The LeBron James Conundrum: A Legacy In Question

May 24, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) holds up a number one as the game starts against the Indiana Pacers during the first half in game six of the Eastern Conefernce semifinals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

LeBron James is the most talented player in the NBA; a 27 year-old superstar entering the prime of his career, yet his singular ability is overshadowed by widespread criticism and open rooting against him. It's a curious phenomenon -- one worth examining.

Chances are, you've already made up your mind about him. The best basketballer on the planet, LeBron James is either the most dynamic, athletic, powerful player in the league or a self-aggrandizing douche who quit on his city and folds when the pressure is on, depending on your opinion of him.

On one hand it's silly; James is a 6'8", 260 lb physical marvel that scores like Kevin Durant, passes like Magic Johnson, out-rebounds every other small forward in the league, and can D up anyone on the court from point to post. LeBron James is NBA Jam with a Game Genie, the rare player that stretches our understanding of what's possible on the hardwood. How can we not universally appreciate someone with such a singular skill set?

This is how:

In what remains as the biggest flip in sports PR since OJ Simpson, James went from the most popular player in the NBA to the most hated by leaving the team who drafted him to join existing stars in a higher-profile city, and by doing it in a startlingly self-indulgent manner.

Since then, LeBron James the person -- a gregarious, smiling, charismatic personality by nature -- has become a vilified shadow of his former self, giddy post-game interviews replaced by bland, cliched answers; a once carefree spirit subbed out for a less-ingenuous avatar. He looks the same and moves the same, but the words are calculated, robotic, forced.

It would be easy for someone whose transcendent abilities and winning smile made him a global star to see his production collapse when the public perception of him takes a major hit (see: Woods, Tiger), but James has done the opposite. The temptation is to call him soft because the way he left Cleveland makes us want to call him a coward, but instead of wilting under the vitriolic sun of a scorned fan base magnified by the lens of a 24/7 news cycle, LeBron has only elevated his game, adding historic efficiency to the incredible production we've come to expect from "King James."

Still, the debate rages: stellar player or entitled jerk? All-time great or front-running ass? It may be the most pertinent debate in sports today, as his current team, the Miami Heat, continue to rack up wins in the playoffs, generating never-before-seen scrutiny of a professional sports franchise and giving one-trick schlups like Skip Bayless unending fodder for contrived on-air arguments.

The LeBron James debate stretches insidiously beyond the boundaries of basketball, of sports as a whole, even. In February, I took a train from Bellingham, WA to Portland, OR to catch a Blazers game and meet up with an old friend. Along the way, I got embroiled in a multi-faceted (and Crown Royal-induced) sports conversation with a group of guys nearby. When the convo inevitably turned to LeBron, it wasn't ten minutes before most of the people in our car were shouting their opinions of him over the tops of the seat partitions -- broad statements buried in exclamations of the absolute. LeBron's a chump! He's the best player in the league! How many rings he got? He's only 27! Kobe's got five! Jordan's got six! LeBron's a power forward that runs the point! LeBron's a choker! You're just a hater! and so on. As such, it deserves examination.

Since I brought it up at the onset, let's look directly at the main reason LeBron is hated on so superfluously: The Decision. As a 25 year-old, LeBron James, already the best player in the world, held the sporting world captive in the summer of 2010. His contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers had expired and he was, without exception, the most prized free agent in the history of the term.

For weeks, James flirted with different franchises. Like the hottest girl at the bar, he flaunted his scantily clad assets in front of his suitors -- most of whom were too entranced by his sex appeal to consider the possibility that their overt interest in him clouded their perception. In fact, he had his mate picked out from the get-go and was merely leveraging other teams' obvious lust into increased attraction from his desired partner. The Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, and half-dozen others all thought that the drinks they bought him would give them the inside track. Even James' high school sweetheart, the Cavs, delusionally thought they could bed him back then.

All the way up until The Decision, franchises from the Boston Celtics to the Milwaukee Bucks held out varying degrees of hope that LeBron would choose them and give them not only the night of their life but a Nicholas Sparks future of rose petals and hand-penned letters of adulation. In hindsight, we were all pretty silly to get caught up in it, but caught up we were.*

*You may be saying "no way!", but the numbers say otherwise. According to Nielsen, LeBron sitting on a stool in a moderately-sized Ohio gym in the middle of the off-season was the 3rd-highest rated cable program of the year.

