On: LeBron

A discussion of the reigning MVP and most polarizing figure in the NBA today, reflected in various styles.

THIS POST IS ON: LEBRON

Part I, Longform: The Main Event

Dan Feldman is the author of Piston Powered on the TrueHoop Network. He graciously agreed to write this selection on LeBron and the real core of his ethos. You can reach Dan at @pistonpowered. The topic? FUN! -Ed.

In May, a reader e-mailed Bill Simmons about a way to analyze players: one-word goals. Force yourself to describe a player’s singular purpose in one word, and you’ll learn a lot about him.* The concept is marvelous, but Simmons and the e-mailer both missed the mark on LeBron. They both chose “amaze.”

There’s a more apropos word:

Fun.

*I thought choosing “greatness” rather than “winning” for Kobe was genius. “Yes he’s going to win some, but only because he wants to be considered great and that will be a by-product at times.”

You can view all of LeBron’s decisions to date through the lens of: how can he maximize his fun? LeBron might not realize this is how he approaches everything, but he’s been successful.

LeBron can appear selfish, immature and secluded. And he might really be all those things. But he has only developed those traits in the name of having fun.

Despite his tarnished image, few NBA players appear to enjoy playing basketball as much as he does. He spends a lot of time smiling on the court — and for good reason. He’s the best player in the league. That’s gotta be fun.

Pregame faux photoshoots are fun. Dunks are fun. Celebrating every above average play is fun.

Winning is fun, and in the regular season or early rounds of the playoffs, winning easy to a player of LeBron’s caliber. Winning deep in the playoffs is also fun, but it’s much more difficult. Difficulty isn’t fun, and that’s why LeBron disappeared during the conference finals against the Celtics.

LeBron’s desire to have fun doesn’t end at the sideline. Fun explains his summer, too.

Holding the basketball world’s attention for months is fun. You can go about it the hard way, like the Lakers and Celtics, battling until the end of the season. Or you can make several teams believe they’ll sign the best player in the world. Either way, everyone focuses on you all season.

Having teams beg you to join them is fun. LeBron is one of the few players never recruited by colleges. He was an NBA lock years before graduating from St. Vincent-St. Mary. It’s one of the few fun experiences denied to the young multi-millionaire. A series of hotel meetings changed that.

Fun also explains why LeBron ultimately signed with the Heat.

Living in Miami is fun.

Playing with your friends is fun.

Winning championships is fun.

This plan may backfire for LeBron, of course. Winnings titles is hard. The most successful players of this generation, Kobe and Duncan, don’t have much fun on the court. But they win. Winning and fun don’t exactly go hand in hand.

Maybe LeBron has found the easy way out. He’s aligned himself with an incredibly talented group of teammates, teammates who can do the non-fun work. With Bosh, LeBron won’t have to play in the post. With Wade, he won’t have to lead.

LeBron might have put himself in a position Kobe and Duncan never could: maximizing his fun and championships. I don’t care what anyone says about LeBron now, if he wins titles, and he has a great chance to do that, he’ll be the face of the NBA.

And that face will have a huge smile.

TIME TRIALS

Thursday night I contacted the HP family and told them they had thirty minutes or less to jam out a set number of words on LeBron. They attacked the challenge head on. These are the results of their efforts. -Ed

Rob Mahoney

Even after months of constant vilification, LeBron James still looks odd in black.

The NBA is filled to the brim with arrogance, showmanship, and greed. It’s a hype machine not reliant on fossil fuels, but powered by the purely renewable resource of human imagination. It’s easy to point to The Media as the source of all hype, the benefactor of the stars, the generator from which everything detestable to the average fan originates. After all, it has to come from somewhere, and it couldn’t possibly be from us…could it?

LeBron, The Decision, and the Miami Heat all inspire hatred, which most trace back to media oversaturation. I don’t see it. The most infuriating part of the summer’s free agent preparations and presentations was not the sheer volume of coverage, but our indisputable hunger for it. We claimed to want less, but sent a different message with our TV ratings and our click-throughs. We claimed to have be tired of LeBron, but turned him into a daily trending topic. We claimed to want other things — other free agent coverage, more Team USA analysis, more trade talk – and yet when the moment came, we shushed those around our television sets, scanned Twitter furiously, and mashed the refresh button in anticipation.

