Life After Moneyball

The Conclusion of the Summer Mailbag

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images Miami Heat

LeBron Makes LeLeap

Sitting in awe courtside while King James finally figured it all out

You know what saddens me? The funniest clip on YouTube is no longer funny. Yep, you can finally rest in peace, “The Heat Welcome Party” video. Thanks for giving us two sterling years atop the Internet comedy rankings. We’re replacing you with a bullpen by committee of old reliables like “I Like Turtles,” “Charlie Bit Me,” the “It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit” guy, Journey’s immortal “Separate Ways” video and even the “I Like Turtles” techno remix. You will be buried officially during Monday’s championship parade in Miami. We will bury you not once, not twice, not three times … just kidding, we’re only burying you once.

Let’s hope you don’t resurface as something else — something scarier, something more ominous, something on the level of Namath guaranteeing Super Bowl III or Ali promising to defeat Liston. See, the ceiling of “The Heat Welcome Party” slowly changed during the last two games of the 2012 Finals. It’s no longer about hubris or a suffocating lack of self-awareness. It might be more of an omen, a warning, a little like the Game of Thrones characters seeing a red comet streak across the sky and saying, Uh-oh, dragons are coming. I mention this only because, like every other non-Miami fan who attended the last two home games, I left that arena muttering to myself, “Shit … he finally figured it out.”

Suddenly “Not one, not two, not three … ” doesn’t sound so far-fetched. Unless his body betrays him, it’s hard to imagine LeBron not using the 2012 playoffs as a launching pad for the next stage of his career … you know, when he starts collecting trophies and climbing up that imaginary historical ladder. We remember NBA stars three different ways: by the entirety of their career, their career’s highest peak, and the duration of that peak. Something like 25 players had genuinely great careers, but only seven played at the all-around level that LeBron achieved these past few weeks. Jordan, Russell, Kareem, Magic and Bird kept their peaks going. Wilt got bored. Walton got injured. Now we’re here again.

LeBron spent the last nine years juggling various identities — a little Jordan, a little Magic, a little ABA Doc, a little Pippen — never revealing that HE knew what he wanted to be. Even his position was amorphous. Was he a power forward? A small forward? An oversize point guard? What the hell was he? By the end of the 2012 Finals, we had our answer: He’s LeBron James. First of a kind. A power point guard who can create his own shot from the perimeter and the low post, a devastating passer who can’t be double-teamed, a superior athlete who attacks the rim whenever he wants, an unfathomably durable workhorse on both ends, someone who can defend all five positions (yes, five) at an elite level.

Over everything else, he fully married his physical gifts with his basketball I.Q. and morphed into something of a basketball monster. Remember all those times when we wondered, Why doesn’t LeBron just take it to the rack — it seems like he could score whenever he wants? Yup, pretty much. A good example of LeBron’s physical dominance this spring: Late in Game 4, when LeBron started limping and finally toppled to the floor, everyone in the arena had the same reaction. Wait, LeBron can get hurt? LeBron feels pain? It was like seeing Michael Myers keel over. When he was carried off, the crowd audibly gasped in disbelief. They’re carrying him off? They’re carrying LeBron off? I assumed that he belatedly realized he’d blown out his knee because, you know, he’s a fucking cyborg. As it turned out, he only had cramps. Even that seemed kind of amazing. LeBron James gets cramps? LeBron James needs to drink water?

So yeah, everything starts with that remarkable body. If you were creating a basketball player in a science lab, you would create the guy we just watched these past five weeks. When was the last time an NBA player made you say, “Come on, that’s not fair”? Maybe Shaq during those three Finals when he kept overpowering the Pacers, Sixers and Nets? That’s how LeBron made Celtics fans feel during Game 6’s cold-blooded scoring barrage, and that’s how he made Oklahoma City fans feel during those last two Finals games. LeBron mastered their defense the same way Tom Brady would solve a nickel zone. Everything slowed down for him, and even better, you could see it slowing down for him. The court turned into his personal chess board. Throw in his superhuman athletic gifts and it almost didn’t seem fair.

In Game 4, Miami planted him on the low post and LeBron went Larry Bird 2.0 on us. (For the record, there was never supposed to be a Larry Bird 2.0. We discontinued that model in 1992 and assumed it would never be seen again, much less in an even more devastating form. So … yeah.) In Game 5, he mixed that same low-post game with Dirk Nowitzki’s high-post isolation game that worked so well in the 2011 playoffs, going Dirk 2.0 by adding a slash-and-kick component. Of his 13 Game 5 assists, eight resulted in 3s. Throw in his 26 points and LeBron was directly responsible for 60 points last night.

