Trolls come, but they never go—a life lesson LeBron James has learned time after time during his 11-year career, and one he's being schooled in again following the Miami Heat's 2014 NBA Finals collapse.
Trawling for ways to discredit James' accolades and fluid legacy has become common practice. Especially since he arrived in Miami.
Abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning and failing to win championships alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and generally just being himself incites an outpouring of negative, innuendo-chargred responses.
This is what placing blame upon James for all the Heat's failures—including their most recent Finals letdown—has become: viciously unfair and needlessly cruel.
Admirable Finals Performance
James isn't perfect, nor was he close to perfect during the Finals, but Miami's five-game annihilation isn't even close to his fault. This is a guy who's coming off a historical postseason performance.
Through 20 playoff games, James averaged 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.9 steals on career-high 56.5 percent shooting. Know how many players have maintained postseason benchmarks of 27 points, seven rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals through at least 20 contests in NBA history? Two. Larry Bird and James himself. And James is the only player to do so while hitting at least 55 percent of his shots.
In the NBA Finals alone, he registered 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals on 56.7 percent shooting per game, doing everything and anything to keep the Heat alive.
Did he fail? The Heat failed, so yes, he failed too. But falling to the San Antonio Spurs was a collective flop, not an individual breakdown on James' behalf.
Yet there certain fans were after Game 5, on Twitter and Facebook and every available form of social media, blaming James. Hassling James.
It wasn't just the skewed perception of a few fans that seized the opportunity, either. One of ESPN's most prominent talking heads decided to weigh in after Miami's defeat:
Thank you, LeBron, for going so weirdly passive in the second and third quarters when your team needed you most.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 16, 2014
Skip Bayless didn't stop there:
FORGIVE ME, BUT I AM SO HAPPY FOR THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS. TEAM BASKETBALL AND GUTS DESTROYED MENTALLY WEAK TALENT.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 16, 2014
LeBron James is 2-3 in Finals. Dallas meltdown. Saved by Ray in Game 6. Faded in Games 3/4/5 this year. Not exactly Jordanesque.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 16, 2014
Or even there:
Now we get to hear about how LeBron has to leave to find more help. This time DWade or MikeMiller or Battier or Chalmers couldn't save him.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 16, 2014
There is some truth to what Bayless is saying. James was "passive" at different points during the Finals.
After scoring 17 points on seven shots in the first quarter of Game 5, James went 3-of-10 for 10 points through the second and third periods. In Game 4, he attempted just seven shots through the first half before exploding for 19 points in the third. It was admittedly weird.
With Miami's season, with its three-peat, hanging in the balance, people wanted to see James go off. Not just in the first or third quarters, but every quarter. Every second of every minute of every game should have been the LeBron James Show. That's what pundits like Bayless wanted.
And that's also what was—and remains—unrealistic.
Shooting every time down the floor isn't James' style. He is, for all intents and purposes, a point guard. The Heat don't have a floor general outside of him. Their point guards aren't point guards.
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole cannot direct their offense. Toney Douglas was not going to quarterback their offense. Dwyane Wade is the second-most reliable playmaker on their roster.
Passing and orchestrating the offense is one of James' primary responsibilities. That's what he was trying to do for most of those spurts: get his teammates involved.
Only Tony Parker (71) and Boris Diaw (69) made more passes than James (62) in Game 5, according to NBA.com. He threw out almost twice as many passes as anyone on his team; Bosh deferred the second-most times of any Heat player (36).
It's not James' fault his teammates weren't hitting shots. He has no control over Wade going 7-of-25 from the floor in Games 4 and 5. He has no power over Bosh going 11-of-25 over that same span.
What's he supposed to do? Stop passing? So that a few more keyboard warriors can defame him for being a ball hog?
The Heat lost all four of their games against the Spurs by at least 15 points. Forcing James to shoot more—even on every possession—wouldn't have changed the outcome of this series.
Greg Cote of the Miami Herald hit the nail on the head when he acknowledged James' disturbing lack of support:
But that is what he was again Sunday night and in this Finals, a superstar alone, lacking help. On TV Jeff Van Gundy was saying of the Heat, "Where are they going to find enough offense!" – because it was LeBron or bust.
