What a journey it has been for LeBron James. In the span of three years, James has gone from media darling to public enemy No. 1 to an NBA champion, all while playing the best basketball of his career.
Since James made his decision to leave the humble abode of Cleveland for the flash of Miami, we have been subjected to countless stories on the three-time MVP. Whether you're for or against him, it seems that there is no middle ground when it comes to an individual's feelings with regard to LeBron.
You either love him for how incredibly gifted he is, or you hate him for taking the easy way out and being cocky, since there aren't any NBA players that are as cocky as LeBron, right Paul? Either way, we can't run away from the fact that LeBron James has become a force to be reckoned with and has improved vastly since leaving the Cavaliers.
Joining the Heat and losing the 2011 NBA Finals was the best thing to ever happen to James. It not only added some extra motivation and a sense of urgency, but it also made him completely change his game for the better. He took numerous approaches to improving, especially playing near the basket and playing out of his comfort zone so he could become a better all-around player.
With LeBron's world tour putting the finishing touches on the greatest year of his career, we take a look at the progression James has made since his famous announcement.
When he took off his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey after the team's semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics in 2010, it wasn't a far-fetched idea to believe that it may have been LeBron James' last time ever wearing the only NBA uniform he had been in since 2003.
Come July 8, our suspicions would be correct. Throughout the week prior, Cleveland, New York and New Jersey appeared to be frontrunners for the services of LeBron James. All three teams were campaigning heavily, with the Knicks shelling out their roster and adjusting their cap space for years just for the opportunity.
However, on the day of what would become infamously known as "The Decision," the Miami Heat suddenly appeared as the lead team to acquire James. The Heat had signed Chris Bosh and re-signed Dwyane Wade a few days earlier. Sure enough, they'd complete the holy trinity upon LeBron famously quoting that he was "taking his talents to South Beach."
It was in poor taste to showcase James upsetting the people of Cleveland on national television, but he's since redeemed himself by donating $3 million garnered from the special to charity and apologizing for how "The Decision" panned out.
Miami rejoiced. Everyone else, obviously, did not. Cleveland, in particular, was the most irked by James' decision and responded by taking to the streets, burning the jerseys and destroying the merchandise they once wore and coveted. The Akron-born juggernaut had seven glorious individual seasons with the Cavs, but was striving for more than one NBA Finals sweep and individual honors.
Face it, LeBron James was tired of leading the team to extravagant regular-season success only to see his efforts come up short before he would even reach the NBA Finals. As a two-time MVP leading his team to back-to-back 60-plus-win seasons, James was nearing the point of exhaustion supporting a franchise that had given him inadequate help over seven years.
As of now, it's safe to say that James made the right move.
Animosity only grew over James' decision to join an already stacked team in Miami.
Rather than latching onto a team where he would be the primary player, he was considered to be taking the easy way out because he was joining a team with one of the league's three best players at the time and a power forward who had just averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds the previous season. Critics immediately condemned James for it and referenced how Michael Jordan said he would have never done the same.
It only got worse once the Miami Heat, not LeBron James, decided to throw a welcome party for their three superstars. The organization was proud to be the franchise to acquire the three best players in that year's coveted free-agency class and they wanted to show it off to the public. In a spur-of-the-moment type of deal, the team threw a party for its three stars.
Wade, James and Bosh made a grand entrance, rising from the depths on a motorized platform, and were treated like rock stars, as adoring fans clamored for the chance to have some sort of contact with these three icons. Once the crowd had settled down, they proceeded to interview the trio, each one giving his own prediction of how things would turn out.
The one quote worth pointing out was James' "Not one, not two, not three..." speech. Critics and doubters immediately ran with this, deeming the possibility of LeBron winning as many as eight championships with the Heat an unrealistic expectation, despite it most likely being said in the first place to give fans something worth getting excited over.
The tides were turning against LeBron, as his image and popularity around the league took a considerable hit.
The Miami Heat started off their season with a visit to TD Garden to take on the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.
With the Heat as heavily hyped as they were going into the season, the Celtics took this as a challenge to their supremacy over the East. Since 2008, the Celtics had dominated the East with their original "Big Three" in veterans Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. They had last won a championship in their first season together, which is a key reason as to why the Heat were so heavily favored to run through the schedule.
When the two teams met, it looked like a matchup between a team that had been playing three years together and a team that had just met. The Celtics ran their usual balanced attack, while the Heat featured a disorganized and convoluted offense that could only muster a mere nine points in their first 12 minutes together.
By the half, the Celtics already held a 15-point lead. While the Heat would counter with a strong third, Boston proved in the fourth why it was still the team to beat in the East, eventually winning, 88-80. LeBron had a strong debut with 31 points on 21 shots, but his superstar teammates struggled.
