LeBron James and the Platinum Standard of Forward Play
Hello, folks. Sorry we've had to step away for the fascinating 2011-12 NBA season due to some personal reasons. Jay Aych will be back with some FIBA coverage during this Olympic summer, and along with that, I am determined to finally change out the damn template before London.
Beyond that, I just wanted to offer a few words on the man who has probably been the central character in this blog since The Painted Area was launched in 2006, LeBron James. Prior to the season, I picked the Thunder over the Heat to win the championship, ultimately choosing OKC because I felt I simply couldn't trust LeBron, given that I thought his underachievement had cost his teams championships in both 2010 and 2011.
Now, more than any feelings of right or wrong, or love or hate, my main thought is that James is simply a richly, fully deserving champion after such an historically great playoff run, in which he averaged a 30-10-6 on 50% shooting, for a 30.3 PER.
In the closeout Game 5 on Thursday night, it was a warm cycle-of-basketball life moment for this old hoophead, as LeBron's commanding 26-11-13 (including assists on 8 threes) echoed one of the greatest individual performances I've ever seen, the signature game in Larry Bird's career, when he hung a 29-11-12 on the Houston Rockets to clinch the 1986 title in Game 6 of the Finals.
I've long thought it to be the platinum standard of forward play. Here's a 9-minute package of Bird highlights from that game in case you're interested:
I caught a Bird game from the 1984 Finals a few months ago and a little surprised to realize, 'Wow: *that's* how LeBron has to play.' It was striking to go back and see Bird move fluidly between perimeter and post within the offense, spending most of his time operating 17-feet-and-in, always with his superior vision and unselfishness proving the decisive factor that made him truly unstoppable in his prime.
That was the LeBron James I saw in the series once Miami got into its groove, making his catches around the elbow, moving down into the post against smaller players, then ultimately destroying the Thunder when the double teams came and James set up open shots all over the court. (And, oh yeah, James happened to be guarding all over the court.)
26 years later, another platinum standard in forward play, with June 21, 2012 feeling like a historical marker among basketball dates, every bit as much as June 8, 1986, or June 12, 1991, for that matter. And now, after Jordan won his of first of six titles at age 28, and Shaq won his first of four at 28, and Wilt won his first of two at 30, LeBron James has his first NBA championship at age 27, and now fully occupies the same rarefied air as Larry Bird, MVPs and champions both.
Remarkably, Game 5 was arguably not even one of James' best three games in the 2012 Playoffs. I'd take the back-to-the-wall road jobs in Game 4 at Indiana (40-18-9) and Game 6 at Boston (45-15-5 on 19-26 FG) ahead of Thursday night, and probably Game 5 vs. Indiana (30-10-8) as well.
Beyond hoping that we've seen only the beginning of a Heat-Thunder rivalry for the ages, my parting thought is one of amazement upon remembering anew that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are not maximum-salary guys in the league. Really, stop and think about that again: LeBron and D-Wade are not max-salary guys.
As we've mentioned in this space after previous championships, you'll usually find sacrifice somewhere around the title, whether it's guys like Manu Ginobili and Lamar Odom sacrificing minutes - possibly giving up the glory of All-Star berths with lesser numbers and ultimately less money.
In Miami, it starts at the top. No, you can't say that guys making $15-16M a year are "sacrificing", by any means. But the reality is that max-quality players in their 20s just don't take less than max money, it doesn't really happen, yet three guys have done it here. You might not like how they went about it, but it's undeniable that Miami's Big 3 placed winning ahead of money as their no. 1 priority. The Mike Miller contract it afforded them finally paid off, and even if that was only for one night, it was enough to earn the Miami Heat's Big 3 a deserved reward for their choice of priorities.
Congratulations to the 2011-12 NBA champion Miami Heat.