With every game Lebron James wins in these 2011 playoffs, he draws one step closer to his first championship, one step closer to dignifying his decision, if not The Decision, one step closer to securing his career’s last missing piece, and if we’re smart, one step closer to changing the way we view championship rings.
In recent days, I have read a lot about James’s improvements, about the addition of a jump shot to his repertoire and how that has made him more or less unguardable. Watching the daggers he stuck in Boston and Chicago’s backs, that’s a reasonable observation. But what the media has failed to mention is that he actually shot a better percentage from the field and from the three-point arc last postseason, and he did that while compiling more assists, more rebounds, more steals and more blocks per game. If you prefer advanced statistics, Lebron’s PER, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, rebounding rate, assist rate, and block percentage were all better last postseason. But everyone would rather forget about that, because, damn it, Lebron James was eliminated last season without a championship ring.
The ring is the NBA’s highest measure of success, not just for a team but also for an individual. Win one and we serenade you. Win more than one and we put you on a pedestal. Win five or six, or even more, and we bow down to kiss your feet and worship your very existence, then perhaps mold your body into a statue years after your retirement. Win none of them, on the other hand, and we will shun you, or if you are young enough like Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose, we will forgive you and offer you a little more time. Then, when that time expires, we will turn on you like a hungry pack of wolves. Just like we turned on Lebron last year.
When remembering the failures of Lebron’s playoff past, surely you will recall his inept Game 5 in last year’s bout against the Celtics. You will recall the oddly glazed-over eyes that accompanied the most-hyped case of sleep-walking I have ever witnessed. You will recall Lebron’s willingness to stand in the corner mostly useless as the Celtics yanked Cleveland’s season from his lifeless hands. That was the day we labeled Lebron James a quitter, a choker, a malcontent, and worst of all, a loser. That was the day we began turning on Lebron James, the day his imperfections smacked us in the face and made us bleed anger and disappointment. That was the day we decided he was old enough; we would afford him no more time. His grace period was over, and he needed to win at least one championship before he could finally earn his nickname “King James.” We took Cleveland’s failures and strapped them like a weight vest onto Lebron’s back.
In retrospect, blaming everything on James seems foolhardy and indefensible. He hardly played any worse during that series (what some would call the lowest moment of his career) than he did against the Chicago Bulls this past week. Allow me to reveal the statistics:
Series 1: 26.8 ppg, 7.2 apg, 9.3 rpg, 44.3% FG, 26.7% 3-pt
Series 2: 25.8 ppg, 6.6 apg, 7.8 rpg, 44.6% FG, 38.9% 3-pt
Not much difference, except for the three-point shooting. Yet because Lebron’s team lost Series 1 (aka last year against the Celtics), we chained him against a fence and threw stones at him. Since he won Series 2, (aka last week against the Bulls), we now worship at his altar, praise his improvements, and rush to crown him the game’s best and most complete player. Our different perspectives on the two series are daylight and darkness, Nikes and L.A. Gear, wheat bread and jambalaya, when in reality Lebron was almost the exact same player this time last year, just with a different set of teammates.
We challenged Lebron after last season because of his lack of rings, but the truth is that Lebron has been the NBA’s best player for the past three years, at least. And he has normally used the playoffs to remind us of his transcendent greatness. Just because he failed in Game 5 does not mean we should forget or discount the time he choked out Detroit by scoring 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points. Nor should we forget his fruitless yet heroic 45 points in 2008′s Game 7 against Boston. We should not forget the way he out-dueled Paul Pierce but still could not coax a win from his overmatched teammates. If you are a Celtics fan, you should not forget the fear you felt in your heart every time he rose for a shot that day, nor should you forget the knowledge that the best player on the court wore not green but wine and gold.
We should not forget that Lebron James has almost always been masterful, even in the playoffs, nor should we forget that the Game 5 in Cleveland—when he shot 3-14, missed all his three-pointers, scored only 15 points and mustered “only” seven assists and six rebounds—only proved an exception to Lebron’s rule of greatness. Even that series, after which we tortured him with everything but tar and feathers, Lebron managed a do-whatever-it-takes 27-point, 19-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 6. Yet we could not forgive him for the sins of Game 5, in part because he was finally old enough to warrant our unedited criticism and, most importantly, because his team lost the series.
If Lebron’s team reaches a different fate this season, that doesn’t necessarily make him a better basketball player. That’s how we will perceive it, though. The ring serves as an invisibility cloak for all a player’s flaws. It allows us to praise Kobe Bryant after his 6-24 shooting performance, to forget about the bricks and the misses and the poorly-timed shots, and to focus mostly on his rebounding and timely late makes. We bestowed Kobe with the Finals MVP that day rather than the barrage of insults we catapulted toward Lebron. We called Kobe a winner because his team won. We labeled him with the term “killer instinct” because he would not stop shooting, even if that also meant he would not stop missing. If he had lost, he would have been a thoughtless chucker, a ball hog who did not know when to give his trigger finger proper hibernation. Winning changes the prism through which we see events. So when Lebron lost last season, walking off the TD Garden court and into an early offseason, we tore apart his few flaws and made them seem more important than they actually were.
I’m not here to absolve Lebron of last year’s sins. His play in Game 5 last season certainly did not live up to his standards, and even his triple-double in Game 6 came equipped with nine turnovers. But the “rings is the only argument I need, Sean” argument should require more evidence. It was probably time to re-evaluate the rings argument after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, three lifetime old maids, won a title by finally surrounding themselves with worthy talent. But if Lebron can win his first title one year removed from being vilified as a quitter, we should finally see rings for what they actually are—an award given to the game’s best teams, not its greatest individuals. Stars can certainly be the difference between winning and losing: for example, how many titles would Chicago have won if Michael Jordan had been substituted with, say, Clyde Drexler? It’s difficult to say, but probably not six. But even if Lebron is the exact same player he was last season, the jump from Mo Williams to Dwyane Wade certainly didn’t hurt his title chances.
Rings come only when the league’s best players have a great supporting cast (or, in the 2004 Detroit Pistons’s case, when the NBA has a down year and the entire team makes up the perfect supporting cast). Michael Jordan, as great as he was, won so many titles because Scottie Pippen became a worthy second fiddle, Dennis Rodman could snatch a rebound from an alligator’s jaws, Steve Kerr and John Paxson could flat-out shoot, and yes, because Jordan himself was on another level. Winning almost always takes at least one superstar, but the players around him matter. A lot. Lebron may very well have improved since last season (stats say his midrange jumper became significantly more reliable, and the naked eye tells me he has become a defensive force akin to a tornado), but the most significant difference is that he has upgraded from Mo Williams and Antwan Jamison to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
If Lebron wins a title this year, we might consider him a transformed player, someone who matured in the past year, someone who finally became a winner. In reality, very little has changed outside of the players surrounding him. Rings can fall short in defining a player’s impact, so the next time somebody tells you “Michael Jordan won six championships and that’s the only argument I need,” kindly tell him he needs more than that. Hell, Robert Horry has seven championships; to call Jordan the best ever, you need another argument. If you’re defending Jordan, it shouldn’t take much thought to extend your argument beyond his number of rings. And if you’re defending Lebron, against any perimeter player not named Michael, your argument grows stronger with each passing season, even when he falls short of winning a championship.