As we all know, James chose to take his talents to South Beach and team up with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. To completely exhaust the hot-girl metaphor, LeBron stayed with Cleveland for seven years because they grew up next door, playing tetherball in grade school and eventually going to Prom together before James saw the options that post-high-school life offered and strung his childhood sweetheart along until he dropped Cleveland for a flashier alternative. More than that, James made his new love public by making out on the dance floor at a house party thrown by his ex.

It was a move that affected sports fans everywhere -- even those that weren't particularly invested in LeBron, the Heat, or the Cavs. We've grown accustomed to high-profile players leaving their initial teams for better opportunities elsewhere, it's a free-market right their talent/production has earned and few of us have held that against them, but this was the first time we've seen a star make such a wanton spectacle of the process. It's not that he left the Cavaliers (after all, hadn't he done everything that could be done for them in those seven years?), it's how he left that causes us to recoil like a cat petted against the grain.

Still, what's done is done and LeBron has made it clear that the way we feel about him, for better or worse, isn't going to affect his level of play. So, where does that leave us? The hater in us is still clamoring, eager to tear down the already-beleaguered (yet seemingly undeterred) visage of LBJ. And so we turn to picking nits. Let's start with "clutch" time.*

It has become very en vogue to hammer on LeBron for his perceived inability to make the big shot. Even though we assume it's a reputation that has always been with him, it's actually a sub-narrative that emerged only after his Q rating took a hit. While in Cleveland, James hit a number of game-winning shots, shots that the defense knew he'd be taking, since no other high-profile options existed in Cleveland.

In fact, according to the always impressive 82games.com, nobody in the entire NBA hit more "clutch" shots than LeBron James in his first five years in the league. His shooting percentage in those situations was .52% above league average, and a staggering .90% above "greatest clutch shooter in the league" Kobe Bryant. Add to that the fact that LeBron had the second-most crunch-time assists in the league over that time period and you've got a profile of not only someone who isn't not-clutch, but is on a very short list of most-clutch players in the world.

Sure, you might be saying, that was back then, but what about all those choke-jobs since he joined the Heat? There's no way he can still be considered "clutch". Hey, I'm with you. I've seen the misses, the passed-up shots, the assumed unwillingness to bear the mantle of game-winner that is relentlessly touted on sports talk radio and TV's forced-debate shows. Without a doubt, the numbers will back up our assertions that the post-Decision James crumbles under pressure, right? For evidence, I turned to the thorough breakdown by Jordan Sams, who, in turn, used the authoritative Basketball-Reference shot-finder to determine who actually performed in clutch situations and who didn't. Get out your LeBronmallows, guys, it's time to roast!

Except that this particular fire won't light. You see, as it turns out, since 2000 (three years into Kobe's career but encapsulating the entirety of LeBron's), James has shot 46% from the field in crunch-time, .43% better than league average, .63% better than Kobe, and tied with Tim Duncan for the very best in the NBA. Read that again. Over the course of his career, LeBron has been the best crunch-time shooter in the league. How quickly we forget that he's also the author of the greatest end-game performance in NBA playoff history.

*The two examples used above (by 82games and Sams, respectively) have slightly varying definitions of "clutch" (don't we all?) and tend to look not only at buzzer-beaters, but in varying short stretches of time preceding the buzzer as well. It is my thought that focusing only on shots taken as the clock expires is not only a small sample size, but a truncated view of high-leverage situations. With this, as with everything, feel free to disagree.

And all of those collapses? All of those missed/passed-up shots? All of the stuff that became fodder for the lame, unfunny, unending LeBron/4th-quarter jokes? Well, they're still there. They haven't gone anywhere, but the thing we tend to forget when obsessing about LeBron's misses is the fact that everyone else misses too -- especially in the clutch -- we just pay more attention when he does it. That can't be right! we protest. It can, actually, and our insistence that it can't, in spite of the numbers saying otherwise, is a prominent example of confirmation bias, the

tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.

