LeBron James claims that losing the 2011 NBA Finals was the best thing that's ever happened to him.
Why not go a little further and attribute the overall change in his all-around game to leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Then again, the public's response to that would be slightly overwhelming to say the least. Even with a championship, a Finals MVP, and yet another league MVP earned over the past season, James still has an image to repair and protect. Hell, James could probably sweep the next decade's worth of titles, and he'd still receive some sort of scrutiny.
I'm not one to go into the "could've, should've, would've" scenarios, but you do have to wonder what type of player James would be after another two seasons in Cleveland—or anywhere else for that matter.
Does he lose the NBA Finals in his first year, which exploits a significant weakness in his game? This is a weakness that is immediately strengthened over the course of a summer's worth of workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon. Does he then transfer it to the actual game itself, commit to it throughout the regular and postseason, and then ultimately, utilize it to win his team a title?
Right before our eyes, LeBron has grown from an immature athlete to a champion with a strictly business mindset in the span of two seasons. That's what can happen when you were humbled as much as James was in 2011. Following three incredible series against Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, LeBron was kept under wraps for the final five games of the Heat's series against Dallas.
How exactly did James go from unstoppable to nonexistent in the span of a few weeks? There's a simple explanation. The Mavericks made him play the way they wanted him to. They instilled a zone defense to restrict his drives, forced him into jumpers and made him play with his back to the basket whenever he did get near the rim.
Suddenly, James was without a go-to scoring method. The juggernaut that is LeBron, a player who had averaged at least 26 points per game in seven consecutive seasons, finished the series averaging 17 points per game and even had as low as eight points in Game 4. It wasn't a matter of James quitting on his team; it was James playing without any answers.
The most effective method, however, was making him lose his confidence. Because he wasn't playing comfortable and wasn't seeing shots miss that are usually makes, James wilted under the pressure and couldn't recover. He was still making his presence felt at other facets of the game, but it wasn't nearly enough for the Heat to pull out a victory against a balanced attack.
James vowed it would never happen again; he vowed to improve. He knew that he was the best player in the world, and he wouldn't allow a second finals loss deter him from seeing that. There were obvious flaws in his game, and the Mavericks exposed them; there's no other way to put it. LeBron would have to eradicate those weaknesses and make them the strongest part of his game.
A year later and LeBron James is an NBA champion. What happened? The 2011 weakness became the 2012 strength. By enabling his newfound ability to play with his back to the basket, James devastated team after team with easy scores in high-percentage areas and strategic passes to cutters and open shooters.
The Heat had 14 three-pointers in Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. LeBron assisted on nine of those shots to finish with 13 for the night. Each shot was just as good a shot as you could get thanks in part to the influence James attracts when he's in post. Because he's so close to the basket, it's natural for every defender to check him and see what he'll possibly do.
And is there a way to stop it? Not if LeBron has anything to say about it. He's 6'8", weighs upwards of 270 pounds, quicker than a point guard and will have an advantage over whoever his defender is when he is in the post. If they double-team him, all it does is leave a teammate open for James to find with his elite court vision.
It took LeBron James eight years to find out that he could utilize his size outside of fast-break and isolation settings. Sure, he tried working out of the post with Cleveland but hardly ever did he utilize it as consistently as he did with the Heat in the 2011-12 season. The difference is James and the Heat came in with a game plan at the start of the season and stuck with it throughout.
James, Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra all reinforced the idea of only taking high-percentage shots heading into the season. Coach "Spo" didn't want to see his two best slashers restricting themselves to perimeter jumpers. This idea led to James working in the post more due to opponents packing the paint in order to restrict the drives of himself and Dwyane's.
As a result, James went from taking 3.5 three-point attempts in his first season with Miami to only 2.4 in the championship year. Compared to the 5.1 attempts he was taking in his final season with Cleveland, we can only wonder as to why the Cavaliers didn't attempt to strongly utilize the physical attributes James was gifted.
