“The US government is issuing a new LeBron James dollar bill, but it’s only worth seventy-five cents because LeBron’s not good for the fourth quarter.”
“Tomorrow is National LeBron Day; everybody gets to leave work 12 minutes early.”
“LeBron never went to college because he knew he wouldn’t show up for the Finals.”
“Apple is releasing a new LeBron James iPhone that only vibrates, because it has no ring.”
Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account has probably heard all the jokes already, but what the post-Finals discussion lacks is a look at the underlying issues that cause the jokes to ring true (no pun intended). Simply put, James lacks the killer instinct that distinguishes superstars from the countless other players in the game. His problems go back to last postseason, when the Cleveland Cavaliers squandered a 2-1 series lead over the Boston Celtics as James hit a major slump the final three games of the series. After making 54 percent of his field goal attempts in the first three games of the series, James’ field goal percentage dropped to 34 percent. He lacked energy and hustle, leading Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to later declare James quit against the Celtics.
James’ infamous “Decision” that summer only worsened the scrutiny, and was a telling indicator of things to come. The NBA is a business; there is nothing immoral about leaving Cleveland. Likewise, there is nothing dishonorable about going to a team that he felt gave him a better chance of winning. However, the circumstances under which James went to Miami showed he was not interested in becoming the dominant player he has the athletic talent to develop into.
By joining Dwayne Wade in Miami, James accepted a subordinate role that will define him for the duration of his tenure with the Heat. Chris Bosh and James came to Wade’s team, which is why the Heat will remain Wade’s team. As the only member of the “Big Three” with a ring, Wade secured his alpha male status by convincing two other All-Stars to come to his team. If the “Big Three” had teamed up in another location such as New York, or Chicago – where at that point in time Derrick Rose was considered a talented piece of a team but had yet to establish himself as the clear-cut leader – then James, Wade and Bosh would have been on equal footing. Instead, James and Bosh embraced their secondary roles, in a manner that suggested James wasn’t hungry enough to define himself as the best player ever.
“There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team,’” Heart Beat the Heat: LeBron James’ Failures Still Stem from “The Decision” Michael Jordan said last July. “In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”
Despite the lack of competitive fire behind James’ “Decision,” the Heat’s combination of raw athletic talent alone carried the team to the Finals, but in the end it wasn’t enough. With Wade struggling to shake off a hip injury, the burden was on James to elevate his level of play and help Wade. Instead, James’ self-imposed sidekick status proved inescapable, scoring only two points in a 19-minute stretch during the first half and then going nearly the entire third quarter without scoring. For a player whose athletic talents prompted one of Jordan’s teammates to say “LeBron could by all means get to (Jordan’s) level someday,” it was a remarkably underwhelming finish to the most important game of James’ life. After the game, James was disturbingly nonchalant.
“At the end of the day, all the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.”
It’s nearly impossible to picture Jordan, whose Hall of Fame speech documented the manner in which he turned every perceived slight against him into motivation, describing himself as “happy” with anything the same night his team lost the Finals. Indeed, one of the defining psychological traits of the best athletes in history is the ferocity with which they felt the need to prove themselves. Probably the best recent example of a legendary player with an insatiable desire to demonstrate his worth is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who showed on ESPN’s “Brady Six” documentary he still holds an enormous chip on his shoulder 11 years and three Super Bowl rings after falling to the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
James has no such chip on his shoulder. He brushed off the backlash from fans after his choke job in the 2010 playoffs, and will brush off his shortcomings in the Finals soon enough. He is by far the most physically gifted player in the game today, and arguably the most talented ever. He has much work to do before he can become the best player today, as he is content with relying on his physical gifts instead of working to improve his skills. Rather than dedicate himself to his craft and become well rounded by improving his post-up game, James leans on the aspects of his game that have always worked well for him.
Being content with one’s current level of play is a recipe for unrealized potential in professional sports. The competition is too talented and the stakes are too high for any professional athlete to accept anything less than perfection from their performance. “King James” will continue to be the Lord of No Rings unless he develops an insatiable desire for greatness. Until that happens, the most talented player in the league will continue his descent into becoming the most disappointing.
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Hank Koebler is an NFL / NCAA Football Writer and On-Air Personality. Hank's work as a journalist has been widely published and he's received numerous citations for his NFL coverage. You may email Hank @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HankKoebler