Beloved by millions, loathed by a million more. Fans point to his once-in-a-generation skill set—Magic Johnson's vision, MJ's athleticism, mixed together in Karl Malone's Gold Gym body.
Critics emphasize his crunch-time chops—or lack thereof—as the missing links in the King's armor. Whether you love or hate him, you must admit: Basketball fan's everywhere can't keep their eyes off of LeBron James.
He leads the NBA in number of jerseys sold. He’s made an appearance on 60 Minutes that had nothing to do with legal trouble or marital issues. Honestly, what other athlete could have had there own ESPN special AND an episode of First Take dedicated to the one-year anniversary of his ESPN special?
All of that makes this statement: that LeBron James is by far the most hated figure in sports—all the more surprising.
I know, not exactly a newsflash. From LeBron’s infamous “Decision,” one of the most egotistical, vainglorious displays of self promotion in sports history, to his prediction of not one, not two, etc. rings, the man makes it nearly impossible NOT to muster up some sentiments of contempt.
His gargantuan flop in the NBA Finals only added fuel to his critic’s fires. The belief is that the self-proclaimed “Chosen One” can’t get it done when the bread needs to be buttered.
If your memory isn’t too polluted by 12-footers clanging off the backboard so hard that the Richter scale is prompted, travel back with me to Game 3 of this year’s NBA Finals. The Heat had just secured a road victory over Dallas, with LeBron (mojo still intact) assisting on Chris Bosh’s decisive baseline jumper.
Dynasty mode was chugging along, full-speed ahead. I specifically remember leaving the AAC that night, honestly believing that the Mavs were doomed. The offense was out of sync, Dirk was receiving absolutely no help in crunch time and the Mavs couldn’t keep LeBron and Dwyane Wade out of the paint.
Jason Terry, the Mavs secondary option, was coming up small once again in an NBA Finals thanks to LeBron’s smothering fourth-quarter defense.
After the game, down 2-1 and running short on hope, Terry questioned aloud whether LeBron could stop him throughout a seven-game series. At the time, this sounded absolutely preposterous. Jet hadn’t made one single shot with LeBron guarding him in the three previous fourth quarters.
Surely, an athlete as prideful and talented as LBJ would respond to a challenge like this. Not quite. His 3-for-11, eight-point performance ranked right up there with the worst NBA Finals performances by a superstar in NBA Finals history. Even worse was Terry’s fourth-quarter resurrection against LeBron’s suddenly porous defense.
From then on, LeBron was merely a shell of himself, alternating between his fourth-quarter vanishing act—his feeble attempt to steer clear of D-Wade—and the painful, forced attempts to play hero ball, clanging jumpers left and right.
LeBron’s NBA Finals performance, to the delight of millions, was awful. No secret there. On the biggest stage, against a team that Miami was heavily favored against, The King played more like the pauper. But, sports fans should not allow that memory to clout James’ overall impressive body of work.
Statistically, no one even remotely approaches LeBron’s regular season averages (post-Jordan). During his last three Cleveland seasons, The King tossed up an absurd 29, seven and 7.5 while shooting 49 percent from the field.
For all of the flak regarding postseason failures, LeBron submitted one of the finest stat lines of all-time throughout playoff history in 2009, averaging an ungodly 35, nine and seven, as the Cavs fell to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Forget statistics though, for a moment—and most LeBron haters tend to—recall how much LeBron meant to his teammates, fans and the city of Cleveland; the Cavs ran literally everything through LeBron on the offensive end, riding the man’s talent wave as far as it could carry them.
Who else could have possibly dragged Booby Gibson, Anderson Varejao, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sasha Pavlovic to an NBA Finals? That’s like asking Sam to carry seven hobbits up a mountain, instead of just Frodo.
Don’t credit the coaching either. Mike Brown, for all of his defensive intellect, was about as useful as a poopy-flavored lollipop, offensively speaking.
Switch D-Wade with LeBron in 2006-07 and ask yourself if the Cavs sneak past the Pistons into the NBA Finals? I say no way; although I have a feeling Skip Bayless is shaking his head somewhere.
Lost in the abomination of LeBron’s NBA Finals performance also, is LBJ’s 2011 postseason pre- Finals. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, LeBron was the unquestionable alpha-dog of the Miami Heat.
With Dwyane Wade struggling mightily against the Bulls, and Chris Bosh showing up once every blue moon, LeBron took it upon himself to lead the Heat in their quest for a ring, averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the ECF, a Bird-esque stat line.
Roles reversed over the course of the NBA Finals though, and LeBron’s rep suffered the consequences.
So here we are, at a crossroads in the career of “The Chosen One.” Will he rise up, develop a reliable jumper or any semblance of a post-game and claim his place as one of the greatest of all-time, or will he continue down the path of mediocrity and disappointment?
Will we witness 48 special LeBron, or the hesitant head case that was on display in the NBA Finals?
Win or lose, on thing can be rest assured: the eye’s of basketball fans everywhere will constantly be on LeBron James, the most polarizing figure in sports.