MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21: Team President Pat Riley of the Miami Heat is interviewed by Stuart Scott as head coach Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James #6 and team owner Micky Arison in Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 21, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The NBA media's historical narrative will say the following:
On July 21st, after dispatching the OKC Thunder on the back of a triple-double (and fantastic team play we should add) LeBron James won a championship. When he held up the golden trophy, a magical property was transferred to his person and imbued him with certain powers. Namely, that of being the greatest player in the game and being free from various criticisms about his "clutch" attributes or his place amongst the all-time greats.
The ring, to be placed on his finger on a future date, will serve to capture this power and ward off all but the most malevolent of the evil spirits who haunt the airwaves and interwebs from preying on his soul.
The Finals MVP trophy has its own particular powers. When the trophy is engraved with James' name and handed to him, it literally becomes the badge of the greatest player in the game. That essence is transferred to LeBron and protects him from future spells by enemies that might have overcome his ring with the power issued by reciting incantations such as "that was Wade's ring!".
Powerful, mystical stuff if you go for that kind of thing. I have an alternate story after the jump, if anyone cares to hear it...
I would argue that, while gradual in nature, the most interesting transformation for LeBron began when the Miami Heat lost the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks and he began a journey that every great player must undertake before they get too close to 30 and it's too late, the journey towards the post.
Over at Wages of Wins they note that teams without a "big" who plays at a .140 level (better than 1/5 of a win produced per 48 minutes of play) don't win championships. Though Bosh played well after returning from his abdominal injury, he hasn't really been that guy in Miami. However, LeBron settled into a role we might call "Powerpoint" and did a presentation on the possibilities of inside-out offensive basketball.
Game 6 against Boston he put up a 45-15-5 game in which he shot 73% and demonstrated the awesome capabilities of a 6'8" 260 pound forward who is too athletic to be guarded on the perimeter by anyone his own size and too powerful to be handled by anyone athletic enough to stay with him on the perimeter.
In Game's 4 and 5 against OKC James finally achieved perhaps the pinnacle of the possibilites afforded by this skillset. He slashed into the lane like a point, he passed the ball back out from the block, and he ran the offense from either the post or the perimeter with equal comfort. Miller had an undeniably streaky game 5 but it's an iron law in basketball that when the ball is carried deep into the defense and then fired out to open shooters that such things can and do happen.
In those games James averaged a 26-10-13 on 48% shooting and that was effectively the end of the OKC Thunder's title hopes. I'll note also that he was 13-17 from the free throw line in those 2 combined games. Some people have proposed that Stern and the NBA desired to cut short the cash cow that is LeBron's pursuit of Championships rings and to do it with a 4-1 trampling of an exciting young team that is the small market darling of the nation.
I have no idea why it would benefit the NBA to do this, and I don't think an objective viewing of the games supports this theory. OKC was similarly allowed to play much different defense at home in their arena, it's called home court advantage. I don't love it, but plenty of Spurs fans have something to say to OKC fans who gripe about the whistles. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! If you are convinced the NBA is rigged then don't watch the games. You needn't campaign to infect other fans with your views, none of your revelations have proven to be particularly inspired.
Far more interesting from this point on are the following 3 questions:
-How long can LeBron play at this level?
-How long can the Heat maintain this level of play?
-Who can stop them?
1). There are 2 primary elements to James' game. One is his unprecedented size and athleticism. How long before that burns out? He has a lot of miles on his young body but he's also avoided serious injury to this point. If Barkley's career is any indication (anyone have a better comp?) I suspect James could sustain this level of athleticism till about 30 before he begins to slow down and lose his hops.
He also has a collection of skills, such as his passing and growing post game, that could continue to improve with time. His jumper also has a lot of room for improvement. It's conceivable that by continuing to build on his post game, he could play the Powerpoint role at a high level for a long period of time. Magic did remarkable things with a similar skillset and far less explosive athleticism. Jordan similarly maintained his effectiveness into his 30's by venturing closer and closer to the basket.
So what are we looking at? All-star level production into his mid-30's? MVP-level play for another 2-4 years?
2). Dwayne Wade is already 30 and his career is on the descent. He comprises a healthy chunk of the Heat's payroll and has questionable health. If he's not healthy in the playoffs that shifts a possibly unbearable burden to Bosh and the other supporting cast. In building that cast, the Heat's strategy so far has been to employ ring-chasing veterans for cheap.
As the Mavericks demonstrated in 2011, surrounding a star in his prime with savvy veterans can result in highly effective results, but signing veterans who aren't about to fall off a cliff in productivity or become injured is a tricky proposition. For instance, Game 5 was the first time in a playoff game that Mike Miller delivered on his promise when he signed in Miami.
There's some speculation that the Heat could sign Steve Nash. That seems like a rough fit and isn't where I would be looking to upgrade but it's not hard to imagine them making that work. Someone like Omar Asik or Emeka Okafor could make them unstoppable. They have a mid-level exception, a late pick, and not much else to work with.
They should be able to field strong teams for James' next few years but "5, 6, 7" is obviously unlikely. A 3-peat would be remarkable but potentially in reach if they are lucky with health.
3). I'm very much in a "wait and see" mode with the Thunder. I want to see whether they can resign Harden AND Ibaka, or which they would choose to lockdown. I also want to see what Durant does in response to this Finals loss and whether he continues to add defensive skills and strength to his already immense talents. Also curious to see if and how Westbrook reigns in some of his carelessness. Unlike Simmons, I don't believe for a second that he can't become a little wiser and more selective without losing the aggressiveness that makes him special. The Bulls are ready to compete now, but they've suddenly found themselves in a situation in which half their payroll is tied up in an inefficient, aging power forward and an injured, possibly ruined star point guard. No team would benefit more from a Nash signing than Chicago, but I'm not sure if they can give him what he wants and stay committed to Rose. Keep your eye on Minnesota, who have a stockpile of great young bigs plus Rubio, and we all know the Clippers' chances are a matter of Griffin and Jordan gestating before Paul's elite years are up. Ultimately, it's hard to determine the future of the league until we have a clear idea of what the game's dominant Center is going to choose to do. If he picks a big market with a ready-made supporting cast that changes everything. Lots of potential challengers but no clear contender just yet. I'm pretty interested to see what the reign of King James has in store for us.