What Kevin Durant and Other NBA Stars Can Learn from LeBron James' Banner Year
In the last year, James has seen himself win an NBA title, league MVP, Olympic Gold and now Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award for 2012.
Two years ago, when James had first announced on national television that he would be spurning the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of the Miami Heat, none of us—including James himself—would have thought this possible.
With one swift decision, and in a matter of seconds, James became the most hated man in all of sports. From then on, everything changed—once again, including James himself.
After a year of playing and seemingly embracing the role of villain, LeBron turned everything around. He used 2012 as a vessel to get to greener pastures and a point where he was, at the very least, begrudgingly respected.
And now he's at that point—one that saw him lay claim to all of the aforementioned feats and transform himself as both a person and athlete.
All the while, LeBron became someone stars like Durant can come to not only admire, but on many levels, emulate.
5. Realizing Stardom Is a Responsibility
The NBA is to be taken seriously. It cannot be all fun and games—especially for superstars.
Enjoying one's self and what they do is completely acceptable. After all, these guys are professional basketball players. But they must understand that being a superstar is not just a gift, it's a burden as well.
Prior to last season, James admitted to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated that he didn't always understand this, but ultimately realizing it paid huge dividends:
But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am.
James' admission that he needed to assert himself as a responsible player, teammate and person led to massive changes and modifications in his demeanor that Jenkins himself acknowledges:
He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch.
Simply put, LeBron committed to becoming more a responsible All-Star, a devotion that culminated in a historic year.
Now, not all superstars face the same obstacles as James. Few consider guys like Durant to be a villain.
But that doesn't mean they can't learn from LeBron. Take Durant himself: He's obviously as committed an athlete as there is, but he has to take it upon himself to put this kind of pressure on his shoulders.
No, that doesn't entail taking all the emotion out of one's game, but it does require limiting argued calls, exaggerated facial expressions and approaching every game against every opponent the same way.
James orchestrated such a change in attitude only last season, and look at where it's got him now.
4. Reject Complacency
No one is perfect, not even James. And the fact that he realizes it is half the championship-caliber battle.
Once you accept that you've reached your peak as a player, you have set precedent for complacency. Once you become complacent, you feel the need to prove nothing. From there, you lose that drive. You lose that productive chip that should always be placed upon your shoulder.
LeBron has never lost it. He's only accentuated it, something Heat president Pat Riley admits to Jenkins:
"In every adversity there is a seed of equivalent benefit," Riley says, and the Boat finds it. When James lost in the Finals in 2007, with the Cavaliers, he remade his jump shot. When he fell again in 2011, with the Heat, he built a post game. James was born with supernatural ability, but he lets none of it lie dormant. He extracts every ounce, through a distillation process created and refined by failure.
Complacency is the enemy of progress, and a lack of progress is the enemy of success.
James' jump shooting was criticized, so he honed his perimeter mechanics. He began to rely too heavily on his rim and perimeter attack, so he materialized a post game.
He never settled, especially in 2012, and that steered him toward a historic year.
A year that serves as a message to all superstars; one that makes it clear settling for what you have and what you can already do isn't acceptable.
3. Play for Your Team...
Team-first basketball is not to be discounted, and James now knows why.
He was never what you would consider a selfish player, yet when he left Cleveland for Miami, he put the needs of his then team on the back-burner to focus on himself.
Reasonable? After nearly a decade of no championships, perhaps. But his nasty quips during postgame press conferences throughout 2010-11 were laced with a hint of selfishness. His post-finals scolding of reporters in 2011 was certainly selfish. And one could even argue that by then, LeBron was strictly playing for himself.
But as Jenkins helps prove, there is no such case to be made anymore:
As he sipped chamomile tea, he was asked what drives him in the middle of November, at the end of a long trip, against a forgotten team in a faraway city. The Finals, and a potential rematch with Durant, were more than six months away.
James tugged on his Heat cap.
Do you know what James did after he "tugged" on the Heat cap of his? He went on to lead a struggling Heat team to victory over the Phoenix Suns while combating flu-like symptoms.
How's that for a team player?
Gone are the days when he plays for himself. Gone are the days where individual accolades are all he's about. Instead, he's a team-oriented guy. His teammates drive him; the logo on his jersey drives him.
And that's something all superstars—especially ringless ones—can learn from.
It's not about winning yourself a championship or winning your first championship. It's about winning as a team, playing for the team.
Because when you assume that stance, you can never lose. Even in defeat.
2. ...But Know When to Takeover
Taking over a game almost goes against everything team-first basketball represents. Almost.
But it doesn't. Not when your team needs you to bear the burden of their fate alone; not when your teammates have encountered limitations that are non-existent for yourself.
This was a notion James visibly struggled to understand for the better part of a decade. He either tried to do too much himself, or didn't do enough, hence his supposed shortcomings during crunch time.
However, 2012 saw a LeBron that understood how to balance statistical and emotional leadership. All it takes is a quick look at Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals to understand that.
With the Heat down 2-1, James understood the Heat needed him to takeover. So what did he do? He dropped 40 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and dished out nine assists, all while helping Dwyane Wade score 30 of his own:
"He knew it was the game of the series," Pat Riley said of LeBron James in Game 4 against Indiana. "It was no longer about being a team player. He had to carry us."
All season, James had allowed his teammates to lean on him, yet had no problem reciprocating such confidence.
But there comes a time when every star has to play the role of savior. The problem therein is their ability to distinguish between when to take over and when to embrace the art of team-first basketball.
It's difficult to establish such a balance. LeBron himself spent more than eight years failing to comprehend it. Yet once he realized it, he embraced it, and has yet to let it go.
And others like Durant, who continue to struggle with such a task, would be wise to follow suit.
Failing to find that balance won't win you any championships. Striving to be more like James is now, however, will.
1. Humility Above-All
I'm not about to sit here and lecture Durant on humility. The man is as humble as they come. Yet again, there is something to be learned from LeBron getting back to his roots and understanding what it means to be an NBA player and what it means to be a role-model.
Truth be told, James has never not been a charitable being. Even his infamously ridiculed decision raised millions for various Boys & Girls clubs.
On the court, however, he lacked something—he lacked purpose. A fragment of purpose, to be more specific.
He was always playing for a championship; that was always his ultimate goal. But he was also playing for all those that were vested in his performance. Not monetarily, but emotionally.
Superstars have a tendency to not just be egotistical, but forget how they got to where they are today; they forget that it's the fans who make or break them.
Somewhere along the way, James forgot this too, or never even realized it. You'll see no such mistake from him today, though:
So once the lights turn on and the fans come in and the popcorn starts popping, I'll be ready to go. However much I have, I'll use it. I just think about that one guy, coming to one game, who called the radio station, and he was the fifth caller and they said, 'Number 5 caller, you've won two tickets to see the Miami Heat! Go crazy!'
That fifth caller personifies everything LeBron and every other superstar must stand for. Without that fifth caller, the one who buys the jerseys, buys or wins the tickets and worships the ground these athletes walk on, James and company would be nothing.
Is LeBron James now someone the rest of the NBA's superstars should model themselves after?
There would be no checks to collect, no audiences to entertain and, most importantly, no championships to win.
That fifth caller means everything to the game. He means everything to LeBron.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to let him down," James said.
And the rest of the league's stars must play for that fifth caller as well.
Because they too will be damned if they let him down.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 4th, 2012.
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