Somewhere along the line James' two-time defending champions morphed into the Miami Cavaliers, a problem that will chase the Heat now into this crucial offseason, when all of Miami's Big 3 players will be eligible to become free agents and leave if they choose.
Maybe Miami steals Game 1 if James doesn't cramp up, but again, he can't necessarily prevent his body from betraying him. And he most definitely cannot shoulder responsibility for the Heat being outscored 26-9 in the final seven-and-a-half minutes of Game 1—of which he played only 34 seconds—when they have two other superstars who should be able to protect a late fourth-quarter lead.
Blame James for not being aggressive enough at points if you must. He is not beyond reproach. Let's make that clear.
Don't use the interpretive, intermittent passivity of one player to epitomize Miami's Finals washout, though. This disappointment, this failure, is bigger than any one player.
Bigger than even James.
Not Like Mike...So What?
Stop with any Michael Jordan comparisons, too. Those aren't helping.
On the heels of Game 5, social media was aflutter, basking in the chance to idealize His Airness at James' expense.
There was this:
LeBron James in now 2-3 career in NBA Finals. • Michael Jordan: 6-0 • Magic Johnson: 5-4 • Larry Bird: 3-2 pic.twitter.com/DknZane5mC— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 16, 2014
NBA Finals records: Michael Jordan: 6-0 LeBron James: 2-3— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) June 16, 2014
Other stuff was out there, too. Plenty of it. Too much of it.
There shouldn't have been any of it.
James isn't Jordan. He's also not the greatest player of all time. Not yet. But he can be. There's still a lot of basketball left for him to play. He still has the chance to be accepted as, at the very least, Jordan's peer.
Not that he will. People tend to mythologize the past, like it's incorruptible and therefore unmatchable.
Perfect example: While perusing comment sections and social media, I came across various arguments that explained Jordan got nothing from Scottie Pippen during the 1998 NBA Finals, yet the Chicago Bulls still won.
Jordan didn't need his supporting cast or primary sidekick, so James shouldn't have, either.
Thing is, if we're going to use that argument, we must acknowledge that Jordan got more out of Pippen against the Utah Jazz than James received from Wade versus the Spurs.
|Player||MPG||PTS||FG%||REB||AST||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.|
|Pippen (1998 Finals)||39.5||15.7||41||6.8||4.8||1.7||104||97|
|Wade (2014 Finals)||34.5||15.2||43.8||3.8||2.6||1.6||89||120|
Pippen was nowhere near the hobbled liability Wade became. The circumstances under which both players performed and contributed were different—just like James and Jordan are different.
Save the comparisons for when James retires and we have an actual hold on the legacy he's leaving behind. He's already established himself as one of the all-time greats. He already has two titles by the age of 29, just like Jordan.
That should be enough to safeguard him against forced juxtapositions that, truthfully, have no bearing on this or any future Finals outcome.
Appreciate and Criticize, Don't Attack
The Heat's latest defeat isn't on James alone.
Some of what went wrong is, of course. Perks of being a superstar. He was also offensively absent at points when the Heat needed him.
But more than this is about James, it's about the Heat being seen and exploited for what they are, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick described:
The Heat were collectively exposed across the board. And it impacted all of their players, even their premier one, individually. In the Finals, James averaged 28.2 points and 7.8 rebounds, while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor, but somehow the Heat were a minus-13.1 per 100 possessions when he played.
More than even this, the 2014 NBA Finals should be about the Spurs. They were the superior team on both ends of the floor, using impeccable decision-making and passing torrents to carve up the reigning champs.
"They were the much better team," James said, per Skolnick.
It really is as simple as this. Critics are the ones inclined to complicate matters.
Who's more at fault for the Heat's Finals collapse?
This should be about the Spurs, about Tim Duncan winning his fifth title, about one of the most unique dynasties in all of sports getting it done. Instead, it's about James and what he didn't do because it's always about James and what he didn't do.
And there were a few things he didn't do. There were even more things his teammates didn't do.
"Obviously, I didn't do enough," James said, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt.
Nothing James might have done would've been enough. Not when his Heat were clearly outmatched and outclassed.
Condemning him, then, for Miami's Finals fiasco misses the mark, inexcusably ignoring that the hopeless situation James tried to save was something no one player could ever salvage.