You know what was really scary? I didn’t even think he played that well. Game 6 against Boston? A-plus. The first three quarters of Game 4 against Oklahoma City? A-plus-plus. Last night? B-plus … even though he finished with a 26-11-13 in a blowout victory. Something that wasn’t totally reflected in the box score other than Miami’s made 3s (14 in all): LeBron’s brilliance lifted everyone else along with him. It wasn’t a coincidence that Miami’s supporting guys starting swishing 3s like pop-a-shot free throws. We just watched the same thing happen with the Los Angeles Kings — once Jonathan Quick established himself as the proverbial “hot goalie,” his teammates started flying around with an inordinate amount of confidence. They could smell it. Same for Miami those last few games. And all because of LeBron.

In the postgame presser, he mentioned being happy it played out the way it did, that he needed to “hit rock-bottom” before he could become the player he needed to be. I don’t believe this for two reasons. First, his jaw-dropping performance in the 2009 playoffs (35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG, .510 FG) strongly hinted that this 2012 bloodbath (30.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.6 APG, the first player ever to average a 30-9-5 twice in the postseason) was coming. His evolution was always headed this way; we just got delayed (and nearly derailed) by 2010’s meltdown in the Boston series, then “The Decision,” then everything from last year. Second, I can’t imagine LeBron would ever repeat the last 23 months. There had to be better ways to get there. During last night’s interviews, we kept hearing the same wistful refrain from LeBron, his teammates and even his coach. The last two years weren’t fun. Wearing that big bull’s-eye and the black cowboy hat wasn’t fun. Being booed wasn’t fun, being picked apart wasn’t fun, being maligned wasn’t fun. They spent last season battling the collective vitriol, figuring out how to use it to their advantage … and ultimately failing.

As LeBron admitted last night, it just wasn’t him. He wasn’t meant to be someone who dunked on opponents and stared defiantly into the stands like a wrestling heel. He lost himself in the process, spent the summer remembering why he liked basketball, rededicated himself, found that same joy … and the rest was history. Even if that sounds like a sweet plot for a sports movie, I’m not buying that LeBron needed that specific sequence to achieve his manifest destiny. Sports would have taken care of that for him. You keep losing the title, you keep going back to the drawing board, you keep trying to get better. Wilt wanted to get past the Celtics. Bird wanted to get past the Sixers. Magic wanted to get past the Celtics. Jordan wanted to get past the Pistons. That’s basketball. Eventually, LeBron would realize that losing sucked and spend the summer accordingly. Decision or no Decision.

So what actually changed? For one thing, Dwyane Wade injured his knee and became 70 Percent Of Dwyane Wade, inadvertently solving the “dueling banjos” dilemma. The Heat tried to thwart six decades of NBA history by teaming two alpha dogs together, making them equals and assuming their overwhelming talent would overcome any resulting bumpiness. They were wrong. Basketball doesn’t work that way, for the same reason you don’t need two transcendent lead guitarists for a rock band. Someone had to learn bass. It ended up being Wade, and only because fate intervened. We’ll remember Game 6 of the Boston series for a variety of reasons, but mainly because LeBron looked around and said, I’m going down on my own terms. I’m playing all 48 minutes and scoring 50 points. If we lose, we lose. At least nobody will say that I rolled over. It ended up being the most important two hours of his career. He went out and assassinated the Celtics.

From that moment forward, Dwyane Wade became a glorified sidekick. Everything Miami did offensively went through LeBron. Wade quickly figured out how to coexist, grabbing stray shots and doing anything else the team needed: protecting the rim, crashing the boards, bolting toward the rim for backdoor passes anytime Oklahoma City forgot about him. You couldn’t even call him more valuable than Chris Bosh, who reestablished himself in those last seven playoff games as a quality defender, screen-and-roller and inside/outside threat who didn’t need the ball to thrive. Was Wade happy about how it played out? Absolutely … because they won. Tellingly, of course, he made a point of mentioning how “difficult” that adjustment was.

And that’s only scratching the surface. Imagine you’re Wade. Imagine you talk Bosh and LeBron into joining YOUR team and living in YOUR city. Imagine that first year going to hell. Imagine coming to the begrudging realization that you’re only going as far as LeBron takes you, that — even though it’s your city, and you’re the one who gets introduced last at every home game — you’re going to have to wear the Robin costume. By Game 2 of the Finals, everyone is wondering whether you’re the same guy you used to be; meanwhile, you’ve never had to take a backseat on a basketball court before, and that’s what is screwing you up more than anything. By Game 5, you’re listening to your fans serenade LeBron with “M-V-P!” chants as he holds two trophies like a hunter holding a couple of deer heads. You’re standing on the side, just like Shaq six years ago. Maybe that’s what he meant by “difficult.”

Just know the situation was resolved organically, much like it was during the 2008 Olympics, when Spain was closing in and Kobe said I got this, followed by everyone else letting him have it. That’s just how basketball works. You can’t have two guys saying “I got this.” Miami figured that out a year late. And if Wade hadn’t tweaked his knee, maybe they never would have.

