Pinpointing the Moment LeBron James Embraced His Leadership Role
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
On June 12, 2011, LeBron James reached rock bottom.
The Dallas Mavericks had just triumphed over James' Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Less than one year after "The Decision" and his infamous proclamation about how many championships the Heat would win, the then-two-time MVP was sent home empty-handed.
At that point, James faced a crossroads in his career. Despite only being one-third of Miami's Big Three, James recognized that the Heat could only go so far without him assuming the leadership mantle.
He could either battle his innermost demons and slavishly work out his physical and mental weaknesses, or he could rest on his laurels as the most physically gifted player in the NBA.
James chose the first option, and the rest is history.
In those 2011 finals, the Mavericks exploited James' limitations to their advantage. While he was virtually unstoppable around the rim, the Mavericks knew that he could often be goaded into settling for mid- and long-range jump shots.
Lo and behold, of the 90 field-goal attempts James registered in the 2011 Finals, only 32 came within the restricted area. 49 of his 90 shot attempts were taken from outside the paint entirely, which is completely unacceptable for a 6'8", 270-pound force of nature like LeBron.
Instead of banging down low against smaller defenders like Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd, James was frequently content hanging around the perimeter. The King's lack of a polished post game, whether he'd admit it or not, appeared to weigh on his mind throughout that series.
"He doesn't have the repertoire of [post] moves, so he’s not going to put himself in a position where he looks stupid," one anonymous Eastern Conference team executive told TIME.com during the 2011 Finals.
The bitter taste of defeat, and the ensuing mockery from all corners of America besides Miami, caused James to snap into focus.
"It took the ultimate failure in the Finals to view LeBron and our offense with a different lens," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. "He was the most versatile player in the league. We had to figure out a way to use him in the most versatile of ways—in unconventional ways."
James told Spoelstra soon after that Finals loss that he'd be working on his game "relentlessly during the offseason, and specifically on his post-up game," according to Goldsberry.
He traveled to Houston that summer and enlisted Hakeem Olajuwon to help him develop a bevy of post moves. In doing so, he unlocked the key for Miami's success throughout the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
"When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player," Spoelstra told Goldsberry. "It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon's and Ewing's post-up moves. I don't know if I've seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012."
In other words, James exhibited signs of becoming a true leader that summer. He refused to allow his flaws to stand in the way of greatness, choosing instead to relentlessly work them into oblivion.
After his time spent learning from Olajuwon, opponents could no longer afford to devote only one defender to James in the paint. When double- and triple-teams came his way, he could pass to a teammate on the perimeter for a wide-open look.
Ultimately, James' maturation in the post put a rest to the question of whether the Heat were his team or Dwyane Wade's. While Wade led Miami to the 2006 championship, LeBron was the clear leader of the team by the end of the 2011-12 season.
He posted one of the all-time great playoff performances in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, recording 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists to stave off elimination against the Boston Celtics. From there, "Terminator LeBron" rampaged throughout the rest of the playoffs, helping Miami secure its second title in seven years.
King James' reign as the NBA's top dog had officially begun.
For those who still harbored doubts about James following the 2012 playoffs, his time with Team USA during the 2012 Olympics put a rest to that. On a team that featured megastars such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, James stood out as the unquestioned leader, on and off the court.
Granted, LeBron is still prone to momentary lapses of offensive passivity. Only seven of his 21 shot attempts came in the paint during Game 3 of the 2013 Finals, a game in which he failed to attempt even one free throw.
It's no coincidence that the San Antonio Spurs blew out the Heat by 36 that night. The narrative wrote itself after the game: Was this a repeat of the 2011 Finals, with James shrinking in the moment yet again?
He answered that question with a resounding "no" in Game 4, however. After the Spurs jumped out to an early 10-point lead, LeBron flipped the switch and went into "Terminator" mode, forcing the issue around the basket for the rest of the night.
Just as James' passivity in Game 3 appeared to spread to his teammates, his aggressiveness in Game 4 also seemed to rally his troops into a do-or-die performance of a lifetime.
That's the mark of a true leader.
And it can all be traced back to the 2011 Finals and a few summer days with Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon.
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