LeBron James has been putting John Creasy of Man of Fire to shame of late. He posted his first triple-double (26 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) of the 2012-13 NBA season on December 4 and fell one assist shy (31 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) of notching his second in as many games two nights later.
Strangely enough, the Miami Heat lost both games. Even stranger is how difficult it is to determine which result was more shocking—a five-point road loss to the woeful, John Wall-less Washington Wizards or a 20-point home shellacking at the hands of the New York Knicks sans Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
All things considered, LeBron has done a marvelous job of keeping the Heat afloat (and then some) amidst their post-title malaise. They're 12-5 after their first 17 games despite playing lackadaisical defense (if any) while demonstrating a general disdain for the regular season. Chris Bosh and Ray Allen have both been marvelous, but Dwyane Wade can't seem to sustain his old excellence from night to night and Miami's nominal point guards (Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole) are a bit banged up.
Which, ultimately, leaves LeBron to shoulder an even bigger burden than the one with which he entered the current campaign. The expectation, it seems, was that James could simply translate the smashing success he had during the Heat's sprint to the 2012 title into not only another MVP performance, but his most impressive one yet.
During his first two seasons on South Beach, LeBron was stuck slogging through a seemingly never-ending soap opera over leadership and on-court roles with Wade. Now, though, James could start the season as the clear-cut top dog while slotted in as the "point-power forward" in Erik Spoelstra's small-ball scheme.
No quibbles, no questions, no problems. Except, just because you have all your ducks in a row doesn't mean said ducks aren't going to step out of line from time to time...or something.
Mangled metaphors aside, whenever a hole has opened up in the Heat's game plan, LeBron has been asked to fill it and has seemingly been up to the task.
Miami needs someone to distribute the ball? LeBron's come through with 6.9 assists per game, including three games in double digits.
Bosh and Udonis Haslem are missing spots on the glass? No problem. LeBron's ripping down a career-high 9.2 rebounds, with nine instances of 10 boards or more already.
The supporting cast is having a collective off-night? That's OK. James is still an elite scorer. He's averaging 25.2 points—the fourth most in the NBA—and has a streak of 22 games with 20 or more points dating back to last season.
Or 38 games, if you'd care to include postseason performances.
How about a fourth-quarter comeback against an inferior foe? He's had to rescue the Heat from embarrassment on no fewer than four occasions and has come up (well) short the last two times out.
And if anyone's having issues on the defensive end, LeBron is always available to go up for a block, pick off a pass or, heck, take over the assignment entirely.
That's just the kind of player LeBron is. He's a selfless competitor on the court who's willing to do anything and everything to win.
Problem is, there's only so much of himself that James can give before it complicates things for himself and for the Heat. LeBron is about as superhuman as a basketball player has ever been, but he's not invincible, nor are his energy reserves endless. Whatever stores he does have on hand must be carefully managed if the Heat are to survive a long and grueling title defense.
LeBron can work out after games like Thursday's knockdown against the Knicks all he wants, but it won't matter one bit if he's the only one putting in the sweat equity. It won't matter if there's a "minus-33" in the box score next to Wade's name. It won't matter if Miami's other undersized bigs don't play bigger. It won't matter if the Heat don't communicate defensively or if they continue to give up wide-open looks from three-point range and easy points in the paint.
LeBron's gaudy stat lines may look swell on paper and they may be good news for your fantasy team, but they don't mean much or guarantee anything in and of themselves.
Just ask Oscar Robertson. He averaged a triple-double (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists) during the 1961-62 season—the only time such a feat has ever been pulled off. Despite the Big O's best efforts, the Cincinnati Royals compiled a middling record of 43-37 and lost to the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs that year, three games to one.
Are the Heat still the team to beat?
The goal for any great player isn't to stack up statistical achievements like he's mashing buttons on his Xbox 360, but rather to win championships. The former doesn't necessarily serve the latter, as NBA history has shown, time and again.
This isn't to suggest that the Heat are necessarily destined for a similarly disappointing fate. The season is still young, the playoffs are still months away, and the Heat, for all of their foibles, still sport a crystal-clear identity and a carefully constructed roster to match.
Stumbles such as those Miami has encountered are more the norm than the exception for teams with championship experience and expectations. Chances are, when the field narrows from 30 teams to 16 and the games actually mean something, the Heat will start hustling again and LeBron's masterful efforts won't go for naught.
Still, there should be some concern that the Heat are building bad habits, even more so that they're doing so at James' expense. It's taxing enough for LeBron to pretend he's a power forward and go to battle against bigger, more physical opponents on a nightly basis. To heap everyone else's job onto that same plate would seem, well, unsustainable.
Even LeBron knows that. As he told ESPN's Brian Windhorst on Thursday night regarding the no-show opposite New York, "We can't sweep this under the rug. We have to come together and have more of a sense of urgency. We're more reactive now than proactive."
Indeed, since every moment spent loafing and reacting is another in which the three-time MVP is compelled to sacrifice his own well-being in an (ultimately) meaningless game. The more pressure the Heat put on their Man on Fire, the more likely he is to burn up too soon.
And, in turn, send Miami's back-to-back title dreams up in smoke.