It only got rough for the Heat from there. They had no trouble showcasing their talent against teams like Minnesota and New Jersey, yet they succumbed to the better teams of the league, including a three-game stretch where they lost to Memphis, Indiana and Orlando. Following a loss to Dallas, speculation arose after James appeared to intentionally bump coach Erik Spoelstra during a timeout.
LeBron clearly was having trouble adjusting to playing with teammates of this caliber. Nobody wanted to step on anyone's toes, and James and Wade were deferring to each other rather than playing off of each other, as we've recently seen.
James' numbers were still strong, but it wasn't translating to the amount of success he had hoped for, because he was still attempting to gel with his new teammates and to rid his memory of Cleveland's system.
Following a players-only meeting after the loss to Dallas, the Heat were back on track. With LeBron and Dwyane exchanging the torch, they would lead the team to a 15-1 December.
By season's end, the Miami Heat were hardly the favorites to win a championship, let alone be the team to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Although they finished with a 58-24 record, good enough for the second seed, the Heat had fared horribly against the East's two other top teams in the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.
While each game they had lost to those two teams was close, the Heat only managed one win in seven combined meetings with the teams, including an 0-3 season sweep at the hands of Chicago.
With an enormous amount of pressure on the shoulders of James, he saved his best for last, as we began to see the LeBron of old show up for the postseason. LeBron led the Heat to a first-round series win over the Philadelphia 76ers and then set his sights on the Boston Celtics team that had embarrassed them in their season opener.
A lot had changed from that dreadful day in late October. The Heat stormed out of the gates to win Game 1 by nine and then Game 2 by 11, with James leading the charge in the second game by way of 35 points. Of course, the Celtics wouldn't go away that easily and utilized home-court momentum to take Game 3 by 16 points.
Game 4, however, would belong to the Heat. In a close game throughout, James proceeded to hit some of the biggest shots of his career, including a dagger three-pointer in front of the Celtics' bench, and eventually led the team to an overtime victory courtesy of his 35 points and 14 rebounds. Game 5 would be his, as he'd score the team's final 10 points to secure a 4-1 victory over Boston.
Then came the Bulls, a team the Heat had yet to beat. That was obvious based on the Bulls' 103-82 destruction in Game 1. Of course, the doubters poked their heads out of their shells to make a quip towards James, but quickly hid once James recorded 29 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a Game 2 victory to steal home-court advantage.
With Chris Bosh having the series of his career alongside him, James would help lead the Heat to two victories at home, recording 35 points in an overtime Game 4 win.
It appeared the series was destined to go back to Miami for a Game 6 with the way Chicago was shutting the Heat down in Game 5. The Bulls held a considerable lead with four minutes remaining, only to see James and Wade lead an 18-3 run in the final minutes to steal a victory and the series.
Appropriately, James hit the game-winner and then blocked Derrick Rose's three-point attempt at the buzzer.
James was finally moving on to the Finals. And he wasn't just moving on, either. He was riding a tsunami of momentum. The moment he had been waiting for all year was finally arriving, and with an injection of a healthy dose of confidence after leading his team to a 12-3 record in the East, James was finally ready to win his first title.
The Heat were the favorites to win following their tremendous run through the Eastern Conference's top teams. While the Dallas Mavericks had made quick work of the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder, they were considered underdogs despite Dirk Nowitzki having just as good a postseason as LeBron.
Game 1 went exactly as we pictured it—the Heat utilizing their athleticism to run the Mavericks ragged in a 92-84 victory. LeBron James had 24 points and everything was going according to plan. Game 2 had the same feel as well with the Heat holding a sizable lead in the fourth quarter. However, it was when LeBron James began to celebrate with Dwyane Wade following a three-pointer that the Mavericks became noticeably annoyed and the Heat became noticeably relaxed.
The final eight minutes for the Heat was basketball at its absolute worst. No ball movement, no sense of urgency and no adjustments being made. While the Heat continued to allow James to play out of isolation sets, the Mavericks constantly moved the ball and eventually pulled off a 95-93 victory to take home-court advantage.
Once again, James would struggle in Game 3, but was bailed out by a Chris Bosh jumper in the final seconds that gave the Heat an 88-86 victory to take home court right back.
It would be the last win for the Heat in the 2010-11 season. James went on to score a playoff-career-low eight points in a three-point loss in Game 4, a mere 17 points in a Game 5 loss (although he did record a bare-minimum triple-double) and finished it off with a weak 21 points in the Heat's Game 6 loss at home.
