by Matt Waller
Ever since his vast drop in popularity in the wake of “The Decision,” LeBron James has clearly struggled with what his role should be. For much of LeBron’s time in Miami, he wore the villain role like an uncomfortable suit. But this year — the best season of his career, and probably one of the best individual seasons ever — LeBron is slowly winning fans back with another decision: to leave the baggage behind, to relax, and to enjoy himself. LeBron the basketball player is as superhuman as ever, but thanks to some other on-court actions, LeBron James the man (he can finally be called that) is redefining his personal legacy.
The Growth in the Game
LeBron’s recent run of seven games has been almost impossibly good. His streak of six straight 30+ point, 60%+ shooting percentage games was broken last night, when he shot a mere 58% from the field while scoring 39, collecting 12 boards and doling out 7 assists. LeBron’s game has obviously grown each year of his career, but his play seems remarkably mature this year. Even while controlling the game, he rarely forces the action, and he’s now willing to take the big shot (an area in which his past struggles are well-documented). Putting up the best numbers of his career, LeBron seems more relaxed than ever.
Too often in Cleveland, it was the opposite. LeBron would shoot often and recklessly, frequently resorting to off-balance jumpers that were far from consistent (in seven years in Cleveland, LeBron shot over 50% just once; he’s done it in all three years with Miami). James was still an excellent passer and above average rebounder, but there was always something in his style that gave you the feeling he was more interested in piling up stats than in winning when it mattered (the Cavs made the Finals just once in LeBron’s seven seasons in Cleveland).
In the Cleveland days, despite never being the best free throw shooter on the team, he almost always stepped forward to shoot free throws on technicals (free points). The free throw behavior would seem to suggest a leader stepping up to carry a team, but his all-too-frequent decisions to pass on last shot opportunities suggested otherwise. There are certain scenarios where a team’s best player passing on a game-winning opportunity is acceptable. But, if you do it too much, a pattern emerges of putting the burden onto others rather than taking it on yourself. (It’s like making dinner plans with a companion and having the companion “selflessly” tell you to choose the place, which really only transfers all the pressure of the evening onto you.) LeBron was the greatest Cavalier to ever wear the uniform, no doubt, but the juxtaposition of his current game with his past game clearly reveals how far he’s come.
Villain No More
The increasing maturity in LeBron’s game aligns with his increasingly mature demeanor. Over the past three weeks, in addition to all but running away with the MVP, LeBron has engaged in some other notable on-court behavior. It started with LeBron’s spontaneous, celebratory tackle of a fan who had just made a half-court shot for $75,000 (from the LeBron James Family Foundation). That night, I heard multiple professed LeBron-haters declare that, with that action, LeBron had won them back. A little over two weeks later, LeBron continued to win people over when, mid-game, he played a quick game of catch with a fan (on a nationally televised Friday night game). In an interview later in the game, the fan, a middle-aged man, promptly declared the experience as “the most exciting thing I ever lived in my life.”
These two recent actions showed a side of LeBron that some would say has been missing for a few years, but that I would argue has never been present. During his time in Cleveland (and his first two years in Miami), he was a nice enough guy, but something about it always felt like an act. For those who already believed LeBron was a phony, The Decision only solidified their opinions; for the fans — especially those in Cleveland — who swore that LeBron was the archetypal role model, a guy who set the standard for character in the NBA, The Decision made them non-believers. The world (quite reasonably, at the time) declared LeBron James a villain. In his early days in Miami, especially in his first year, LeBron tried to embrace the villainous role America wanted him to take. But today, LeBron no longer acts like he has something to prove. And with the chip off his shoulder, LeBron is proving his greatness more than ever, and likely winning back heaps of respect in the process by becoming less and less polarizing in his behavior.
All things considered, it’s probably not surprising that a guy who recently turned 28, is raising a family, and has had a career for ten years would decide to drop the pettiness and grow up. To have one’s legacy defined by a bad (granted, profoundly bad) decision at the age of 26 would be an unfair fate, and LeBron is making the most of his opportunity to redeem himself.
Which brings everything back to Cleveland. The Heat will likely win another title this year, but after this season, the future of title expectations in Miami is unclear — LeBron may find that there is more potential elsewhere. Wade is aging quickly, and they’ve yet to find a center or point guard who drastically improves the team. When LeBron becomes a free agent in 2014, Cleveland will be in a good position to try to land him. They will have the money. More importantly, they will have a young core, highlighted by Kyrie Irving and potential stars in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, that may offer a brighter vision of the future than Miami can provide. The question is whether LeBron has so shaken his old, villainous role that he would complete the redemption narrative by reversing The Decision and returning to his jilted home town to compete for a title. As a Cleveland fan — and I certainly never thought I’d say this — I hope so. But, even if he doesn’t come back to Cleveland, LeBron is putting on a clinic in how to salvage a personal legacy.