James addressed the decrease through an interview with hoopshype.com
"I just changed my approach. I decided to stay away from the three-point line and going to the post. Make it a little bit easier for myself and for my teammates. I got more and more comfortable going down there and it was a success."
It's not just motivation and losing a championship that drove him, it's LeBron willingly playing out of his comfort zone in order to make himself a better player. He knew he had to find ways to improve his game, so he went at his core weakness and made it the strongest facet of his game possibly for years to come.
What? You thought LeBron was done with posting up? This is only getting started. LeBron just won a championship in five games because of this; he's only going to want to improve it.
In fact, in that same interview, he actually made a statement regarding his post game and what he plans to do over the offseason:
"I can see that happening. I feel very comfortable down there, more comfortable than I've ever felt in my career. So I would see myself down there a lot more, and work my game from there."
It should still be expected of James to run the occasional isolation, but it appears that he's more committed to making himself and his teammates better through posting-up near the basket. The more he plays down there, the more comfortable he'll get with his footwork and passing out of double-teams, both of which are already impressive parts of his game.
By doing so, he keeps the defense's attention within the perimeter, which should lead to open jumpers for the likes of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. With those two, as well as the likes of Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, taking attention out to the perimeter, it also opens up the lane for cutters since all eyes are on James.
The scariest part of LeBron's post game is just how far he can catch the ball. He doesn't need to establish himself on the low block beforehand, because he can just as easily catch it on the perimeter and then proceed to back his opponent down. Before you know it, James has just posted up 20 feet and suddenly has a high-percentage shot attempt on the way.
The fact that he's only going to improve on this should put the entire NBA on notice. Unless you have an experienced player at defending down low, who must also have the strength and speed to defend James, then you wouldn't have to worry. Since none of those players exist, however, it's going to be difficult for any team that has to find a way to limit LeBron.
What possible answers are there when it comes to defending a talent like the three-time MVP? You can pack the paint only so many times before he comes up with an answer that's either going to result in him finding other ways to score or creating ways for his teammates to score. With Allen and Lewis on the team, it's only going to be more of a risk to pack the paint against this Heat team.
So, what exactly can you do against LeBron when he's posting up or attempting to?
"Make him go left." He's ambidextrous.
"Double-team him." Have you seen his teammates?
"Deny him the ball." That's easier said than done.
This certainly does cause quite the quandary for opponents, doesn't it?
Even forcing him into jumpers is going to be a problem now that he's feeling confident in his abilities as a post player. LeBron is only going to look toward the shots that are going to benefit his team for the greater good of winning a title, making it doubtful that he'd force himself into situations he knows he's not entirely confident in.
The jump shot will be there for James. What matters most is that he continues to assert the issue inside. As long as his influence and presence is being felt in the middle, his team will only get better as they thrive off his passing ability and confidence. It also happens to make things a little easier for those teammates, since James will be commanding so much attention.
Posting up has made James a completely different player—a smarter player to be exact. Not to say that he wasn't a smart basketball player before, but he completely changed up his mentality and overall demeanor by allowing himself to post up more than he has in his entire playing career. The ability created more confidence for a player who thrives heavily on what his mind will allow him to do.
The only person capable of stopping, or even limiting, LeBron James is LeBron James himself. There isn't a single defender in the league who can guard him, nor is there a player who can match his overall strength and speed. Not even a team defense, such as a zone, could stop LeBron, as he found himself beating every zone defense he faced last season.
That's the problem when you run into a player who's capable of scoring 40 points any given night but decides to play as a facilitator, instead. This is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of player we have on our hands, and the fact that he only wants to improve is a true testament to the work ethic and discipline that is possessed by a three-time MVP.
Because he sees that hard work brings success, his progression as one of the best to ever play this game is just starting to come full circle as he continues to add new elements to an already extremely polished game.
It's that commitment to excellence that's going to vault LeBron to the pinnacle of this game.