James wasn't the same player. He looked nothing like the player we had just seen dismantle far better defenses nor the player that was leading the Heat in every late-game situation up until then. The Mavericks instilled a zone to limit LeBron, and while it worked on a physical level, it worked far more as a mental deterrent that left James bewildered and out of sorts with regard to how to involve himself.
Needless to say, LeBron James' summer didn't go as he originally planned.
No parades, no hardware, no glory, no redemption. All LeBron had were questions. Questioning whether he made the right move and what he could have done differently. For two weeks, James stewed in his home and weighed his options: Either stew some more or get out and make sure the 2011 Finals never happen again.
The LeBron James soundtrack of the summer mostly showcased blowhard analysts exclaiming how they were right and how he had made the wrong decision. Never mind the fact that it had only been one year, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem were ailing severely, and Mike Bibby absolutely failed the team as a reliable shooter, this all fell on LeBron and he rightfully accepted responsibility because he had become the leader of the team.
The Heat could survive with Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh struggling. They are nothing when LeBron James fails to post 20 points per contest. James' influence on the game is why his teams have fared so well, and when he isn't playing well, his teammates usually fail to replace the void.
It showed just how much of a role James played for the Heat, as not even Wade and Bosh could do enough to lead the team from the brink.
What James did over the summer was reinvent himself. He stayed out of the media spotlight, kept a low-key profile and went to work with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game. Pressure would be at its highest on James in the 2011-12 season, with there being absolutely no excuses if LeBron were to fail to win a title for the second consecutive time.
From the get-go, we knew that LeBron was going to have a special season.
Without putting it too crudely, LeBron James tore the 2011-12 season a new one.
From the start with 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a blowout victory over Dallas in the season opener, we could tell that James was a completely different player. He wasn't settling for long-range jumpers as much and was forcing the issue inside with his new post game. LeBron was setting himself up for high-percentage scores while creating opportunities for his teammates.
In the first 10 games of the season, LeBron had only attempted four three-pointers. Prior to the season, James, Wade and Spoelstra all discussed the need for the two superstars to utilize their physical attributes far more than they had in order to force the game inside, where they are most comfortable.
James steamrolled through the season, but not before an interview where Wade claims he gave up complete control of the team to his three-time MVP teammate. Dwyane decided it would be better for LeBron's legacy and the success of the team if he played a smaller role, allowing LeBron to dictate the offense and not defer to Wade.
Dwyane didn't want to keep taking turns with LeBron. He saw that James was the better athlete and player, eventually deciding that he shouldn't limit the superstar. By passing over the reins, James became far more comfortable in his usual element as the primary scoring option without having to worry about letting his teammates shine.
James would appropriately win MVP after leading the team to the No. 2 seed in the East, averaging 27.1 points, tying a career-best with 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals. Just to throw some more kindling on the fire, James shot a career-high 53 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc.
As James said in his interview, however, he could care less about the MVP and would trade all three for one title.
He wouldn't need to.
Although injuries had taken the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic out of the running, the Miami Heat also faced their fair share of adversity in their postseason run. Injuries and quality opponents made it challenging just to make it to the Finals for a second consecutive season.
The Heat took down the New York Knicks, 4-1, in the first-round, with James going for at least 27 points in all but one game. He not only spent a lot of time defending Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, but he was the clear leader on the offensive end as well. James also reminded us why he was the MVP with a 17-point fourth quarter to give the Heat a victory in Game 3 and an insurmountable 3-0 series lead.
Fortunately for the Heat, Iman Shumpert was done by Game 1 with a torn ACL, Amar'e Stoudemire took himself out of commission in Game 3 and Baron Davis also suffered a torn ACL in Game 4. Jeremy Lin was hurt for the entire series, too, but it's tough to believe that someone who recorded eight points and eight turnovers in their only other meeting would have that much significance.
The Indiana Pacers weren't believed to be a considerable challenge, but quickly became one once Chris Bosh strained his abdomen early in Game 1. While James and Wade led the Heat to a win, Bosh's timetable on when he would return was uncertain, and his status grew only more worrisome once the Heat lost Game 2 at home and then Game 3 in embarrassing fashion.
Facing a 2-1 deficit, James showed the world why he was given the reins to the team, recording 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists to tie the series. From there, James would lead the team to a blowout win in Game 5 and close out the best-of-seven with 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in Game 6, with Wade scoring 41 points.
The Heat appeared ready for another quick series against Boston, taking the first two games at home in the conference finals. Miami had just come up victorious despite Rajon Rondo having the game of his life in Game 2, which would lead you to believe the Celtics had given the Heat their best shot only to come away with nothing.
