When did the train come off the tracks for LeBron James? Just three years ago, he was pushing the Celtics newly formed Big Three to the limit in the playoffs. Just two years ago, he had Cleveland seeming like an NBA Finals lock after dominating the regular season with a terrible supporting cast. He was the future; it wasn't a question of whether or not he would win a title, but how many and where he would fall in comparison to players like Michael Jordan.
The Jordan comparison was the biggest story for a guy who wore the No. 23 and made no secret about his desire to catch up to Jordan's level. He was known as a great teammate and amazing all-around player who simply had no weaknesses. The fans loved him and wanted him to reach his potential. They wanted him to be the next Michael Jordan, and even those who disliked him had to acknowledge that he was headed for greatness.
So what happened? It appears that there are serious mental issues blocking LeBron from taking the next step and becoming a champion. I don't care if you're playing with Dwyane Wade, Kobe, Chris Paul and MJ in his prime, stars do not just disappear in the NBA Finals. It's not deferring. It's shrinking.
The thing is, I don't think LeBron is scared of greatness. He's taken and made plenty of big shots in the playoffs before (see: the Chicago and Boston series this year, as well as that deep three he made at the buzzer in Game 4 of the Orlando series in 2009). I don't think he lacks confidence either. And let's be fair: Rick Carlisle deserves a ton of credit for using zone strategies to force LeBron into difficult jump shots and discourage him from getting into the lane. But LeBron should still be able to impact the game. Could we imagine Michael Jordan scoring two points in the fourth quarter of any game? Eight points in a Finals game?
I don't think LeBron was scared, or lacked confidence. He was just confused. Dallas had game planned to take him and Wade out of the game, and he had no plan B. He didn't know what to do. He isn't a good enough jump shooter to make Dallas pay for their defense.
Which brings me to the central point of this article. LeBron is not Michael. He will never be.
And you know what? That's okay.
LeBron is not the pure scorer Michael was. He's not even the best pure scorer on his team (Wade) and might even be third-best in his DRAFT CLASS (Melo). If you have a guy who can protect the rim without fouling every time and quick, lanky guys who won't yield easy mid-range shots, LeBron can be limited from scoring.
But you know what? He doesn't need to score 35 points a game. Not on this team. Not when he is playing next to the closest thing we have to Jordan in the game today. That's what's wrong with basketball fans today. Yes, Jordan was the best ever. But did that make the best all-around players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or even Scottie Pippen any worse?
LeBron may be the most talented specimen to walk on a basketball court. But maybe he doesn't need to be Jordan. Maybe he's better scoring only when he's needed to and focusing on other areas of his game.
That's how people justified his performances in the first three games, when Miami was winning. Wade was doing all the scoring, but James was a defensive monster and was passing the ball well. And in some ways, they were right. But then Miami stopped winning. Wade was nowhere to be seen, and he could have used some help...and the "Chosen One" was nowhere to be found. Wade could have used a Scottie Pippen. What he got was a disappearing act to make Houdini and Karl Malone proud.
People have been telling LeBron to be Jordan his entire career. But in the Finals, there was another Jordan on his team. For most superstars, this would leave them without a role. That's what happened to LeBron in the Finals. One could say the same thing happened to Wade when LeBron was on fire before the Finals.
And you know what? We can't blame Wade. When he isn't relied on to carry the scoring burden, he can't dominate a game. When he is in scoring mode, he's unstoppable. But he's not the kind of guy you run your offense through to create looks for other people. He's not the kind of guy who can control and dominate the game on the defensive end. He's a scorer, short and simple. He won't lose that identity. And the Heat are at their best when he's doing his Jordan impression. He is more Michael Jordan than LeBron is. And you know what? LeBron's still the better player.
Wade can only be the alpha dog. He's a good passer when he's double-teamed, but he doesn't have the court vision to run an offense. He's a good on-ball defender, but he doesn't have the versatility or instincts that James does.
LeBron has all of those things. He has it in him to be the Scottie Pippen to Wade's Jordan. And, to me, that makes him a better player. He needs to realize that if Wade is the one who's scoring, that doesn't mean he needs to take a passive role. LeBron can still control the game on both ends, even if Wade is the one who's scoring all the points.
That's what everyone—most of all, James—needs to realize. He doesn't need to score to be great. But he does need to show up. He does need to touch the ball on every possession, and force the defense to react to him. He can decide when to facilitate and when to dominate. And it's probably best if he acts as a Magic/Pippen-type facilitator, helping Wade put up obscene scoring numbers while starting myriad fast breaks from the other end.
Pippen once said "I hope Michael wins the scoring title every year and ends up the best ever, because I can say I helped him do it." Michael wouldn't have been as great without Pippen. Wade and LeBron could be even better. LeBron has a chance to be the best all-around player ever, and maybe he can help Wade become the best scorer ever.
The media may still claim that LeBron never shouldered the scoring load, didn't hit enough game-winning shots and was Robin to Wade's Batman.
But the basketball fans will know the truth. Maybe LeBron wouldn't have won without Wade, but Wade wouldn't have won without LeBron either. And LeBron's place in history will still be there.
But we all—including LeBron—need to realize that he cannot be Michael. He shouldn't try, and he shouldn't disappear if that opportunity is taken by Dwyane Wade. He needs to be Pippen or Magic.
And it's not because he's not good enough to be Michael.
It's because he's good enough to be Magic and let Wade be Michael.