Team USA wins a gold medal, and it becomes yet more "redemption" for LeBron James. And he was great—as he usually is—in those Olympic Games. But man, it's so odd to see so much praise heaped on the once-loathed.
LeBron has won a shiny ring, so now the discussion changes. It's really that simple—and really that stupid. Basketball may be a team sport, prone to runs of good and bad luck, but we prefer to view a title as the ultimate vindication for the best player on that championship squad.
Before the Miami Heat won a title, most talk about the Heat was negative. If they won a close game, the results were shrugged at. If they lost a tough one, it was highlighted as revealing of their true nature.
Now that LeBron is in the winner's column, the evidence changes—or at least our view of it. We now look to his play as indicative of the right stuff, that which speaks to a new winner's mentality. Take this Adrian Wojnarowski passage about the end of Sunday's Spain-USA gold-medal game (via Yahoo! Sports):
James grabbed the ball at the top of the circle, pushed past Spain's defenders, past the free-throw line and leaped into the air, holding that ball and the sport higher and higher until it was just James and a thunderous dunk to redeclare the gulf between him and everyone else.
Soon, James was isolated again, bringing poor, perplexed Marc Gasol all the way back out to the 3-point line and delivering a swish over the 7-footer.
It was an impressive display from James, and Wojnarowski isn't wrong for highlighting it. But I can't help but wonder whether we'd spotlight these few plays had 'Bron not been coming off a title.
James was equally fantastic in the 2008 Olympics, good for top two on the team, along with Dwyane Wade, and the Games were mostly cited as Kobe's time in Beijing. Bryant had 2008 FIBA stats inferior to those of James, but he was the more lauded player at the time. Also, the Lakers star had a fairly awesome final against Spain.
So, Kobe's paltry FIBA stats were ignored in favor of the "evidence" that his gold-medal game presented. Confirmation bias demanded that James' superior Beijing stats be forgotten in favor of re-declaring Bryant the NBA's No. 1 player at the time. Or, as ESPN's Bill Simmons put it after the game:
Was this Kobe's team or LeBron's? Fast-forward to 8:13 left: Fernández's three cuts the lead to two; the crowd is going bonkers. Spain's bench reacts like a euphoric 15-seed during a March Madness upset, and the U.S. calls timeout. All along, my biggest fear had been a tight game and multiple USA guys saying, "I got it!" Instead, everyone deferred to Kobe, who made some monster plays to clinch it. Know that in the history of the NBA we have never had the best-player-alive argument resolved so organically. Incredible.
Also mentioned by Wojnarowski and Simmons (as well as by many other columnists), were Kevin Durant's 2012 Olympic exploits. He led the team in points and took over in a key stretch against Team Spain.
I wonder: Had Oklahoma City won the 2012 title, would we be talking about how KD proved himself to be the world's preeminent player or how James had revealed himself as Durant's Olympic sidekick?
It would appear that the once-ringless LeBron is getting praise for the same reason for which he was unfairly criticized before. We divine winner qualities from his skill set, now that his skills have finally accompanied a title run. Before, we looked for predictive flaws because he had not yet won. The reasons for praise are just as foolish as the prior reasons for scorn.