LeBron James is having an even more Most Valuable season, and it just doesn’t matter.
It’s not going to make anyone love him more.
“Oh, incredible performance. He does that consistently, though,” Kobe Bryant raved after the Heat beat the Lakers on Thursday night. “He’s just a phenomenal player. He’s one of the best that we’ve ever seen.”
James’ shooting percentages have increased from his NBA MVP 2011-12 season: 53 percent from the field to 55, 36 percent from 3-point range to 40. The increased efficiency can be explained by James’ offseason dedication even during the fun Olympic experience: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, a Team USA assistant, said James worked on his post moves and 3-point shooting for an hour after Team USA practice every day.
James’ assists are up from 6.2 to 7.0 per game, and his other numbers are basically the same. Yet far more intriguing than statistical research is the curious question why James is largely being ignored after being finally earning validation as an NBA champion.
Why after helping the nation with another gold-medal run and now being off the charts this NBA season? Why with the Heat doing its job and avoiding too blatant a post-title regular-season letdown and still leading the Eastern Conference?
The simple answer to that question is that people just still don’t like him, that they haven’t gotten over the self-indulgence of “The Decision.”
But there’s much more behind that explanation.
The real reason for all the LeBron hate is he has always been so good so easily, as opposed to working his way up.
We aren’t moved by the uniquely gifted subsequently succeeding, as expected. There’s no feel-good in that obvious story when the vast majority of the world feels far more like underdogs than favorites.
James showed up in the NBA not as some scrawny high school kid. He showed up with a man’s body and used it to become the only rookie besides Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Exciting at the time, but when you are that naturally amazing as opposed to letting people see you fail and work through hard adversity, you’re going to see folks kicking pretty aggressively at the legs on your pedestal before very long.
When James’ scoring skills didn’t evolve fast enough, when his late-game tenacity wasn’t vicious enough and when his championships didn’t come at all, the backlash gradually grew and grew until “The Decision” provided the perfect reason to launch the hate out of the stratosphere.
We don’t tolerate those who are supposed to be destined for greatness being anything but, and as an absurd physical specimen from the very start, James fell into the category of big guys who are awfully hard for the small-guy masses to love.
Shaquille O’Neal, always deeply concerned with his image, worked hard on the PR end to sell the public through jokes, pranks and smiley movies that he couldn’t really be a moody jerk of a giant on so many days.
Dwight Howard, with all his obvious physical advantages, is living the backlash now.
You could say Allen Iverson was a spectacular rookie and incredibly gifted from an athletic perspective. Even doing the opposite of O’Neal on the PR end, though, Iverson was never crucified for not winning a title or not working hard enough – when both items are undeniable.
Just look at Iverson: He was skinny and tiny. He always had to be the underdog.
Bryant didn’t have the modesty thing down very well early in his career either, putting on a brazen, cocky front instead of publicizing how overwhelmed in basketball he felt on American blacktops upon returning from his childhood in Italy or how his high school team actually went 4-20 when he was a freshman.
And Bryant sure hit the floor hard when his missteps gave the public reason to sweep the legs of his pedestal after he had been anointed a champion.
Think about how many times you’ve heard the legend of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high-school team. He was actually just placed on the junior varsity instead of varsity as a sophomore, but we absolutely adore the idea that the mighty Michael was an underdog who took the hits just like we commoners and kept on plugging away.
So there was James on Thursday night, absolutely dominating the game with 39 points on 17-of-25 shooting, seven rebounds, eight assists and three steals. And when it came to winning time, he made more winning plays than anyone, including the hard-hat, hustle play of getting to a key long rebound.
“That epitomizes what LeBron James is all about,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of that moment. “Whatever it takes to win a basketball game, that’s what he is willing to do. That’s the best player in the league throwing his body out there in harm’s way to come up with a big rebound – completely horizontal on the floor.”
Indeed. True enough.
Except that’s just a big guy playing small, right? Someone with his ridiculous physical gifts should be great anyway, right?!
That is how much of a burden LeBron carries.
And that is why there’s a limit to how much we will ever embrace him.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.