Thoughts on the NBA All-Star Game…and of course LeBron James

So the NBA wrapped up its All Star festivities in Orlando tonight with a typical high scoring affair that marks most sports’ All Star events. But despite the terrible first half in which neither team pretended to care about slowing down the highlight reel with a tiresome thing like defense, the fourth quarter turned out to be fairly entertaining. LeBron James brought the East team back from a double-digit deficit with a dazzling display of shooting, and showed once again why he is clearly the best player in the league. Then, with the East needing a three pointer to tie the game in the final seconds, LeBron threw the ball across the court for a turnover rather than take the shot himself, showing once again why he clearly isn’t the league’s best player. Wait a minute, which one is it?

I’m not dumb enough to suggest we can really learn much about a player from a glorified exhibition like the All Star game. But there’s no question that player tendencies do reveal themselves, even in the most meaningless game – the alpha dogs assume their roles (LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook), only guys like Andre Iguodala play any defense, and Kobe jacks up bad jumpers instead of giving the ball up to his teammates. And of course, Lebron “falters in the clutch.” As if there could actually be a “clutch” moment in a game in which a team had 88 points at halftime.

The more interesting thing to me was the visceral reactions by fans and critics of LeBron alike after the game. As usual, the LeBron haters went way overboard by making too much of LeBron’s “failure at a crucial moment.” Not being a LeBron guy myself, I too made a few jokes along the lines of, “Well if that isn’t LeBron in a nutshell”, after his brutal turnover. But LeBron’s critics, including myself, are not really that intriguing; we won’t stop taking shots at the guy until he wins a ring and is the alpha dog while doing it – something I doubt will happen while he’s playing alongside Dwayne Wade. But I digress. On the other side of the fence, there were several people, whose basketball opinions I respect, that damn near waged a campaign in LeBron’s defense – he’s the best player in the league but he can’t make a single mistake without being  judged, he won’t be remembered for how great a player he is, lauding his unselfishness in juxtaposition to Kobe’s gunning, and so on. Just an outpouring of sympathy and logic railing against the ravenous mobs who unfairly harp on poor LeBron.

Look, I don’t particularly care where someone stands on LeBron and his career up to this point. I understand the source for the criticism as well as the fact that he is one of the most gifted players to ever play the game. But while I know there are many critics that go overboard, I can at least understand the root of the contempt and the nitpicking. I have a much harder time relating to those that feel the need to swing the needle the opposite direction. It’s as if they feel the need to overcompensate for the irrational beraters of LeBron by being the voice of reason that not only acknowledges, but extols his greatness. I think both sides are right to an extent; as is the case with many debates, both arguments merit debate and have their valid points. But while I understand what LeBron has done to bring out the overzealous critics, I don’t understand what he has done to this point for anyone to defend him so vigorously.

The argument for LeBron goes something like this: he’s the best all around player in the league by a wide margin, and has been for some time. He’s a nightmare of a matchup on both sides of the court, and may be the most athletically gifted individual to ever play the game. But we know all this. No one is really denying LeBron’s talents. Apparently though, we are supposed to let LeBron’s greatness overshadow those much less frequent moments when he is not so great. Is it unfair to dispute a player’s historical significance based on a handful of overwhelming moments? Absolutely. But in order to enter the pantheon of players that weren’t just great, but legendary, one needs to have those moments which are indelible in your memory. While it may be unfair that those handful of moments should outweigh the greater body of work, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Until LeBron has the moments, I don’t understand the rush to defend him. Other than his frequent spectacular play, which no one really disputes, this is a guy that has often painted the bullseye on his own back. He mailed in his last playoff series in Cleveland against the Celtics once he felt like he couldn’t carry his inferior team any further. He ripped out the heart of a city on national television with no regard for how egotistical and self-centered his Decision would come across. He chose to team with one of his biggest on-court rivals (and a proven killer) instead of joining the best team (Chicago) or becoming a near mythological figure in New York. He absolutely shrunk up and disappeared in the Finals last season, when the opportunity presented itself to take the reins and end the silly talk. All of these things are indisputably true, and cannot be debated by even the most ardent LeBron supporter. Regardless of how much you may appreciate LeBron’s ability and talent, I’m not sure how anyone could muster up the passion to defend him so vigorously considering these truths. To me, LeBron’s biggest sin is the fact that he’s completely unlikable. While it may not (and shouldn’t) affect his standing in the league both now and historically, it does puzzle me as to why certain people are so eager to defend him.