As much as we “hated” the summer of 2010, the free agent hoopla, and all of LeBron’s shtick, the most bothersome fact of all is that we refused to look away. We had that power all along, but we followed the saga through every update. As people, we knew that what LeBron was doing was childish and self-absorbed, but we were powerless to do anything but indulge him.

LeBron James is deeply flawed. But the reason why he’s struck such a chord with sports fans is that he reminds us that we are, too.

We are enablers. We are the justification. We know better, and should have refused the obsessive step-by-step coverage of LeBron’s decision. We didn’t, and in order to interpret our decision in a way that makes sense to us, we flip the script. Rather than be accountable for the fact that we chose to read and watch and consume information on every aspect of LeBron’s summer, it had to be LeBron. It had to be the media. It had to be anything other than an immature, preening star being an immature, preening star, on television, while we all elected to watch. The only agency involved was LRMR, and we had no will of our own. That has to be the case.

But what if it’s not? What should we do? Should we admit that we’ve made mistakes?

Zach Harper

First impressions after LeBron James’ first two games with the Miami Heat?

Work in progress.

While that seems like a very basic analysis of a 1-1 record by the Heat in which they’ve completely overhauled their roster from something out of a NBA superstar’s nightmare to a coach’s fantasy, it permeates throughout every aspect of the way this team has played so far.

This team has started out very slowly in its two games against Atlantic Division foes so far and the reason for that is the lack of continuity this roster has with one another. For the most part, it should be expected because they haven’t been together in a meaningful setting at all. But the blame and vitriol will immediately go to LeBro James for the way he’s performed in these two games.

It’s been quite the mixed bag for LeBron with his 31-point effort that included a flurry of long jumpers to bring the Heat within tying distance against the Celtics in a game that looked to be a laugher for Decision critics early on. He led his team to just 30 points in the first half and managed to be down by 20 points very quickly. His defense has been suspect as well. While his isolation defense is still very good, his ability to close out on shooters and actually challenge shots on defensive rotations leaves a lot to be desired.

He’s also been forcing the ball like crazy. 17 turnovers in two games is an alarming number at any level of basketball. Some of that is bad timing with his teammates. But for the most part it’s just him forcing things that aren’t there. He’s trying to bully his defenders and instead ends up playing out of control basketball. This might have to do with the fact that it’s been about a half decade since he played the point guard position. Carlos Arroyo is out on the court to make the lineups look pretty and organized but LeBron has been the facilitator of this team thus far.

The solution is undoubtedly to set him up for easier decisions and give the Heat some much-needed offensive organization. LeBron has essentially been thrust into an All-Star game system in which isolations and trying to make your own magic happen rules the possession. He is not thriving in this when he has to face a defense that actually gives a damn. It’s on Erik Spoelstra to make LeBron’s job easy and give him less responsibility while having more of a role.

Maybe that means he goes into the post a lot more than even what we’ve seen early on. Running the ball through a posted LeBron like an oversized Mark Jackson could be the simplest way to cut down his turnovers and maximize the usage he is exhibiting on the court. LeBron is clearly feeling some pressure from the expectations. It’s the only reason to explain the fact that he had 10 games of eight or more turnovers in seven years with the Cavaliers and has already had two in his first two contests with the Miami Heat.

It’s safe to say he’s handling having to do less in the offense pretty poorly. With fewer responsibilities, he’s trying to make more happen and that’s a recipe for bad execution.

I don’t expect LeBron to do this all season of course. He’d end up shattering the season turnover record of 366 by more than 300 turnovers.

It’s just going to be a mixed bag of highlights and forceful play until he settles down and realizes that less is more or more is less or 1-on-5 basketball is no longer necessary.

Graydon Gordian

Initially, LeBron James seemed to be more than another NBA celebrity, or even era-defining superstar. He appeared to be a palpable step forward. Not a step forward on the court, although of course his unique physical talents suggested that he may have been that when he first came to the public’s attention.

He was a step forward in terms of how he understood his own celebrity. He was conscious, and conscientious. He was everything to everyone: Somehow both humble and theatrical; yeoman-like and flamboyant; a hometown hero with big city swagger.

It’s not that professional athletes, and more specifically NBA players, haven’t had complex, somewhat paradoxical public personas in the past. But they never manufactured that complexity – that subtlety – so consciously and so thoroughly.

