In nine years' worth of Hall-of-Fame worthy play, it wasn't until the ninth season where LeBron James would truly come into his own.
He began to find out what type of player he's capable of becoming. Straying out of the comfort zones of isolation settings and hot-and-cold jump shooting, James began to use his physical and mental attributes more than he had in his career until that point. On both ends of the floor, James was putting his body to the test and coming up victorious time and time again.
Outside of finding a post-game and limiting his long-distance jumpers, James also showcased versatility we haven't seen from an NBA player in decades.
He's a small forward, but it's also well-known that James is capable of playing the point guard, and actually did start at the point in his rookie season. At his size, James becomes nearly unstoppable when he's controlling the ball on one end and defending a much smaller opponent on the other. He utilizes his athleticism and versatility too much for any opposing small forward or point guard to handle.
James had been switched out as a small forward and point guard for years with Cleveland and even in his first year with Miami. However, being on the Heat has completely changed the mindset of James as he's continuing to further how versatile of a player he's capable of being. He's continuing the trend of making sacrifices by playing out of his comfort zone and attempting to play his size.
As athletic and physically-gifted as James is, he hasn't always utilized those traits as much as he possibly could have.
It wasn't until this past season with the Heat where James was experimented with at playing even more positions than just the 1 and 3. With his newfound ability to post-up, James was capable of playing the 4 or 5 on the offensive end and would even defend those two positions on the other side of the court. In instances such as his defense against 7' Pau Gasol, James knew exactly how to defend his opponent.
James doesn't allow his man to get to the ball when he's playing at the 4. When he is guarding Gasol, he is fronting him and denying position. Because he's so quick and is able to use his strength to stay low, the passer can't get a clear look at Gasol and Gasol can't find a way to front the much stronger LeBron.
Even against bigger power forwards, James is able to thrive because of his speed. He also creates huge mismatches on offense with that speed against any type of power forward, since there isn't anyone who can play the 4 and defend LeBron. Because he's too quick against bigger 4s and is too strong against lanky 4s, James causes mismatches and forces the opposition to change their rotation.
The Heat recognized this and continued to play James against opposing 4s. Throughout the postseason, James spent time defending Amar'e Stoudemire, David West, Kevin Garnett and even Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. While the length of some—particularly Garnett—prevails, it still causes a great deal of stress to the opposition when having someone as aggressive as LeBron defending them.
Power forwards aren't used to that type of pressure. They're not used to a player as strong and as quick as James fronting them and denying entry passes nor are they accustomed to defending the same player on offense. When James is playing at the 4, the opposition either needs to make a decision on whether to also play small-ball or to continue playing with two bigs.
It's a tough decision either way. If you play small-ball against the Heat, you're playing the game they want to play and helping to clear out space under the rim because you substituted one of your big men for a small forward to defend James. If you leave the pure power forward in the game, you run the risk of James attacking the rim at will, with the defender being pulled out to the perimeter.
Playing small-ball also results in a disadvantage on the rebounds. The Heat would still have Chris Bosh or one of their big men in the game, as well as James who is an excellent rebounder as proven by several key performances on the glass in the postseason, including a 15-rebound effort in Game 1 against Indiana and an 18-rebound performance in Game 4.
James is capable of grabbing at least 10 boards per game; he's just never had that required of him. If he's going to play more at power forward, however, then it may be expected to see him rack up nine rebounds per or more like he did this past season.
Of course, this doesn't mean he is going to stray away from handling the ball. James will still be one of the primary ball-handlers on this team because he is the best facilitator. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole don't have impressive court vision, as opposed to James who stands at 6'8" and has been a facilitator in this league since 2003.
While James did have a great deal of success at playing the 4, it also took a toll on his body. It turns out that defending players with up to four inches of a height advantage on you could take up a lot of energy. That's not a surprise, even for a player like LeBron who isn't entirely used to defending players that size.
Obviously, LeBron playing at the 4 isn't going to be something we see for a large majority of each game. He'll still play at the 3 or the 1, and will occasionally play at the 4 or 5 whenever his team requires it. Mostly we'll see it when the team implements small-ball, where James will most likely be matched up with an opposing small forward or an undersized power.
Moving LeBron to the 4 and having him play at that position obviously makes this Miami Heat team better, and not just because of how effective he is at playing the 4, either. Having James at the 4 means more versatility and more dimensions to this team, which only creates problems for the opposing team.
Needless to say, the Heat aren't like any other team. Outside of having more talent than any other team, they are also a team composed of players who are "positionless," meaning that they have a roster of rotation players who can play multiple positions and aren't reduced to playing only one position on the floor. Basically, specialty players aren't utilized.
Because the Heat have so many weapons and so many different rotations, the defense needs too much time to make adjustments. They have to constantly adjust to LeBron playing just about every position on the floor, as well as Chris Bosh playing at the 4 or 5 and even Dwyane Wade playing at the 1 or 2.
Even the role players get in on the action—specifically Shane Battier, who actually started at the 4 throughout the Heat's series' against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City in the midst of Chris Bosh's absence. Once Bosh came back, Battier still continued to start at the 4, which was key as his three-point shooting would prove to be deadly against the Thunder.
That's one of the greatest benefits of this Heat team—their overall versatility.
Mostly, however, it's LeBron James' versatility that leads this team and has them set for back-to-back championships. While the Heat know above anything else that they have to protect their MVP, they also want to win and they know that LeBron James wants to win another title as well. The Heat certainly won't stress James defending other 4s, but it will occur under the right circumstances.
If you expect to see longer stretches of James at the 4, expect it to come during the postseason when the Heat are adamant about pushing the tempo and keeping the game at their pace. They'll use James at the 4 to eliminate the need for one of their centers and will instead use Chris Bosh or Joel Anthony at the 5.
It would be in the regular season where you see more playing time for the likes of Anthony or Dexter Pittman playing at the 5 for extended stretches.
The Heat have proven that they can win without a pure center, which has helped lead to this new idea of playing without a position and James at the 4 and even at the 5.
James playing at power forward isn't the only key to a Heat dynasty. He'll need significant help from his two superstar teammates, as well as the unsung heroes in the role players who quietly played tremendous roles in the Heat's NBA Finals victory.
No player can do it on his own, but having one as skilled as James certainly makes this winning thing a whole lot easier.
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