Thunder remain a long-term threat, but the Heat’s window of contention figures to remain open for quite some time.