NBA Finals 2012: Charting the Evolution of LeBron James

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 20, 2012

Following the Miami Heat's 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron James finds himself and his teammates one game away from that elusive Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

The NBA's most compelling artist in the past 15 years is 48 minutes from completing his masterpiece.

His journey to the game's apex has been more publicized than that of any athlete before, or since his arrival on basketball's main stage. A real-life, unscripted Truman Show, if you will.

He garnered his first national feature in SLAM magazine issue No. 54 at age 16. He held the starring role in a documentary (More Than A Game) before graduating high school. Then, he shouldered the weight of an entire franchise as an 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick faced with the daunting task of bringing his adopted hometown Cleveland (he's an Akron native) Cavaliers to prominence.

The aptly dubbed "King" James needed all of one professional game before David Stern commissioned his coronation. On Oct. 29, 2003, at just 18 years and 303 days young, James tallied 25 points (on 12-of-20 shooting), nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in his NBA debut.

However, to say that James' pursuit of the most coveted piece of NBA hardware has been anything but a struggle would be a fallacy.

His seven-year tenure in Cleveland was constantly ridiculed by the national media, which expected the young superstar to capture championship banners with junior varsity teammates.

To say James was the Cleveland Cavaliers is even too complimentary to the rest of the roster.

He led the team in scoring and steals all seven seasons in Cleveland, in assists six seasons, and even in rebounding once. He poured his soul into bringing the city of Cleveland a championship. In 619 regular-season and postseason games with the Cavs, James amassed 17,332 points, 4,459 rebounds and 4,330 assists in more than 25,000 minutes.

Still, he was criticized for not bringing the right hardware to Cleveland, despite the fact that you could fill several Brink's trucks with all of the hardware he had brought to the city: two MVP awards, four All-NBA first-team selections, two All-NBA second-team selections, two NBA All-Defensive first-team selections, six All-Star selections, two All-Star Game MVP awards and an NBA Rookie of the Year award. (Whew.)

However, his evolution—from high school phenom to NBA highlight reel to global superstar with billionaire aspirations—turned toward its pinnacle two summers ago.

He had long ago grasped the fact that his legacy, like all superstars before him, would be defined by championships. It was the summer of 2010, though, when James realized what the rest of us had realized years before: He would not win a championship when his best teammates were Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes.

Michael Jordan did not win his rings alone. Neither did Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or any other superstar with a championship to his name.

So, James decided he would test the free-agent market and see if there was a better opportunity for him elsewhere. He also decided he would announce his future employer during an hour-long special on ESPN dubbed simply "The Decision."

Perhaps had he opted to announce his intentions to stay in Cleveland, the reactions would have been different. Once he uttered the now infamous phrase, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," the backlash began.

Despite the fact that six franchises had rolled out red carpets for lavish presentations in their courtship of the King, and despite the fact that "The Decision" dominated TV ratings, the sports world vilified James and the Miami Heat.

Basketball's golden boy was now the most hated man in America, opting for the bright lights of Miami (and the chance to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) while leaving the Cavaliers with the tangled mess of a roster they had built to "win a ring for the King" and piles of the charred remains of James' Cleveland jerseys torched by fans-turned-scorned lovers.

However, with the challenge of forging together this conglomerate of free agents unlike anything the league had seen, there was little time to defend the televised announcement or the decision to play in Miami.

James and his new Heat teammates tried to embrace the role of villains throughout last year, while also learning how to play alongside one another. The team's identity was cloudy at best, and James and Wade continually deferred to the other to lead the squad.

Despite the tumultuous season off the court, James was brilliant on it (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists). His offseason missteps had cost him the popularity vote, so, as is often the case in the NBA (see: Kobe Bryant), he would not be awarded his third MVP. 

Without a true identity, the Heat still managed a berth in the 2011 NBA Finals. But James struggled in his complementary role, and the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks captured the championship in six.

LeBron was massacred in the national media following the series, but rather than sulk, James sought out the best of the best to take his game to a higher level.

He worked with Hakeem Olajuwon to develop the post game that coach Erik Spoelstra has featured so prominently in these finals. He underwent a grueling four-day training session, dubbed "Hell Week," with his now-finals nemesis, Kevin Durant.

The result of that hard work technically remains to be seen; the Heat do need one more win, after all. In terms of statistics, this was not his most impressive season (27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals). Although, it was impressive enough to capture his third MVP award.

However, it's his attitude and demeanor that show just how far along this evolution has come. He has never looked more focused on the floor. Rather than shying away from the moment, as was his (often-undeserved) alleged M.O., James has embraced it.

He's commanded the basketball and produced when he's touched it; he's the first player in NBA history with at least 650 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists in a single postseason.

He's passing too well to double-team him and he's abusing his defender when the double-team doesn't come. He's tied with Chris Bosh for the team lead with a 7.9-rebound average, despite being the main facilitator in Spoelstra's offense.

The noted basketball student even provided his nostalgic moment from this series, with the proverbial nail-in-the-coffin three-pointer moments after returning to the court with obviously debilitating leg cramps in Game 4.

We've watched James' every move since he burst onto the scene at St. Vincent-St. Mary, but we've never seen him quite like this.

It's called evolution, folks. And it's possibly hours from its completion.