As for where I stand on LeBron, I’ll tell you this. As my Sixers prepared to face off against the Heat in last year’s playoffs, I was deathly afraid of one player – and it wasn’t LeBron James. Dwayne Wade scared the hell out of me because he’s a “killer”; a guy that I don’t want with the ball when a game is in its most crucial moments. Forget the stats, forget shooting percentages, forget how many bad shots they may force up – a killer is a guy that terrifies you when they have the ball in the waning moments, whether they always come through or not. So the statistics may bear out that Kobe is overrated as a “closer”, and he certainly takes many a bad shot in his effort to be a hero. But anyone who tells you they would rather that LeBron have the ball down 1 instead of Kobe, or Wade, or Chris Paul, or Kevin Durant – all guys I consider killers – is a flat out liar. LeBron is missing something that those guys have; it’s not quantifiable, and I can’t show it to you on a statistical analysis. Certain players exude a confidence in the moment, regardless of success or failure; they don’t need to be All Stars to have it. Robert Horry had it, Reggie Miller had it, even Jeremy Lin has it. It many cases, the confidence is completely irrational, but it’s vital to being a killer. The worst part is, despite not liking the guy, I want LeBron to be that type of killer. As a basketball fan, it frustrates me that he continues to lack something. So as the All Star game winded down, and LeBron had the ball with the clock ticking away, all I wanted was for him to have the confidence to take the shot – I didn’t care if it went in or not, I just wanted him to shoot it. But LeBron James, for all his greatness, continues to disappoint. And that point is not defendable.

Other notes:

The NBA All Star game is easily the best of all the major sports. Sure, it was brutal for three quarters but the competitive fourth quarter was more than we get in the NFL or NHL versions, which lack the physicality that is essential to those sports. Even when the baseball games have been competitive, the best players on each team have already played their two innings and called it a night by the time the game is decided. At least the NBA All Star game is normally highly competitve in the final frame and the league’s best players decide the outcome.

The disparity in talent level between the two conferences was glaringly evident. While the utter lack of effort was partly to blame for the East’s enormous deficit, the fact that their second unit was so undermanned was a large reason the score was so one-sided for much of the game. Other than Deron Williams, the East was running out Luol Deng, Iguodala, and Roy Hibbert against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Nash, and Tony Parker could barely get any run for the insanely deep West team.

The NBA needs to just rip off the entire NHL All Star concept. Pick teams playground style with captains, and let those teams compete in ALL events for the weekend. No one wants to see non All Stars competing in events on All Star weekend. As for getting the players to compete in events, make large donations ($1 million) to the charities of choice for the winners. Let LeBron, Blake and company explain to the American Cancer Society why they didn’t try to win them a million bucks because they didn’t feel like being in the dunk contest. Also, please, please, please, institute a H.O.R.S.E. event instead of the awful Shooting Stars segment.

Finally, the league competition committee met this weekend and considered implementing changes such as reducing high fives during free throws and other inane nonsense. Here’s a worthwhile suggestion: institute a handshake line at the conclusion of playoff series. Yes, I’m ripping off the NHL again, but to me one of the coolest momen’s in sports is watching guys that just tried to murder each other for 7 games, line up and congratulate each other in the ultimate display of sportsmanship. This idea is also inspired by something I witnessed this weekend. We were waiting in the lobby of the gym before my daughter’s basketball game, as the preceding games finished. A father yanked his young son (maybe 6 or 7) out of the gym and firmly scolded him for not shaking hands in the line at the end of a game – “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter, you shake hands! That’s what sportsmanship is about. I better never see that again because if I do you won’t ever play sports again, do you understand me?” Other than being impressed by a parent actually disciplining a child on the spot for unacceptable behavior, and sending a good message, it struck me that these kids are heavily influenced by what they watch on TV. Ultimately it’s every parent’s job to do exactly what that Dad in the gym did; but wouldn’t seeing the greatest players in the game display that sportsmanship be the perfect message for young NBA fans?

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