KOBE'S EARLY DEPARTURE COULD END HIS REIGN AS THE BEST PLAYER ON THE PLANET. WILL LEBRON FINALLY TAKE OVER?
Ten surprisingly successful months later, can we all agree that the Decision continues to be the driving force behind the NBA's renewed popularity? LeBron James just so happens to be doing more for his league than any star since Michael Jordan, and it's all because he so brazenly stuck out his tight-end-sized neck. Talk about taking one for the team: By staging an hourlong special to announce his move to Miami last summer, James accidentally sabotaged his own reputation (in the short term, at least) but created a reality-TV vibe that pushed the NBA's regular season ratings up by as much as 45%.
It's one thing to create an audience and another to have it applaud you as the curtain falls, as James well knows in his eighth year in pursuit of a title. The upshot of Kobe Bryant's early (and ignominious) playoff departure is that the mountaintop is there for James to seize. The last and most important conquest of the 26-year-old's career as he approaches NBA middle age is to win at least one title, and he has never had better support. Win, and LeBron becomes a member of Kobe's club, where you are part of the greatest-player-in-the-world discussion and no one can call you a pretender.
In difficult postseason times, such as the Heat's second-round series with the Celtics, James used to respond to threats by scoring in big numbers: Recall his 25 straight points during the Cavaliers' 2007 playoff upset of the Pistons, or the 38.5 he averaged in the '09 Eastern finals loss to the Magic. Now fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and coach Erik Spoelstra have helped him arrive at more nuanced replies. He doesn't handle the ball nearly as often as he did for Cleveland, yet he regularly accomplishes more. "They knew they would both have to make sacrifices," says Spoelstra of James and Wade. "They were dramatic sacrifices that surprised both of them, even in November."
James credits himself with learning to move without the ball and to operate in the post, where he often sets up as a 6'8" power forward in Miami's small lineup. While LeBron is still perfecting the footwork and other tricks necessary to leverage his 250 pounds on the block, his back-to-the-basket improvement is ominous. "Once he becomes great at that part of the game, it's going to become tough for everybody," says Boston coach Doc Rivers. "He's still good at it, but he's going to be great at it at some point, and then, Wow."
There is no disputing the success of James's plan: to stop carrying his team as a Jordanesque scorer and start creating like another outlandish playmaker from an earlier time. "He's the best passing guard at his size since Magic," says Rivers. "He throws more crosscourt no-look passes than anybody, because of his hang time and his strength." Those passes whiz through traffic like Justin Verlander fastballs, creating open threes for second-unit shooters James Jones (25 points in Game 1) and Mario Chalmers (17 in Game 3).
Having been responsible for James's demise in two of the previous three postseasons, Rivers knows all about James's creativity. The Celtics viewed it as his most dangerous asset, and in Game 1, it was. LeBron was a setup man for Wade, who produced 38 points in his traditional finishing role. Then in a Game 2 win, James added 35 of his own. "Even though he led the league in scoring, I still thought LeBron's points didn't scare us in Cleveland," says Rivers. "It was LeBron's playmaking that always scared us. We got a kick out of it when people started talking about all the points he was scoring. We were like, That's cool by us. What we don't want is to see him get those points and get all the playmaking points as well."
But James's ascent of the NBA's Kilimanjaro won't be easy. That was apparent in Game 3, when he was outshone by Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, who suffered a grotesquely dislocated left elbow in the third quarter then returned in the fourth to spark a 97--81 win. Instead of propelling Miami to a 3--0 lead, James had a disappointing 15 points with four assists and four turnovers. On Monday, though, he was back to his old tricks: James had 35 points—including 13 in the fourth quarter and overtime—and 14 boards as the Heat seized control of the series with a 98--90 win.
In Cleveland, James was accused of being too friendly to make demands of his teammates. It's now clear he wanted to alter that dynamic in Miami, where team president Pat Riley has created a program that seeks to lead the league in practice time and commitment to defense. The insinuation that James was taking the easy way out has been turned inside-out, because there has been no easy going with the Heat. And throughout its 9--8 start, its intimidating December visit to Cleveland and its five-game losing streak after the All-Star break, the one constant is that James has survived—and been fueled by—criticism. "LeBron has heard more booing than any human being alive," says Rivers. "Hell, with the scrutiny and the hate, playing on the road for them is not hard anymore."
James can no longer afford to make nice, as Wade discovered in February when LeBron let him have it after he left Chicago's Luol Deng open for a tie-breaking three in the final seconds of a 93--89 loss. "I'm louder," says LeBron of Wade and Bosh. "It's not a bed of roses with me and D-Wade and C.B. We get on each other when we feel like we're not doing our job. It's just constructive criticism that we need."
Though James's numbers have been down a bit this postseason—through Monday he was averaging 25.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists—there is no doubting he's a bigger name than ever. By raising his profile last summer, he succeeded in lifting interest in a league that relies on the charisma of a few household stars. Want proof? When LeBron led the Cavs to the 2007 Finals against the Spurs and was cast as the prodigious underdog, the ratings were an abysmally low 6.2. But now that a large audience is vested in finding out whether James will succeed or fail, the ratings for Game 1 of the Celtics series were ABC's second-highest for a non-Finals game. And James recently moved ahead of Bryant to the top of NBA jersey sales.
Not that James is paying attention to that. He is still pursuing that sensitive balance between passing and scoring, between deciding when to take on the world and when to serve as a decoy. As he concludes this compelling Year of LeBron, one question dominates all: Can he pull it off consistently through mid-June?
THERE'S NO DISPUTING THE SUCCESS OF JAMES'S PLAN: TO STOP CARRYING HIS TEAM AS A SCORER AND START CREATING.
MIAMI VOICE A "louder" James has been more demanding—and demonstrative—around his teammates.