Then, Chris Bosh's absence started to take its toll. In the form of three consecutive losses where James had 34, 29 and 30 points, respectively, it was obvious the Heat needed Bosh to help stretch the floor. Without Bosh, the Celtics were double-teaming Wade and it forced LeBron to have to pick up too much slack.
The wheels were about to fall off following a Game 5 loss at home that gave Boston a 3-2 series lead. Heading into a stadium where they had lost 14 of their previous 15, it was tough to believe the Heat could pull out a victory, especially with Wade struggling and Bosh ailing. This game was going to be left for LeBron to decide.
45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists later, James and the Heat were ready for Game 7, a Game 7 they would win after running the Celtics ragged in the fourth quarter. James had 31 points and 12 rebounds to put an end to what could have quickly become one of the worst moments of his life.
Alas, he pulled through with a stat line that hadn't been seen since the 1960s and was prepared for a second consecutive NBA Finals appearance, this time facing MVP runner-up Kevin Durant and an offensively gifted Oklahoma City team.
It all came down to this. Within two weeks, we would determine LeBron James' ultimate fate and whether or not joining the Miami Heat was the right move, and if he was capable of leading a team to a championship.
This would be LeBron's third trip to the Finals. However, this Heat team was also the best he's ever played with, including the team from the year before. Although Wade and Bosh were both ailing by this point, James was receiving consistent help from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers along the perimeter and on the defensive end.
Battier played the largest role amongst the supporting cast, especially in the Finals, as he took turns with James defending three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Game 1 was a nightmare for the Heat. They rocketed out to a quick double-digit advantage and then reverted to playing isolation-style basketball, eventually dropping the game and giving plenty of James' critics reason to believe Durant deserved the league MVP after a huge fourth.
Those thoughts were quickly dismissed, as James recorded 32 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists, hitting a huge bank shot late to lead the Heat to a four-point victory in Game 2 over a comeback-determined Thunder team. LeBron and the Heat would play sloppy in Game 3, but executed some terrific defense on Durant and the entire Thunder team to take another close victory.
With Game 4 right around the corner and the Heat holding a 2-1 series lead, the pressure was just as high as it had been in Game 6 against Boston. If the Heat win, they hold a 3-1 series lead with one more game at home. The teams would exchange blows throughout the night, but it would be James hitting a three-pointer, after suffering from a serious leg cramp only a few minutes prior, to give the Heat a comfortable-enough lead to play without him for the final minutes.
With a 3-1 series lead, James would go to work in Game 5 and close out the series with a triple-double: 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds.
LeBron won a deserved Finals MVP after averaging 28 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, and had the look of a child on Christmas morning while grasping the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his hands for the first time.
And the world suddenly got quiet.
Of course, LeBron James' tour wasn't close to over. With the Olympics looming, James opted to attempt to become the first player since Michael Jordan in 1992 to win league MVP, Finals MVP, a championship and a gold medal in the same year.
The gold medal would be the easiest part for James. Not just because of the competition level and the fact that his two best teammates were Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, but also because he was riding one of the greatest highs of his life after winning his first title. With momentum and confidence, James rode into London with a relaxed, "I got this" feeling.
While Wade and Bosh stayed home to tend to their ailments and get some needed rest, James went to work. He would lead the team to five exhibition victories and later make his presence felt in the Olympics with incredible all-around performances in every game, although he didn't play too often because Team USA was usually up by a considerable margin by halftime.
When the team needed a hero most, however, it was LeBron swooping in to save the day. With the Americans down, 84-82, to Lithuania in the fourth quarter, James would quickly make the transition from passive to aggressor, leading his team to a 99-94 victory behind nine fourth-quarter points, including a huge three-pointer to give the team some breathing room.
He would also be needed in the gold-medal game against Spain. With the Spaniards threatening late, it was LeBron to the rescue with an easy flush after miscommunication on Spain's part. Then, he hit a dagger three-pointer to give Team USA the margin they needed to stave off an upset-hungry team that was still seething from 2008.
James would receive the utmost admiration and respect from coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, with Boeheim even adding that he hadn't seen anyone play as well as LeBron since Michael Jordan.
And then we reach today. James is set to be out of the media's eye until preseason begins, although coach Spoelstra recently said in an interview that a few Heat players are already meeting up in preparation for next season. While he didn't specify who, it wouldn't be surprising if the basketball fiend in LeBron forced him to play.
At long last, James is finally garnering the respect he's rightfully deserved, and with doubters crowding around and hyping up the Los Angeles Lakers as the team ready to topple the Heat, there's no doubt that LeBron will be looking to add some necessary silence to the world for new time's sake.