"It looks like you've got game, kid...Here's $75 million..."
Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
It is, unless you're a young player in the NBA that shows promise.
In the NBA, players are paid handsomely, based more so on their promise than their production. Rookies entering the league become multimillionaires upon being drafted. And after their rookie deals are up? The above quote is usually applicable. Just ask Rudy Gay.
That's just how it is. It's a huge part of the problem with the NBA's current economic model, and it's what the NBA and its players' association are discussing, literally, as we speak.
We all know about the arguments for and against fully guaranteed contracts and how they combine with the NBA's salary cap system to create a situation that—absent astute management—can be a disaster for many NBA teams. And because players are paid on promise, general managers and coaches, from the time they draft a young player, spend the first four years of any player's career wondering:
How good can this guy be?
The worst part about that attitude and the constant projecting and premature anointment is that the NBA's fans and media have fallen in love with trying to predict a player's trajectory. Often—as was the case with Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and even Blake Griffin—we salivate over the potential of a player, get too caught up in his brilliant moments, and often levy upon them unrealistic expectations.
Sure, Rose and Durant are the youngest MVP and scoring champion in league history, respectively. But the bottom line is that both have shown us in these 2011 NBA Playoffs that they still have a long way to go before they are mentioned in the same breath as all-time greats like Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant.
And you want to know who has been the biggest victim of these projections and expectations?
That's right—LeBron James.
James was so good, from so early, that he filed a lawsuit against the NBA because its rules would not allow him—a high school junior at the time—to declare for the 2002 NBA Draft. Had he been able to declare, it's very possible he would have been the first overall pick. Eventually, after gaining national exposure and notoriety, LeBron was drafted first overall in 2003 by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When he made his NBA debut on Oct. 29, 2003 at the Sacramento Kings, most immediately believed that he was as good as advertised. Immediately, he—like Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady—was compared to predecessors whose laundry list of career accomplishments presented daunting expectations.
Since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls back in 1998, WE have secretly been hoping that we can see his type of greatness and dominance once again. (Unless, of course, you're a fan of the New York Knicks or Utah Jazz).
Big shoes to fill? You bet.
That's why LeBron decided—long ago—that he wasn't interested in trying to fill them.
All of the talk and comparisons to Jordan began because of the potential we saw in James. From the very beginning, he had Magic Johnson's skills, Karl Malone's frame and Dominique Wilkins' athleticism.
Unfortunately, he doesn't have Jordan's guts. And he knew it long before we did.
Maybe that has something to do with why LeBron James changed his number. We were all too busy trying to figure out what that meant in terms of what his plans for free agency were that we ignored the obvious:
LeBron didn't want comparisons to Jordan, and avoiding them would be at least a little easier if he weren't wearing his number. In hindsight, it was very telling that LeBron even suggested that the entire league retire the number 23.
Sure, James has come up huge at multiple times in his career. Most notably, he was brilliant in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons and the 2011 Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls.
But you can't help but to notice that he was pitiful in last year's Eastern semifinals against the Celtics, unimpressive against the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, and swept by Tim Duncan's Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. His performance in the 2011 NBA Finals, thus far, has left much to be desired.
Then, is it unfair to say that LeBron has failed to rise to the occasion in the four biggest playoff series of his career? Is it unfair to say that Game 4 against the Mavericks was the biggest game of his career?
How can we ignore this? And better yet, how can we suggest that James is the greatest player ever—or even in the conversation— when thus far, he hasn't even been one of the top two players in his second NBA Finals?
What's worse is that James, at times, seems too happy with deferring to his teammates, playing complacently and simply not putting his fingerprints on games when it matters. It seems to have become an alarming pattern.
Is there something wrong with that?
It depends on who you ask.
Many are disappointed with LeBron because they feel he has the potential to be the greatest player ever. But spotted potential brings pressure. A lot of pressure.
And pressure busts pipes.
So, of course, after repeatedly insisting that winning is the most important thing to him, LeBron did what most saw as taking the easy way out. He went and did what he thought was best for his legacy and essentially agreed to be Dwyane Wade's "Mega Pippen."
In some ways, the decision (not "The Decision") was admirable. It was also unselfish.
But, as I've written in this space previously, you certainly cannot call it courageous.
That—above all—is what made Jordan who he was. He was someone who rose to the occasion on just about every one. Despite food poisoning, influenza, attrition and injuries, Jordan was his best when he needed to be—especially in the NBA Finals.
In 35 NBA Finals games, Jordan's win/loss record is 24-11. His team won all six of his Finals appearances, while he averaged an astonishing 33.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.0 apg and 1.8 spg, on 48 percent shooting from the field and 81 percent from behind the free throw line.
Although LeBron's sample size is much smaller, after eight NBA Finals games, he's averaging 19.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 6.5 apg and 1.6 spg on 41 percent shooting from the field and 72 percent shooting from behind the free-throw line.
Sure, those are very respectable numbers, but Jordan-esque? Hardly.
These numbers simply illustrate what should be obvious to most—for James, the legacy of Jordan is one that he's not likely to ever live up to. That's the fact, even if Miami lives up to LeBron's self-imposed obligation of winning at least seven NBA championships.
Furthermore, even if LeBron scores 46 points in Game 5 against the Mavericks and leads the Heat to victory, he has already come up lame in far too many big moments. At times, his passion and drive seem to be lacking. He looks indifferent and disinterested. He's alright with letting others take over and dominate.
That sounds like Scottie Pippen.
While LeBron has come up big in certain moments, his inability to do so consistently and when it counts most isn't something that can be hidden. Historically, when the lights shine the brightest, LeBron has lurked in the shadows.
That couldn't have been more obvious than it was back on March 29, when LeBron played at the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time. During the pre-game introductions, he failed to walk out onto the court when his name was announced. Clearly, this was done to avoid receiving the venomous boos that the Cavaliers faithful were saving for him since his first visit to Cleveland at a member of the Heat back on December 2.
LeBron was giving us a hint.
So, instead of attempting to live up to a legacy that we—long ago—decided we wanted him to pursue, he made a decision for himself and he's seeking his own path. He wants to be a winner, even if it means playing second fiddle to someone who has won without him. And he's willing to take less money.
In essence, he sacrificed money, statistics and glory that he could have had all to himself, all in the name of being a champion.
Give him some credit; on some level, that's admirable.
But be honest; what it is not, is courageous.
And what it certainly is not, is Jordan-esque.
So please, for your sake and mine, call the ace what it is. LeBron James is a magnificent talent and perhaps one of the most versatile players this league has ever seen. But Michael Jordan—with his leadership and courage—LeBron is not.
I know it, you know it, and obviously, he's known it.
And that, above all, is why he took his talents to South Beach...