LeBron James just changed the way basketball is going to be played in the NBA for the next 10 years. If you don't believe me, I dare you to read the rest of this column and then try to disagree with me.
Basketball is a game that was designed so that taller people would be good at it. The goal is 10 feet high, meaning you have to shoot the ball up, which also means that taller people can get their hands up and block, tip or change a shot.
In the early NBA, big guys dominated the sport. George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton were game changers, and having one of those players on your roster meant you had a chance to win championships. Trying to secure a great center became a basketball arms race.
If you didn't have a big, dominant post player, you didn't really have a chance.
This was basically true through the 1980's. The Lakers and Celtics won eight championships in the decade, with Kareem manning the pivot for the Lakers, while the Celtics had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The Sixers had Moses Malone for the 1983 championship team. Even the Detroit Pistons 1989 and 1990 championship squads featured a fearsome front line that was so physical they were called "The Bad Boys."
So while Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas were no doubt the stars of those teams, they couldn't have won a championship in that era without the big men on their roster.
That all changed in 1991 when Michael Jordan won his first NBA Championship with Bill Cartwright as his starting center. I'm not trying to discount Cartwright or the players that followed him like Stacey King, Luc Longley or any of the other big men on those Bulls teams, but the fact is that Michael Jordan was a completely different kind of player.
Michael Jordan changed the way basketball was played.
Jordan was a 6'6" freak of an athlete, and he was a shooting guard. Jordan made a living posting up smaller two guards. I can remember it like it was yesterday, Jordan going down low to post up Jeff Hornacek in the NBA Finals. Jordan's size and athleticism changed the two guard position, and in turn, changed the way NBA rosters were formed.
Michael Jordan was able to win six championships without an elite center, and this not only devalued the center position, but it meant that NBA two guards couldn't be a smallish 6'4" anymore. If they were, Jordan would pulverize them. This forced teams to get bigger in the back court. It changed the game.
Think of the "elite" centers that Jordan competed against—Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. Ewing never won a ring. Olajuwon won two when Jordan tried to play baseball. Robinson and O'Neal didn't win anything until after Jordan retired for good.
That was the last time the NBA had several good, quality big men. Because Jordan proved you could win without a center, the position became obsolete. The next wave of big men like Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan—all players that probably would have been centers in another era—became power forwards. They were finesse players.
So what does any of this have to do with LeBron James? Just keep reading.
LeBron James came into the NBA as a 6'8" man child playing small forward. He is perhaps the best all-around athlete to ever play in the NBA. He is the biggest, fastest, strongest small forward in the league, a gifted passer, and a lethal scorer when he needs to be.
The only chink in LeBron's armor, in my opinion, was that he had no low post game. With all of his physical advantages, like Jordan before him, LeBron should have been able to abuse anybody at his position in the low post. For some reason, LeBron spent the first seven seasons of his career playing point forward, where he was still a great player, but where some players could match up to him.
That all changed this year.
LeBron went to the low post, and he destroyed smaller, weaker players. Teams tried to counter by putting bigger people on him, but LeBron simply took them out to the perimeter where he could take them off the dribble. LeBron finally became the matchup nightmare he was born to be.
According to his NBA info page, LeBron is 6'8", 250 pounds. To give you some perspective, Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the most rugged power forwards in the NBA, is 6'9, 260 pounds. LeBron is actually bigger, stronger and far more explosive than most NBA power forwards.
The Miami Heat played a "small ball" lineup that featured point guard Mario Chalmers, shooting guard Dwyane Wade, small forward Shane Battier, power forward LeBron James and center Chris Bosh. The fact that Bosh, who in my opinion is a soft player, could even dream about playing center in the NBA speaks volumes about James' impact on the game.
From his power forward position, James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. By playing James at power forward, that dictated every matchup on the floor in the NBA Finals. Serge Ibaka, the starting power forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder, has no shot at guarding James on the perimeter.
The Thunder were forced to either (a) take Ibaka out of the game, or (b) have Ibaka guard Shane Battier. When Ibaka did guard Battier that meant that he was out guarding the three-point line, which took the best shot blocker in the game out of the equation.
The Thunder were then forced to (a) put James Harden or Thabo Sefalosha on James, where they had absolutely no chance to guard him in the post, or (b) put Kevin Durant on James, where he would get pushed around, get tired and could possibly get into foul trouble.
My point is, LeBron James is already the best small forward in the NBA, and if he wanted to be, he'd also be the best power forward in the NBA. Name one power forward in the NBA right now that could guard James. You can't do it.
Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer... please. None of these guys have a snowballs' chance at guarding James. James would give up a little bit trying to guard some of these guys at the other end of the floor, but I'd argue that he would more than hold his own.
Either way, James' total impact on offense, and the greater floor spacing he provides by basically having four perimeter players on the floor at all times, more than makes up for any disadvantage he might have in trying to guard a guy like Pau Gasol.
Just look at the impact that James playing power forward had on Mike Miller in Game Five of the NBA Finals. With James, Wade, Chalmers and Miller spreading the floor, along with the spacing that a player with Bosh's skill set provides, Miller was left with several open looks. Again, the Thunder had a mismatch at both forward spots because LeBron James is a mismatch when he plays power forward.
I think LeBron James' future is at power forward. Just like teams had to change their roster to account for Jordan, I think in the next five years you will see the traditional "power forward" become obsolete in the NBA. James' impact will force teams to draft hybrid forwards that can attempt to contain him.
If you don't have a player like this on your roster, just like the Thunder found out last night, you won't have a chance to beat the Heat. Basically, if you don't start building a roster to compete with James, you're not playing for a championship.
Power forwards will become centers. Blame it on Greg Oden for getting hurt, or on Eddy Curry for being so lazy, but there aren't enough good centers to go around anyway. Either way, LeBron James just changed the game of basketball with his performance in the NBA Finals.
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