LeBron James has come a loooooooong way in the last four years. His performance in the Miami Heat's 117-92 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals was just the latest step—albeit an earthshaking one—in James' journey not only to the fifth NBA Finals appearance of his 11-year pro career, but to all-time greatness.
You remember four years ago, don't you? There was James, sitting in a director's chair across from Jim Gray, in front of a crowd of kids and a fleet of ESPN cameras—and millions of viewers across the country—at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. His beard cleanly kept, his shirt draped across his 6'8, 260-pound frame like a blanket at the world's tensest picnic.
"This fall, I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," he said, seemingly resisting the urge to break out a smile befitting the Sunshine State so as not to offend the Cleveland Cavaliers, the state of Ohio or anyone else who found the conclusion of his free agency a foolish farce.
Say what you will of that misguided spectacle, or the celebration that followed at AmericanAirlines Arena. Say what you will of the devastation wrought by James' "Decision" on Rock City's team. Say what you will of James' "loyalty" (or lack thereof), his "courage" (or lack thereof), his desire to be "The Man" (or lack thereof).
At this point, though, there's no denying that James made the right call in leaving behind his home state for the sun and sand of South Florida. The Cavs been to each of the last four NBA Draft lotteries, winning three times.
The Heat, on the other hand, have now won four straight Eastern Conference titles, becoming the first team to do so since Larry Bird's Boston Celtics in the 1980s.
"We will not take this for granted, at all," James told ESPN's Doris Burke after the game on Friday night.
That might not have been the case four years ago, when James jokingly rattled off that he and his new crew would win "not five, not six, not seven" championships.
It's clear, though, the LeBron who sat on the stage that day, alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, isn't the same LeBron who apologized to Burke for not being more prompt in attending to the postgame microphone.
And not just because James' resume is so much more impressive now. Two Larry O'Brien Trophies, two MVPs (regular season and Finals), three more All-Everything nods (i.e., All-NBA and All-Defense), one more Olympic gold medal. These are all impressive accomplishments, to be sure.
But it's James' growth along the way, both personally and professionally, that truly separates him from the 25-year-old man-child whose replica jerseys were burned in effigy all across the Buckeye State four years ago this July 8.
On the court, James is still every bit the force of nature he once was, with plenty more refinement and finesse to complete his all-around game.
Where once he was something of a liability at the free-throw line, James has become, well, reliable. His 9-of-9 performance at the stripe on Friday nudged his accuracy above 80 percent this postseason—the first time he's crossed that threshold in any context.
Where once he needed volume shooting to score, James is now about as efficient a point producer as there is in basketball. He needed just 12 field-goal attempts to tally his 25 points at the Pacers' expense. None of those 12 came from beyond the arc—once a weak point in James' repertoire—though few would've begrudged him for venturing out there, given his passable percentage (.356) in these playoffs.
Basketball Reference and NBA.com/stats
Where once James' offensive tool box was limited to drives, dishes, dunks and jumpers, it's come to include arguably the sharpest low-post package in the league.
Not that the Heat needed much of it in Game 6. They posted up just twice as a team, per Synergy Sports.
Perhaps more impressive than the player James has become is the person into whom he's evolved since he left Cleveland. Gone is the villain who fed off the hatred of his detractors, a persona wiped away by defeat in the 2011 Finals opposite the Dallas Mavericks. Gone is the brash kid who used to taunt opposing teams with elaborate pregame bits, replaced by a man who indulges his emotions without rubbing them in the faces of his foes.
Would the old LeBron have brushed off Lance Stephenson's antics as easily as the new LeBron did? Would the old LeBron have gone so seamlessly about his business in the face of the Pacers' hard fouls and harder attempts to get under his skin?
Would the old LeBron have bounced back so brilliantly from his forgettable Game 5, in which he accumulated just seven points in a measly 24 minutes? James discussed the role experience plays in his ability to rebound from setbacks:
I always believe in something a really good friend of mine taught me that the best teacher in life is experience. When you go through so many things, you're able to learn from it. You're able to know how to go about it the next time you face those trials and tribulations or whatever the case may come. And you're better prepared for it.
We'll never know. What we do know, though, is who and what James is today. As James told the assembled media during his postgame press conference:
Being around a group of guys like this, me being in positions that I've been in the past where I've failed, but I was never defeated...For me, to be able to come back from failure and continue to come back and mentally be able to stay strong, it defines who you are as a man more than anything.
He's a father and a husband, a champion for his team and his family. He took a risk when he left home, throwing his public image at the mercy of the angry mob and his basketball future at the foot of Pat Riley. In going to Miami, James sacrificed not only a slice of his paycheck, but his singular hold on the spotlight.
For that, he's been rewarded—with greater fortune and fame, with on-court success he could've hardly dreamed of in Cleveland, with a stronger understanding of who he is, where he came from and where he's going.
That kid, who came from humble roots in Akron, Ohio, has plenty of work ahead of him. Collecting four more wins may not seem like much to round out what's been a grueling Heat three-peat, but against either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder, doing so will be as daunting a task as ever. As much as Miami may benefit from the experience gleaned from its previous title tilts against those two Western Conference powerhouses, the Spurs and the Thunder could say the same for themselves opposite the Heat.
In truth, there's much more in store for James than that. He's already well on his way to establishing himself as the greatest player of his generation. Another title will merely cement his status as such.
At this point, James is competing not so much with his peers as with his predecessors. While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and Paul George and all the league's other stars try to chase him down, James will be in hot pursuit of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, not to mention Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.
He's already joined Magic and Larry (and Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) among the legends who've led their teams to the game's biggest stage four years in a row. Another triumphant Finals, and LeBron will have equaled Larry Legend in Larry O'Brien Trophies. Another Bill Russell Finals MVP Trophy, and he'll have more than Bird and Magic and Kobe, and as many as Duncan and Shaq.
And, as ESPN's Michael Wallace noted:
James has spent the bulk of his time with the Heat engulfed in comparisons to Michael Jordan. Now the Heat are back in the Finals looking to accomplish something Jordan did twice: a three-peat.
But James has a loooooooong way to go before he can claim to have outclassed them all—not that he would right now. After all, his career is far from over. He doesn't turn 30 until the second-to-last day of the year. By that measure, his prime is still in progress.
Just as he is—as a basketball player and as a man.
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