We've been told so many times, by so many on-air personalities, that LeBron James is not clutch that many of us have assumed that supposition as reality, in direct opposition to the unfeeling, unswayable numbers that dictate the opposite. In fact, I'm willing to bet that many of those reading this are still fighting the idea that LeBron is a great clutch player. After all, when was the last time you heard anyone actually say that?

Look, I'll readily admit that I'm as guilty of confirmation bias as anyone. I'm susceptible to it in politics, religion, even arguments with my girlfriend. Once I've got an idea in my head, any new information relating to it is going to be seen through the lenses I've chosen to put in front of my eyes. It's human nature. So, regardless of where you still stand on the LeBron-as-a-clutch-player issue, let's move on to a bigger issue, perhaps the biggest issue, regarding James' legacy: championships.

There's no wiggle room here, right? Zero. That's how many NBA Championship rings are on LeBron's fingers. Zero is an unarguable term, an island of the absolute in a sea of relative truths. LeBron James has never won an NBA title and no statistical analysis changes that fact. LeBron's haters point to it as the final (if not only) nail in the coffin of his legacy, a stout bulwark between him and the players we like, like Michael Jordan, Magic, Larry Bird, Kobe, Wilt Chamberlain, etc. It's true; again, he's never won an NBA Finals series, never hoisted the O'Brien trophy triumphantly above his head or cradled it to his bosom on the locker room floor. "RINGS!" we cry, metaphorically dropping the mic and strutting off stage, leaving the LeBron supporters grasping for a response.

Zero is, however, a open-ended number, at least as it relates to LeBron. As long as James is in the league, Zero remains an obstacle, but one that can be overcome. For all of our eagerness to proclaim Zero as a death-knell for promise unfulfilled, the fact remains that LeBron James won't be 30 for another two-and-a-half years. LeBron James, the best player on a team on the cusp of the Eastern Conference Finals, is 27 years old*, just entering what is typically the prime of a great NBA player's career.

*To be exact, James is 27 years, 144 days old -- know how many championships Jordan had won at 27 years, 144 days? That's right, zero. Crazy, huh?

You see, Michael Jordan existed in a time before maximized scrutiny and was, consequently, afforded the buffer that came with the pre-Twitter stardom of the 1980s and '90s; a buffer that prevented public knowledge of, among other things, massive gambling debts, punching teammates in practice, and a sordid, long-standing affair with a mistress he paid to stay quiet. The point of this isn't to say what a bad guy MJ was, so much as to offer perspective on the reasons we so vehemently loathe LeBron. Michael Jordan is elevated in discussions like these as the paradigm of a champion, and I'm not here to dispute that, but I I'd be remiss to omit the fact that, like I mentioned above, "King James" is still younger than "Air Jordan" was when he won his first title and his affronts to our morality are (or at least should be) much less offensive than the most popular player of our lifetime.

While we're here, it's worth noting that the "RINGS!" argument is among the laziest in sports, at least when it comes to determining legacy. A factor? Absolutely. The factor? Certainly not. If you disagree, ask yourself if you can honestly say that Robert Horry (five rings) was better than fellow forward Karl Malone (zero). That Dolph Schayes (one ring) was better than Charles Barkley (zero). That Will Perdue (four rings) was better than David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon (two) or that Kenny Smith (two rings) was better than John Stockton (zero), Gary Payton (one), Steve Nash (zero), or Chris Paul (also zero). If you can say yes assertively to any of these claims, then you are capable of larger logical leaps than I.

This isn't to acquit James entirely; as the best player in the league, the cement will always be wet until he can add an NBA championship to his resume. I merely bring up the supremely overlooked factor of his relative youth for the sake of perspective on just how much of James' career is still ahead of him, and how ridiculously far in front of the horse we put the cart when we start to close the book on who we think LeBron is as a player*.

*Looking for amusement? Log into Twitter, type "LeBron rings" into the search bar, and watch the idiocy flow.

Maybe the Jordan comparison is misplaced. I mean, His Airness' career didn't overlap with LeBron's at all. Instead, let's look at James' contemporaries, specifically the one guy whose legacy LeBron's will always be entangled with: the aforementioned Kobe Bryant.

