It’s 2007. The Cavs have just gone up 3-2 against the Detroit Pistons. LeBron James has just carried his team to the brink of the NBA Finals. The dude just scored the last 25 points for his team. He had 48 for the game, a franchise playoff record.
At this point LeBron has cemented himself as the next big thing. Many think he’s the Michael Jordan of his generation. If this guy continues to work at it, he’ll be unstoppable.
A few days later, the Cavs are in the NBA Finals. LeBron has done the unthinkable. He has carried a team starting Daniel Gibson, Drew Gooden and Sasha Pavlovic to the finals. He’s taken the worst collection of overall team talent to the finals since Allen Iverson.
A couple weeks later the Cavs are swept by a far superior and more experienced San Antonio team. No one faulted LeBron for the loss. They were completely outmatched.
The next season LeBron was dominant. He worked his tail off. Once again he was carrying an inferior team. In the playoffs, James got his team to Game 7 against the Celtics. He scored 45 points. Despite his valiant effort, the better team won.
Losing to the eventual champs again could be seen as a tough pill to swallow. But the great ones strap it up and come back harder. It appeared LeBron was one of the greats.
It turns out this series was the turning point of LeBron’s career.
The relentless attacker, the never say never player everyone loved...suddenly disappeared facing adversity.
The next year the Cavs had their greatest season ever. They were the top seed in the East, and it was all set up for LeBron to avenge the last couple of years and return to the Finals.
In the conference finals, LeBron and the Cavs disintegrated against the Orlando Magic. LeBron made the first of what would be a trilogy of failures at the end of games in Game 4. The Cavs were dismissed a game later.
After the game, LeBron abandoned his teammates and left the court instead of taking his medicine and shaking hands with the victors.
It was the first overtly obvious sign of a different person, a different attitude—a sign of someone who thought he was above it all. Suddenly the king was acting like a petulant child.
The next season the Cavs once again cruised through the regular season. Then in the second round, LeBron had a chance to avenge that Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics.
What happened next stunned the basketball world.
Instead of rising to the occasion and having the willpower to run through a wall for his team like he showed earlier in his postseason career, LeBron mentally checked out.
The once beloved James was booed off his home court after an embarrassing 120-88 loss in Game 5. His team was finished off a game later.
LeBron then ratcheted up the heat to another level: He took his talents to South Beach.
The whole Decision conference just felt wrong.
Not the fact that he left Cleveland. I would have done that, especially if I grew up in nearby Akron and felt like Clevelanders always looked down on people from my neighborhood.
But superstars, wanting to make their own mark on the league, just don’t run into the arms of another accomplished superstar.
People said he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were close friends and wanted to play together and be the force of the league for the foreseeable future. Others felt LeBron was tired of carrying a bunch of bums. In retrospect, neither was the case.
In reality, LeBron’s decision was made after that great Game 7 against the Celtics in 2008. The guy who gave everything to his team and didn’t win the ring evaluated his situation, and he decided:
I don’t want to work this hard. Why bother?
This is why he went to Miami. He figured if he joined Wade and Bosh, he’d get the glory without the guts.
The victory parade the Heat threw before playing a game put this attitude on a pedestal.
Fast-forward to now. The most talented player in the NBA, being guarded at times by 38-year-old Jason Kidd, averaged three points a game in the fourth quarter of the Finals. The same guy who once scored 25 straight points in crunch time didn’t score 25 for the series when it mattered.
LeBron James vanished. Just like he vanished from his teammates after the Magic series. Just like he vanished in Game 5 against the Celtics.
The player who was once beloved for playing every game like it was now or never now just tweets it.
Instead of ascending to legendary status, LeBron could end up as that once a generation talent whose mentality stifles his potential for greatness.
In the '90s, there was another player who looked unstoppable. A player who started on a track to superstardom but lost the fire shortly after making the Finals. A player who lost his work ethic and wasted talent most players in the league wish they had.
That player was Shawn Kemp.
The self-anointed king better get his mind right before history repeats itself.
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