The other twist of fate: Derrick Rose wrecked his knee in Round 1, propelling the Celtics into the Conference Finals … you know, LeBron’s nemesis, the bullies who beat him in 2008 and 2010, the grizzled veterans who were convinced that LeBron would always cave when it mattered most. Garnett and Pierce loved pushing his buttons more than anyone. During their final regular-season road trip to Miami, which turned out to be a surprisingly easy win for the Celtics, they spent the last two minutes busting Wade’s balls about LeBron. You picked the wrong guy. You’ll never win with that guy. LeBron could hear everything. They didn’t care. In Game 5 of their playoff series, Garnett and Pierce pushed things a little further, believing that LeBron was ready to cave again. Down the stretch, Garnett muttered derisive obscenities under his breath anytime LeBron was in earshot, then stuffed him at the rim on a pivotal drive. A little bit later, Pierce nailed a back-breaking 3 right in LeBron’s mug, then yelled, “I have the balls to take that!” as he trotted back down the floor.

In retrospect, they pushed him too far. The Celtics regarded LeBron with a surprising amount of disdain — that’s why Rondo angrily yelped, “Let’s go!” before defending LeBron’s final drive of regulation in Game 2. LeBron ended up settling for a 21-footer against someone seven inches shorter than him, followed by Rondo strutting back to the huddle and probably telling his teammates, “I knew he didn’t have the balls to come at me.” They spent that whole series challenging his manhood; by the end of Game 5, they thought they had broken him. Was that what turned him into a serial killer in Game 6? Not entirely … but it definitely helped. I just don’t think LeBron makes LeLeap without the bullies from Boston.1

So what happens next? Lurking underneath LeBron’s postseason was a scary realization: Miami finally knows what it is. The Heat settled the LeBron/Wade thing, settled the “Is Spoelstra the right coach?” question, figured out their eight-man rotation (only Mike Miller’s spot is in danger2) and realized they’re better off playing Bosh and LeBron as their bigs (a trick that unleashes them offensively and defensively). Oh, and they have the guy playing at the highest level in two decades on their team. Life is good. Even their much-maligned home crowd stepped up with a series of spirited playoff efforts, buoyed by their “us against them” complex (which started with “The Decision” and deepened over time thanks to the national media) and a genuine affection for this team (not just their three stars, but veterans like Miller, Battier and even Juwan Howard). Everything seems to be lined up for an extended run along the lines of Shaq’s Lakers, Michael’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics (combined titles: 17). Before the Finals, I wrote that it would be a historical fluke if LeBron James lost his first three Finals; he was just too good of a player for this to happen. Same goes for LeBron winning multiple titles now that he’s reached that aforementioned Jordan/Russell/Kareem/Bird/Magic/Wilt/Walton zone. History says that, after he finally broke through, it will only get easier from here.

Only one thing can stop him. I happened to be sitting four rows behind the baseline last night, close enough to Oklahoma City’s bench that I could have whipped a coke at Cole Aldrich and maybe even left a mark. Kevin Durant thought the Zombies were winning last night. He strutted through the pregame warm-ups like it was a preseason game. He talked so much good-natured trash with LeBron’s buddy and business partner, Maverick Carter, that security got confused and intervened at one point. When Oklahoma City fell behind in the second quarter, Durant made a basket, ran back upcourt, noticed his teammates sitting placidly, then skipped over to them while clapping his hands, as if he were saying, “Come on! I need you!” Right before the second half started, he went after Maverick again, finally scowling, “fourth quarter’s my time” before walking away.

You can’t believe how many people on that bench assumed Durant would bring them back. They kept waiting for him to catch fire. Even when Miami opened up a 25-point lead and Oklahoma City called timeout — the textbook “This game is O-V-E-R” sequence that so often happens in Finals clinchers — Durant caught his mother’s eye and heard her scream, “Kevin, let’s go!” followed by Durant calmly nodding, as if he actually had a chance of saving them. Not this year. With less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma City trailing by 23, Scott Brooks finally yanked his starters during an emotional timeout, but not before pulling everyone into a close circle and saying God knows what. When the huddle broke, you could see Durant and Serge Ibaka sobbing into towels. Multiple teammates came over to console Durant, with Westbrook finally yelling at him (not as a dick, as a friend) to gather himself before TV cameras found him. Which he did.

Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you’re tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series. Down the line on the other bench, LeBron was hugging teammates and smiling broadly for the first time since … god, when was the last time we even saw LeBron smile? The final buzzer sounded, confetti started falling, and Durant and LeBron quickly found each other for a prolonged hug. You have to believe the rest of the decade is headed that way: summer workout buddies, Olympic teammates, natural rivals. They will see each other again.

And really, that’s the key for LeBron James going forward. Bird and Magic had each other. Russell and Chamberlain had each other. Kareem had a steady slew of rivals to keep him busy: Wilt, Willis, Cowens, Walton and Moses, to name five. Jordan didn’t have anyone; that’s one of the reasons he played baseball for 18 months. You need someone to keep pushing you after you finally break through. When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron’s brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s … and then I’ll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that’s how the NBA works. We’ll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride.

Filed Under: LeBron James, People

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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