Is LeBron James' Image Completely Repaired from 'The Decision'?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2013

January 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) looks on during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Heat defeated the Warriors 92-75. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What's been most remarkable about LeBron James' performance through the first half of the 2012-13 NBA season?

His scoring? He's currently fourth in the league in that department at 26.3 points per game, though that number checks in well below his career average of 27.6.

His shooting? James is posting career-high percentages from the field (.550) and from long range (.400), but is taking fewer shots than he ever has.

His rebounding? He's pulling down a career-best 8.1 boards per game. To put that in perspective, James is tied in that department with Roy Hibbert, the 7'2 All-Star center for the Indiana Pacers—who's fallen off a cliff this season as far as productivity is concerned.

His facilitation? LeBron's averaging seven assists (the 10th-best mark in the league), though he's chipped in as many as 8.6 helpers per game, as he did throughout his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

How about all of the above? James leads the defending champion Miami Heat in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Or how about the fact that he's carried the Heat to the best record in the Eastern Conference despite Dwyane Wade's slow recovery from knee surgery, a so-so season from Chris Bosh, inconsistent contributions from the bench and a team-wide inability to rebound and defend effectively from night to night amidst Erik Spoelstra's on-going experiment with regular-season "small ball"?

That's all well and good. But what's most remarkable about LeBron's season so far is what's missing from that list—namely, any mention of "The Decision."

It's been two-and-a-half years since LBJ told Jim Gray on national TV that he'd be taking his talents to South Beach. At this point, James' announcement seems like little more than a regrettable error from a bygone era of basketball.

In most places, anyway. Surely, folks in Cleveland haven't forgotten (much less forgiven) LeBron's humiliating trespasses against their beloved Cavaliers.

By and large, though, the league and its fans have done far more to celebrate LeBron than denigrate him, as well they should. He's been the best basketball player on planet Earth for years, and now has a championship (along with three MVPs) to back up that assertion.

The title, in particular, seems to have freed James from the shackles of his past mistakes. No longer can he be labeled a "loser" or a "choker"—not after his breathtaking demolition of the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals and his one-legged efforts to seal a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals.

The proverbial monkey averse to shiny jewelry has long since vacated LeBron's back. In its wake remains a man who's more icon and less iconoclast than he's been since he switched allegiances in July of 2010.

Prior to the 2011-12 season, James went out of his way to wipe the slate clean after a humbling defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. In an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols, LeBron showed remorse for the way he handled his departure from Cleveland and expressed no interest in playing the role of "villain" that had come define his inaugural campaign with the Heat.

James subsequently spent the season playing with much the same joy and enthusiasm that had characterized his game during his heyday with the Cavs. Not surprisingly, that change in attitude was but one of many reasons that LeBron crossed the finish line with the Larry O'Brien Trophy in one hand and the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award in the other.

Those pieces of hardware have come to validate the career of a supremely gifted athlete who'd been labeled a disappointment because he supposedly couldn't win the "big one." After last June, that label no longer applied to LeBron.

Rather than trying to block out the noise and prove himself in city after city, James has turned the current campaign into something of a good will tour. He's been caught cavorting with celebrities and courtside season ticket holders at nearly every arena, even (if not especially) those away from home.

All of which would've been anathema to LeBron back when he was still seeking shelter from the relentless hatred and criticism being directed his way in the wake of "The Decision."

Off the court, LeBron has continued to pursue charitable endeavors, particularly in his home state of Ohio, where he was (and, in some parts, still is) most reviled. Whether or not his intention in doing so was to clear his name and prove that he's not a bad guy, the result appears to have been the same—positive.

To be sure, James' case for clemency in the court of public opinion has been aided by all manner of chaos around The Association this season. From James Harden joining the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich going toe-to-toe with commissioner David Stern to anything and everything related to the Los Angeles Lakers, there've been more than enough headline-worthy stories pumping through the presses to obscure much of the discussion regarding LeBron's pursuit of a repeat with the Heat.

A second consecutive title and a fourth MVP in five years would certainly constitute a fitting conclusion to the current campaign, albeit one not nearly as groundbreaking as that of 2012. There would be no symbolic shedding of weights, no turn from heel to hero, no past transgressions squashed or moments of arrogance incinerated in a golden blaze of glory.

Because LeBron's been there and done that. He's confessed his crimes and sought forgiveness through his genius on the hardwood. He's achieved new heights for himself and, in the process, elevated the game of basketball through a confluence of science and art that's rarely (if ever) been seen.

He's not a bad guy or a choke artist or a coward or a failure or a follower. He's a basketball player, and a damn great one at that. He's not universally loved, and probably never will be. But at the very least, fans and followers of the sport can now appreciate LeBron's brilliance without the sort of obfuscation inspired by talking heads and outdated narratives.

And that, perhaps, is LeBron's most remarkable accomplishment of all.