NBA Player of the Year: The Ghost of LeBron James
LeBron James, at one juncture of his career or another, has graced and cursed every arena in the NBA. He is the most famous Ohio native to leave Cleveland – he’s had plenty of competition over the past half century for that honor – and the most famous to come back. When he retires, he’s already guaranteed to own “best player in franchise history” tags in two different cities.
Neither of which are Boston. And yet, I can’t think of a single place I’ll associate more with LeBron’s career than the TD Garden.
There was the 2008 Game 7 showdown with Paul Pierce that stirred the echoes yet ended in a Cavs loss, Elbowgate in 2010, his (presumptive) final playoff stint with Cleveland, and of course, Game 6 in 2012 – you know the one; performances braided so neatly into the parquet of the Garden’s famed floorboards that it feels as though nearly every important turning point in LeBron’s career has shared contextual resonance with his performances against the Celtics.
So when the Cavs barely escaped Boston with a 122-121 victory on November 14 – behind 41 points from LeBron – it made all the more sense that his performance, though nothing short of dominant, somehow left something to be desired. After stumbling out of the gates, the Cavs are playing better now, and so is LeBron. But he still lacks the otherworldly effervescence, the unmistakable gravitational pull by which we’ve come to understand him for so many years. He is still a notch above the rest, yes, but missing for the past year – going back to Miami, too – has been his patented dominance.
And that twinge, the tension between wondering whether he isn’t harnessing the full range of his powers or whether they have just diminished, is what has highlighted our experience of LeBron in 2014.
It’s not the first time watching LeBron has felt like this. Sports double as portal to an imaginary world and somewhere along the way, we forget these Herculean people are still, you know, people. Nowhere is that more apparent with LeBron. His relationship with the expectations game – the unrelenting myth, the incorrigible rhetoric – make anything less than a revelation disappointing. Yet we wade into that contradiction, embrace its inherent wrongness and ignore its shoddy construction. Because on some level, that construction has been tacitly agreed to by its subject.
“OK, now live up to it,” we say.
It’s possible to acknowledge our messy logic, to accept the flawed invention of myth and feel just as underwhelmed when the veneer inevitably fades. In fact, that understanding of human folly in the face of picture-perfect optics is exactly why watching LeBron over the past year has become such an exercise in sadness.
Because if there is no place in the universe that the abstraction of myth comes closer to tangibility than in sports, there is simultaneously nowhere in the world of sports that the gap feels smaller than when LeBron is at his best. Maybe that’s why he draws such ire when he doesn’t live up to expectations. Watching a man rise up to his outsized legend is a memorable thing to watch, making its loss painfully noticeable.
For the past year, though, what we’ve been watching can’t be categorized as a minor blip in focus. The question isn’t whether he’s being too passive – except as it pertains to the conspiracy that LeBron is trying to force his young team to learn how to win independently. He has wavered before, only to remind us his status as “best player in the world” is still outdone by “one of the best of all time.” It could be the weight loss. It could be a matter of adjusting to a new team. But in the wake of the longest time we’ve gone without LeBron matching the image we created for him, it’s become harder for me to believe those perfectly reasonable caveats in earnest.
Look, I don’t mean to be dramatic. This is LeBron’s 12th season and he’s still one of the few acts in the NBA that harbor appointment viewing. He’s second in the league in scoring and seventh in assists, and he can still do this with regularity. It really is testament to the unbridled greatness of his two championship seasons in Miami that LeBron can average 25, 5 and 7 a night yet still invoke existential dread. When he’s at his best, there are moments you can still see the glimmer of that formerly preordained brilliance. Put simply, LeBron is still special in a way that no one else is. I’m just not sure he can reproduce that brand of special ever again.
There have been too many botched transition plays, too many halfhearted defensive efforts, too much time spent between recognizing the exploitable crevasses of a defense and attacking them. Even if we forget the defensive nosedive, the simple things – like, for example, running the fast break and trying to maneuver around a defender instead of eviscerating him as if he were a pylon – are alarmingly absent. It was these things that, just over a year ago, collectively made up the reason LeBron was so clearly better than everyone else: an ability to render the opposition not only irrelevant but invisible.
In their absence, it’s hard not to at least wonder if we’re permanently transitioning into a time when LeBron bears more resemblance to a person than an idea.
I’ve been grappling with this for a while, trying to spin LeBron’s post-zenith journey not as the flickering of the NBA’s biggest star, but the beginning of a new chapter for its most polarizing figure. Part of me feels foolish for even venturing down this road – the “Has LeBron James lost a step?” question is pretty much a time-honored early-season cliché. So I’m not about to stop waiting for him to prove me wrong. But increasingly, it feels like the message we got from LeBron this year is that nearly 41,000 career minutes (including the playoffs) might be too long a time to expect unadulterated magic.
And in its void, the NBA has felt decidedly too imperfect; too human to deliver the romantic lessons we mere mortals, hardened from our own personal battles between reality and myth, covet from sports.
And that, essentially, is what really separates the LeBron of yore from the one we mere mortals see today: Most of us spend our lives trying to fill the gap between who we are and who we could be. LeBron, who once seemed to represent a bridge between the two – proof that an extraordinary person could conquer the distance between fantasy and reality – is now, at the passing of every unexploited opportunity, reminding me more and more of the space in between.