LeBron, Wade have always been wired differently
For two solid years before he even came into the NBA, LeBron James was hailed as some sort of evolutionary mash-up of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. It always sounded so possible that he could become this hybrid of two of the games greatest players ever.
People marveled about how at six-foot-eight he saw angles on the court that no one else thought possible, how he leaped through the air with unimaginable power and grace, and how he was so physically dominant that he could have played in the NBA as a junior in high school.
But then a funny thing happened: instead of questioning whether LeBron could be (to us, anyway) Magic AND Michael, we all started wondering whether he would be Magic OR Michael. Most of this can be traced back to one particular playoff series: the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
Late in Game One, with the Cavs down 79-76, LeBron caught the ball at the top of the key. He drove left against Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince…and passed it off to a wide-open Donyell Marshall, who missed a three. Game over. Cavs lose. LeBron was widely-criticized by the media the next day for not taking the last second shot. Jordan would have taken it, they said. He would have willed his team to victory. LeBron wasn’t doing it the way Michael did. He had to take the shot.
So in Game Two, with the Cavs down 77-76, LeBron again caught the ball at the top of the key. He hesitated. Like, for almost two full seconds. Then he dribbled backwards toward half court, almost like he was thinking, “I have no idea what to do right now. I have to take the shot, if I pass again and we lose again, they’ll never let me hear the end of it. But if I see a teammate with a better look, that’s still the right play right? Right.”
So he quickly dribbled forward to his right. But then just as quickly, he backpedaled again. Almost to half court. Like that sound went off in his head, “Who am I kidding? I absolutely have to do this myself. They all said so after Game One.”
So he drove left again, just like in Game One, on Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. Hamilton beat him to the spot, so LeBron did a spin move right into the middle of the lane. He threw up an off-balance one-footer that cranked off the rim. Game over. Cavs lose again. The next day, LeBron was again widely-criticized in the media; this time for both not making the shot and for forcing a bad one. He could not win.
After the Cavaliers won the next two games, LeBron had what has become the defining game of his career in Game Five. I still remember where I was and who I was with when I watched that game and I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I still remember the feeling I had while I was watching it, knowing that with this kid (he was still just 22 at the time), the sky was the limit.
LeBron torched the Pistons for 48 points, including 25 in a row and 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30. It was his masterpiece. 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in 50 minutes of a double-overtime thriller. Watching him take over that game, it FELT like Michael Jordan. And that’s how it was written about the next day too. It was officially decided, LeBron James was going to be Michael Jordan.
And so, he would not be Magic Johnson.
That decision has colored the rest of his career since then. He has become the guy who needs to take the last-second shot, even though it seems like he wasn’t meant to be. It seems like he was shoehorned into it because that’s what everyone wanted him to be. LeBron made a big deal this summer in his commercial about how he specifically DID NOT have to be who we all wanted him to be.
Those were pretty much the exact words in the commercial! “What should I do?” he asks. “Should I be who YOU want me to be?” Maybe he was calling us all out like, “You have created this. I was told early and often that I had to be like Mike, and now I’m trying. I’m taking my talents to South Beach because I have to win six rings or I’ll never be Michael. Kobe has 5 and he’s still not Michael. I have to win rings and I have to be the one who “wins” them too.”
LeBron could have been this whole other player if we would have let him. All the physical capabilities of Michael Jordan, with the mind, vision, charisma and flair of Magic Johnson.
He’d be throwing up triple doubles, being one of those classic fill-in-the-blanks guys. He’d just do every single thing that was necessary in order to win the game…if we’d let him. And the funny thing is, that player would be a much better fit for the current version of the Miami Heat.
They already have their closer, their end of game shot-taker, their Michael. Dwyane Wade was just wired that way and always has been, in a way that LeBron might not be. In his rookie year, Wade made a driving shot over Baron Davis to defeat the Hornets in a playoff game for the Heat’s first playoff game since 2001. Two years’ later, in a performance that ESPN’s John Hollinger dubbed the greatest NBA Finals performance ever, Wade lifted the Miami Heat to their first NBA Championship.
His averages of 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game were positively Jordan-esque, maybe better. It was there for all to see in that series that Wade was a guy who could will his team to victory in the biggest of spots. He willed himself to the free throw line again and again (okay, with some help from friendly referees) and brought the Heat out of a 2-0 hole for the series win.
In Game Three, with his team down 13 points and just over six minutes left to play, Wade took over. He sent the game to overtime and won it there almost singlehandedly. He coolly knocked down the game winning free throws in Game Five. He had the championship ability to make the big play at the end of the game.
He still can too.
And, therein lies the biggest problem the Miami Heat are having these days. LeBron James is their best player. He’s the best player in the league. But, Dwyane Wade needs to be the guy taking the shots at the end of the game. It’s really a crazy dynamic. Here you have the best player in the league on your team and there’s this other guy who should get the ball instead of him at the end of games. LeBron was given that role because it was expected that that’s what a player of his caliber should do, but Dwyane has owned it since Day One.