But now that he's a two-time champ who has shown the ability to carry his team on the league's biggest stage, he has also proved that he's figured out this whole "winning" thing.
Hopefully, there will come a point where belaboring James' individual superiority won't be necessary, but there remains an inexplicably misguided contingent of detractors who seem to need constant reminders that James is a cut above every other NBA player.
By now, everyone's aware of his regular-season dominance. He came a single vote short of winning a unanimous MVP after putting up 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists on 56.5 percent shooting. His postseason numbers suffered a minor dip, but chalk that up to better competition, more defensive attention and maybe even a little fatigue.
Toss in the fact that LBJ is the NBA's best, most versatile wing defender, and you're basically fooling yourself if you're not prepared to admit that he's the league's most talented player.
The Next Phase
But what James did in the playoffs—and the NBA Finals, specifically—is what distinguishes him. He's gone from being the most talented individual player to one who has developed a real talent for winning.
Winning in the finals has a lot to do with which teams and players make the quickest adjustments. When two elite teams face off, back-to-back games rarely resemble one another from a strategic standpoint. That's because coaches are constantly tweaking things to throw new looks at the opposition.
Predictability is death in the finals.
James made adjustments that helped lead his team to wins between games, and even within them.
When the San Antonio Spurs sagged off him in Game 3, daring him to shoot, he was hesitant. Unselfish to his core, James recognized that mid-range jumpers off the dribble wouldn't help get his teammates involved. And as a cerebral player, he was undoubtedly aware of the relative inefficiency of such shots.
So he struggled, pounded the dribble and generally looked for a way to exploit the Spurs' tactic without casting away from 20 feet. He failed, going 1-of-10 on jumpers inside the three-point line in the Heat's 113-77 defeat.
But learning to be a winner has an awful lot to do with getting up quickly after getting knocked down. James recovered to drill nine of 20 shots from outside the paint in Game 7, a statistic that was more important to the Heat's title-clinching victory than any other. LBJ tore the Spurs' hearts out by beating them with exactly the kinds of shots they were willing to concede.
James' final Game 7 line of 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals on 12-of-23 shooting was a genuine work of art. Games like that have gone a long way toward creating the sort of inflated expectations that James somehow continues to meet.
Doing It All
Winning requires turning a weakness into a strength. James did that on offense in Game 7.
Of course, it also requires a willingness to do whatever it takes. James also proved he had no problem with that by assuming massive responsibilities on both ends in the finals. In addition to running the offense, he took on the task of guarding Tony Parker in a number of key stretches late in the series.
James took Parker out of Games 6 and 7 (with an assist to the point guard's sore hamstring), making things extremely difficult for the Spurs' most important offensive player. Signs of fatigue showed up in James for the first time all season, but he powered through those as well.
Selfishness: A Necessary Evil
Another critical piece in James' development into a true winner has been his willingness to take big shots. Late in Game 7, James drilled daggers from all over the floor, eschewing his passing instincts down the stretch in favor of his own steady hand.
It wasn't so long ago that James was unwilling to control the late stages of games by scoring. But he has clearly recognized that sometimes, it's best to do things himself.
Despite all that, James will always have his naysayers, some more good-natured than others.
Overall, it makes sense that James has taken the difficult step between "great player" and "consummate winner" with relative ease. He's something of a unique case because his skills translate perfectly to winning basketball—which is to say his skills are basically limitless.
When a player can do just about anything on either end of a basketball court, it's easy for him to give his team whatever it needs in any given situation.
Great scorers are often limited by their inability to find others when defenses send double-teams. Born facilitators can't carry the load when those same defenses clog up passing lanes. James does all of those things as necessary, making it virtually impossible to limit his impact on the game.
It takes more than a remarkable skill set to be a great winner, though. It also requires an innate desire. Say what you want about James' infamous "Decision," he made it because he cares about winning.
James is gifted with the skills and work ethic that have made him the best individual player in the game today. He has also learned enough and improved to such a degree that he no longer has any exploitable weaknesses. Throw in a genuine desire to see his team accumulate championships, and you've got a real monster.
Sounds like a winner to me.
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