LeBron James disappearance in the Finals was good for basketball, but not for the reasons you might think

I want to see LeBron James win an NBA championship someday.

In fact, I want to see him win several. If I had to wager on it, I would guess that he will win several. Eventually.

I just didn't want to see him win this one. 


Feeling that way has very little to do with the infamous broadcast of "The Decision" -- a miserable Song Of Myself that I loathed at the time, but have since mostly forgotten. And it has virtually nothing to do with the idea that he bailed on the people of Cleveland, betraying them somehow, by taking his talents to South Beach to play with his friends. He didn't handle that particularly admirably, but James' faults seem to be more about a lack of self-awareness than they do any villainous calculation. 

Instead, I rooted against him this week because I don't want his greatness to come so easily. Because if it does, we'll never know how good LeBron James could have been. 


There has been some talk in recent days that the Heat need to blow up their triumvirate and start over, even though they made it to the NBA Finals in their first season together. Or that they need a better point guard, or a deeper bench. I honestly don't think they need to add or subtract anyone.

But what they could definitely benefit from is James spending the offseason trying to develop a mid-range game or the ability to play with his back to the basket.

Yes, he is a wonderful basketball player, already one of the best ever. But so much of that right now is his off-the-charts athleticism. He is a blend of size and speed the NBA has truly never seen, a tank with the engine of a Porsche. He's also incredibly smart, with a beautiful gift for seeing the floor, especially in transition. But there is very little poetry to his game. And to truly be the greatest player of all time, he needs a little poetry to go with all that thunder. He needs the soft touch of an artist. Because all the great ones have it. 

I don't think it's a question of desire with him. I think he wants it. But it's also about acknowledging there are still holes in his game, and that he'd benefit from about 800 mid-range jumpers and 300 post moves a day in the offseason. Part of his struggles against the Mavs have to do with the fact that he just doesn't have the feel for the beautiful mid-range jumper that Michael Jordan (and later Kobe Bryant) made a living off of.

When people say his problems are all in his head, and that his game is just fine, I think they partially miss the point. It's impossible to stop someone who has mastered all the nuances of basketball. A go-to move provides confidence and comfort in times of duress. Jordan has no equals in history because he was the greatest pressure player of all time, but a huge part of the reason he's the greatest pressure player of all time is you couldn't take away everything, and he knew it. If you cut off his drives to the basket, he nailed a 12-footer over your outstretched arm. If you pushed him to the perimeter, he hit 3-pointers and shrugged his shoulders with false modesty. When he couldn't run and jump with the grace of a gazelle, he developed a post-up game. He was never satisfied with who he was, even at the peak of his powers.  

LeBron James doesn't have those nuances to his game, but that's because he's never had to have them. He's always been the most talented player on the court, dating back to the time he was 10 years old. And when you're on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, there probably aren't a ton of people who can pull you aside and say to you: "You still need to work on this, even though you're amazing at so many other things."

It will be interesting to see what kind of introspection the offseason brings for James. I don't blame him at all for lacking any right now. The failure is too raw. But there is a reason Kobe Bryant has 5 NBA Championships, and it's not just that he played with Shaquille O'Neal for three of them. It's because he was completely obsessed with studying game tape of older players and trying to incorporate their brilliance into his own game. When Bryant came into the league, all he could do was go to the basket. So he worked hard all summer and shot thousands of jumpers a day until he had a mid-range game. Then he developed a credible 3-point shot. Then he worked on playing with his back to the basket. In many ways, he was just copying Jordan's evolution, plagiarizing it even, but it's tough to knock him too much for copying Jordan note-for-note. Why wouldn't you want steal the work habits of the greatest guard of all time?

Great players evolve, especially when they are tested. Magic Johnson learned to become a better outside shooter, and developed a baby-sky hook to give him a post game. Tim Duncan developed a robotic, mechanical and fabulously consistent bank shot turnaround. Karl Malone turned into a very good jump shooter coming off the pick and roll. Shaq developed an ugly but effective jump hook and became a very good passer out of double teams. Larry Bird became a better passer and pretty decent defender as his career went on, before injuries derailed it. There are countless other examples.

LeBron has already fixed some holes in his game. He became a good defensive player, having realized after playing next to Bryant in Olympics that he wasn't working hard enough. And he's a better outside shooter than he used to be, although he's more streaky than good. But he's still needs to evolve. He needs a go-to move that will restore his confidence in moments when it's been shaken. I suspect -- actually I hope -- he will find one.

If he doesn't, it will be a failure not just for him personally, but for an generation of coddled athletes. We live in an era of hyper-analysis, where everyone is in a rush to anoint someone the Greatest Of All Time at the youngest possible age, even before they've accomplished what really matters. We run the risk of it stunting their long-term growth. The struggle is all part of the process. We're rushing to see athletes on the summit, when the climb is the most interesting part.


There is a scene in Good Will Hunting that keeps popping into my mind when I think about LeBron. It's the scene near the end of the film where Will and Chuckie are taking a break from their construction job, sharing a few beers as well as details of their lives, when Chuckie (in a wonderfully underplayed moment by Ben Affleck) gets annoyed with his best friend for implying he plans to live out his days in blue collar Boston, brushing off the opportunity to push the boundaries of applied mathematics.

Chuckie: Look, you got something none of us have.

Will: Oh come on. Why is it always this: I [bleeping] owe it to myself? 

Chuckie: No, no, no. [Bleep] you. You don't owe it to yourself man. You owe it to me. ... Cause I'd give anything to have what you've got.

LeBron James' enablers would scoff at the suggestion that he owes anything to us, but they're wrong. They're confusing the issue, implying people feel he owed it to Cleveland to stay there and try to win a championship. He didn't owe that to Cleveland. But he does owe the game of basketball something. He has a chance to take basketball, as an art form, to places it's never been. That's his burden and his gift. If you dub yourself The Chosen One, you're robbing us all if you can't be bothered to tap into every last ounce of your talent.

Had Dirk Nowitzki not come up big so many times in the Finals, James almost certainly would have won his first NBA Championship. His fourth quarter disappearing acts would have been soon forgotten, and he would have felt no impetus this offseason to reflect on the flaws that remain in his otherwise brilliant game. He might have won two or three more rings, eventually overpowering his opponents, but I bet he would have grown comfortable and content with those results. He would not finish with six rings (or more), because no one gets that many simply by being better than everyone else. You have to want it more.


Now we have that chance. There is no room left for excuses, only reflection. It won't come easily to LeBron James, and that's a good thing. For us, and for him.

Now we have the opportunity -- the chance -- to bear witness to something truly special.