LeBron James hopped up and down on the sideline with a giant, child’s grin minutes before the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to secure the 2012 NBA championship. It appeared as if about three Shaq’s and a Rosie O’Donnell had been lifted off the 27-year-old’s shoulders; it’s no secret that LeBron’s been steadily losing his hair over the last few years, but in that instant he went from looking weathered, worn out and rapidly aging to looking like an exuberant 27 year old who enjoyed basketball again. A couple more years of losing and I was afraid Lebron might have started looking more and more like Greg Oden (who was actually born in 1932).
And when it was all over, after LeBron James finally got his ring, he echoed the sentiment shared by all of us who call ourselves King James fans, and for that matter, NBA fans: “It’s about damn time.” My hope, however naïve, is that the incredible playoff performance, a championship, and a well deserved finals MVP award will quiet the rabid, irrational Lebron haters at least a bit. Over the last few years the tiresome anti-Lebron chatter of the sports media, Lakers’ fans, and Skip ‘Water-Pistol Pete’ Bayless have made me question the sanity of a great number of people who claim to be basketball fans (although I wouldn’t expect much more than irrational arguments and one-sided whining from the majority of the Lakers’ “faithful”, in quotations for a reason).
Going into the finals, many people thought the Thunder had the better team as a whole, and going into the series they were favored as such. After a game one victory OKC was favored by more than 2 to 1 odds. Before game a good friend of mine (I’m looking at you Neal Patel) asserted that Kevin Durant was a better player than Lebron James. The outcome of the series speaks for itself, with Lebron winning in just five games, playing on what many considered an inferior team. But there are a million other things that also make Neal’s statement so outlandish.
Durant is a better shooter, and right now in his career, that’s about it. The only other category the two can be even be compared in is scoring. Lebron is a much better rebounder, a hundred times better passer (one of the best in the league), and an élite defender. Nobody else in the league can effectively guard EVERY SINGLE POSITION, point guard through center. During the finals it seemed as if nearly all of Miami’s offensive possessions ran through James (seriously, watching that series, you’d have to say AT LEAST 75% of the Heat’s offense relied on James to make something happen.) Not to mention the incredible pressure that’s on him to perform night in and night out: if there are 100 sets of eyes on Kevin Durant every game, there are about 500 thousand sets of eyes – all of which have some form of high-powered microscope – honed in on Lebron.
I understand why “The Decision” and some of the things that James said after last years finals debacle rubbed many people the wrong way. But honestly, as a fan-base we’re relatively quick to forgive athlete’s for things like animal cruelty, physical assault, alcohol and drug abuse, and even manslaughter. Hell, I’ll admit right now that I’m no exception: I like Michael Vick. Randy Moss and Pacman Jones are two of my favorite players, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Chris “Birdman” Anderson. That being said, I wouldn’t want any of those people to be role models for my children (which thankfully, as a 21 year old, I have none of). So why is James hated so vehemently?
Going to school in Santa Barbara, I have the unfortunate pleasure of coming into contact with a large number of Laker fans, nearly all of whom hate Lebron. It’s as if they fear that Kobe’s legacy is threatened by Lebron James’ greatness. Which it isn’t. I have no qualms expressing my respect for the passion Kobe Bryant brings every game, every season, and I am constantly in awe of what he continues to do on the court. But there’s a reason Jordan fans can point to statistics (I recommend checking this out) to demonstrate Jordan’s superiority over Kobe, while Kobe fans resort to subjective jabs at Lebron during any Black Mamba, King James debate: “Lebron chokes down the stretch” and “Lebron shies away from big games” are sometimes true statements, just like they are sometimes true statements about Kobe and probably every other athlete that is human. The thing about Lebron is that he’s the closest thing to non-human we have ever seen on the basketball court, so people expect him to be perfect.
After this year, Lebron James’ averages in 10 playoff elimination games are as follows:
31.44 ppg on 46.35% shooting, 10.22 rpg and 6.62 apg with a record of 4 wins and 6 losses.
Meanwhile, here are Kobe Bryant’s averages in 19 playoff elimination games:
21.47 ppg on 41.42% shooting, 5.79 rpg and3.47 apg with a record of 9 wins and 10 losses.
Those numbers are slightly better (23 ppg on 41.7%, 6.29 rebounds, and 3.76 assists) if you leave out Kobe’s first two seasons, which is fair because he received less playing time in those two elimination games.
We all know Lebron came up short in last year’s finals, but I would hope even the most ardent Kobe lover might have a hard time making the “big game choker” argument when looking at those numbers, especially in light of how they compare to Kobe’s. Of course it’s inevitable that the James haters will continue to hate. They’ll come back with the argument that “Kobe has four more rings” (I’m very interested to see how many James ends up with) and say things like “Lebron still doesn’t have the ‘clutch gene” (would you please just shut up Skip Bayless.) All I have to say is if this year was any indication, Lebron James has finally found out what he needs to do to win, and from the look of that grin on the sideline he enjoys it quite a bit. Let’s revisit all the stats in seven to ten years, and then we’ll see how all the criticism lines up with the numbers. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who will look back and feel foolish.
Eli Pearlman is a writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at EPearlman@TheSportsBlitz.com