The sheer weight of Kobe's NBA accomplishments is staggering: 5th all-time in scoring (3rd all-time in playoffs), two scoring titles, 10th in points/game, one regular-season MVP, two NBA Finals MVPs, 14 All-Star teams, 11 NBA All-Defensive team selections, youngest player to score 20,000 points (also youngest to 23k, 24k, 25k, 26k, 27k, 28k, and 29k), and he's at or near the top of a litany of Los Angeles Lakers records as well. Kobe's resume is not a glossy, bullet-pointed page that you slide across the desk; it's a colossal tome, leather-bound and heavy enough to shake said desk upon presentation.

And then there are the rings. Five glittering adornments to his legacy, bejeweled hallmarks of the times his teams have ascended above the rest of the league, golden notches on the holster of his gun. For many, those rings signify more than just championships, they fasten Kobe as the greatest player of his generation (there's also the Colorado incident, a transgression that was, whether criminal or not, seemingly swept under the rug of Kobe's fourth and fifth titles). For many, as we've already covered, the Kobe/LeBron argument begins and ends with those rings.

The LeBron James story parallels Kobe's to some degree, and differs wildly in others. Like Kobe, LeBron was the most highly-touted high school baller in the country and entered the league without playing a single college game. Unlike Bryant, who started only six games as a rookie, James made a significant impact immediately, recording monstrous first-year averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, ranking 13th in the league in both scoring and assists (Kobe went 7.6/1.9/1.3 as a rook, by comparison). Like Kobe, LeBron matured quickly, picking up the nuances of the pro game and seeing his production steadily increase until he was on the short list for best overall player in the game. By his third season, James was scoring 30 PPG and logging consistent double-doubles.

Unlike Bryant, by his sixth season, James was a scoring champ (Kobe didn't accomplish that until his tenth season) and consistently ranked in the top ten in assists (Kobe's best assist/game season would be LeBron's second-worst, trailing only his rookie year). Also unlike Kobe, who had three rings by year six, however, LeBron's hands remained un-gilded; as they do to this day.

I'm not here to take those rings from Bryant or to say that he didn't deserve them, but it's certainly worth mentioning that Kobe didn't win a ring as the best player on his own team until his 13th season. It's also worth mentioning that Kobe's petulant rift with the lead horse for his first three titles, Shaquille O'Neal, forced management to decide between the two and truncated what could (read: should) have been the greatest dynasty in the modern NBA era.

LeBron takes a lot of flack for joining the Heat and not winning the championship in his first year with his new team, despite their relative star power. Lost in all of that, though, is the fact that it was James' first season of his career in which he had a true all-pro teammate. Since we inevitably compare him to Kobe, we ought to mention that Kobe's only played one season without a legitimate, in-their-prime, All-NBA talent as a teammate, and that team struggled to an 8th seed in the playoffs.

LeBron, meanwhile, spent the first seven years of his career dragging Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao up and down the court, shouldering a team of roster-fillers to the best record in the NBA -- twice. In spite of the paucity of championships, the case can be made that LeBron James is one of the most valuable players of all time, a claim backed by the knee-buckling 42-win difference between his last season in Cleveland and their first season without him.

LeBron James is 27 years old. LeBron James is 27 years old, just won his third MVP, posted the second 40/18/9 playoff game in history to pull his team back into a series they were losing and backed it up two nights later with a 30/10/8 performance en route to a 32 point victory. LeBron James is arguably the most accomplished 27 year-old basketball player in the history of the game and yet many of us are eager to close the casket on him.

Personally, I think LeBron has done a lot of stuff in his first 27 years on the planet that rubs me the wrong way. Then again, there are a lot of things I did in my first 27 years on the planet that rub me the wrong way, and I don't have the excuse of living under the fiercest microscope in the sporting world. If you want to hate LeBron, go right ahead, but take a minute to look at why you do.* Cheer against the Heat as hard as your heart can muster, it's your right as a fan and no one will begrudge you that.

*I can't stand the New England Patriots, but it doesn't keep me from appreciating how great Tom Brady is.

LeBron James might win his first ring within a month of this article posting. Then again, he may never ever win one. Chances are, the final tally will be somewhere in between, but love or hate, for God's sake, take time to appreciate the fact that we get to watch such a phenomenal talent. Before we know it, his career will be over and it will be a shame if we missed out on it because of misplaced, media-fueled venom (Cleveland fans are exempt, of course).

~~~

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