Shortly after signing with the Miami Heat last summer and becoming the most hated player in the NBA, LeBron James appeared with his new teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and guaranteed that the team would win multiple championships. The Heat made it to the NBA Finals, but LeBron reverted to his usual postseason ways and choked as the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami in six games.
After having some choice words following the loss, James only made a deeper hole out of the one he had already dug himself into. During that entire series, Miami's weaknesses were exposed and James' lack of communication, among other things, ultimately sunk the ship.
Still, whenever the new season begins, James will start with a clean slate...or will he? Some may chalk up last year's NBA Finals to the Mavericks wanting it more, but I'm not too convinced. Next year is the one where LeBron has to step up and take control.
Here are some reasons why.
Fans all over the nation tuned in last summer to watch James make "The Decision." After he announced who his new team would be, people lambasted him.
Instead of picking a team that truly needed him, the New York Knicks or Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, James instead went to a team that already had two superstars so that if the Heat didn't do well, he wouldn't be on the receiving end of most of the bad press. At this point, some people started poking fun at him for going to Miami to "buy a ring."
Even though Miami made the Finals, LeBron James was the one who came away with most of the blame for the team's losses in the series. In the fourth quarter of Games 4 through 6, James was a non-factor as he barely demanded the ball at any point. Simply put, he found himself face to face with what he hoped to avoid in Miami.
Because of those performances alone, James is really on the hot seat with his critics this year. He needs to prove that he can be a leader in Miami and not just someone living in the shadow of Dwyane Wade. Otherwise, he could receive the worst kind of label.
LeBron James is not a bad player. In fact, he just might be the best player in the NBA. Yet, despite multiple trips to the playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers, including one NBA Finals appearance, James has never been able to walk away with a championship ring. In Cleveland, many chalked it up to the "he can't do it alone" theory.
Well, James wasn't alone during his final season in Cleveland. He had talented players like Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal to help him, though the latter was an injury prone mess most of the year. Instead of riding his team's 61 win campaign to an NBA Finals appearance, James just disappeared in the playoffs. He knew deep down that he was leaving Cleveland, and instead of going out like a lion, he went out like a lamb.
He had plenty of help in Miami down the stretch, but still went home empty-handed. Unless he can turn things around and start being a leader instead of just a big name on the team, or someone who always almost wins it all, only then will he silence his critics.
Speaking of being a leader, let's move onto the next reason.
Take a look at the picture to the left. James' back is to the camera while teammate Dwyane Wade is facing it. I know that this is a candid shot and that neither player's pose was intentional, but let's analyze both men's positioning in regards to their roles on the team.
James' back to the camera here could represent his role on the team. He may have led the team in scoring and assists per game, but he never put the team on his back enough and it showed in the NBA Finals.
Wade, on the other hand, is the fearless leader of the Heat. He has already won a championship with them and is hungry for more. Anyone who has watched him play knows that he is never hesitant to take control of the game when his team needs him to produce. Heck, in last year's NBA Finals, he was the one taking most of the key shots while James just stood idly by.
This season, James needs to prove that he is more than just someone playing in Wade's shadow. He is an alpha dog and while he may have choked in the Finals, chances are that the Heat would not have made it that far without him.
He is a leader just waiting to blossom and lead his team to glory. This season has to be the one where he does it.
Putting all criticism of LeBron aside, I'm not at all surprised that the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals this past season. A team that has a core group of superstars in their prime in one starting lineup is bound to do well, but expecting them to win a title immediately is unrealistic. Keep in mind, they need to learn how to play together.
Despite struggles, Miami's Big Three learned how to play together and looked damn good at times. The problem was that besides them, the rest of the team was fairly mediocre.
This offseason, team management has had the chance to assess all of the needs and holes that need to be filled. Whenever free agency starts, you know that Pat Riley will make a hard pitch for certain players to follow in James' footsteps and take their talents to South Beach. Given the talent that is already on the team, free agents will surely be competing for a spot on the roster before contracts are even signed.
Yet, once the signing period is done, it's make or break time for Miami. The team had one year to get used to each other, and now it is time to take the next step: winning a championship. With more help on the team, James won't have any more excuses to use if the Heat underachieve in the playoffs again, unless of course he's playing with a borderline serious injury.
However, before free agency can even begin, there is one more crucial reason that makes next season the defining one for LeBron James.
As most of you are probably aware, the NBA is currently embroiled in a bitter labor dispute that could last several months. One of the major issues that has prevented a new collective bargaining agreement from being agreed upon is whether or not to institute a hard salary cap. Such a cap would make it near impossible for teams to exceed the salary cap and have ridiculously high payrolls.
If a hard cap is indeed adopted under the new CBA, the Miami Heat could find themselves forced to deal one of the Big Three.
Look at it this way.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh are set to make $16 million next season, while Wade is due $15.6 million. Depending on the number set by the hard cap, team management could be forced to deal one of the three in order to sign significant free agents to address team needs.
Simply put, if Wade or Bosh is dealt, James has no choice but to step it up. With less help, for lack of a better word, the pressure on him becomes even greater.
If he displays the same lackadaisical attitude he did last season in the coming one, then the Heat could be up the creek without a paddle. There is no reason why this team should not be NBA Finals regulars with the core they have.
If that trio is shrunk to a duo, then James could find himself the target of ridicule forever if he does not step up and carry his team to championship glory.