When looking for the historical precedents of a phenomena, it’s possible to always look farther and farther back. To see the revolution as not only inspired by the uprising immediately preceding it, but as an outgrowth of the public unrest that preceded that.

Personally, I see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the origin of modern NBA celebrity. Obviously there were famous athletes before them, but it was Bird and Magic who most boldly explored – consciously or unconsciously – the interrelationship between advertising, media and the game of basketball.

It was Magic who first said, if I smile incessantly, I can be all things to all people. It was Bird who first said, if I shrug my shoulders and say “aww shucks” in an Indiana accent, I can disguise the pit bull that I am on the floor.

Jordan was the next evolution in this chain, combining Magic’s charisma with Bird’s need to obfuscate the vicious style of his play. That’s not to say Bird or Jordan were cheap or dirty players. They were just arrogant and mean-spirited, and absolutely brilliant.

However, by smiling over and over again alongside a Big Mac or a pair of shoes or a pack of underwear, Jordan not only convinced us he wasn’t an asshole. He convinced us he was Magic. He played basketball with cartoon characters and flailed around in a grass skirt with overweight sketch comedians. The distance between Jordan the man and Jordan the brand was so great that it appeared there was no distance at all.

In the wake of this unprecedented transformation, Kobe Bryant entered the scene. For years, he seemed to be on the same steady path that his forebears had laid out for him. But his inability to shake the “selfish” label, combined with an act of indiscretion in Eagle, Colorado, derailed his stardom, at least until he finally won his fourth title. But then again, maybe the post-Jordan malaise was never meant to have a star.

At first, it seemed that LeBron had learned from Kobe’s mistakes. There were no press conferences with sunglasses, or rumors of infighting with his team’s other superstar, although that person’s non-existence helped some. There was just a perfectly manicured image.

It actually started to fall apart long before The Decision. I remember the exact moment LeBron exposed his chink in the armor. It was at the end of Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost the series 4-2 to the Orlando Magic, and instead of congratulating the victors, LeBron stormed off the court.

All things considered, it wasn’t a severe offense. I’ve seen several players do the same thing, including the much-revered Tim Duncan at the end of the first round of the 2009 playoffs. But given how much we had come to expect from LeBron, how flawless the whole production had been up until that point, the whole world noticed.

Noam Schiller

One of Lebron James’ biggest supposed adjustments this season is supposed to be playing Magic instead of playing Jordan. After years of being not only the best guy on his team (he’ll be that on all teams) but the only decent guy on his team, he suddenly has to share the spot light with two all world guys. While the general theme of thinking is that Lebron prefers to be the distributor over the scorer, this is very much speculation, as none of us possess the ability to read Lebron’s mind (and if you do and you’re not sharing what happened in Game 5 against Boston, shame on you).

All of this has been pretty much played out in every outlet possible, so I won’t overwhelm you with unnecessary details. Just know that Wade+Bosh>all Cavaliers from 2003 onward and let’s move on.

What really interests me, though, isn’t how Lebron will learn to play with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (though that’s obviously interesting in and of it’s own) – it’s for him to truly learn how to play with himself (that came out all kinds of wrong). Because for all of his pedigree – best basketball player alive and all that – he still has an abundance of untapped talent.

The still raw post game. The mediocre-at-times outside shooting. The still questionable decision making, such as opting for jab step jumpers over thunderous penetrations, or overplaying his passing game (seriously, Lebron, just because you’re the only human being alive that can successfully convert a full court pass while you’re in the air doesn’t mean you can’t just make a simple bounce pass).

To me, Mike Brown’s biggest sin wasn’t leaving Shaq on the floor instead of J.J. Hickson, or Larry Hughes instead of Daniel Gibson, or insisting that Ben Wallace guards Rashard Lewis. It was the inexplicable resistence to make Lebron James a better basketball player. Brown instilled a commitment to defense in James for the 2008-2009 season… and that’s kind of it. All other Lebronian progress seemed detached from his coach – again, to these eyes.

And that, to me, is Miami’s greatest challenge (title reference!). Sure, they could win 7 straight titles. They could give us unlimited highlights and the type of defense that we haven’t seen since the last time the league’s best 2 and the league’s best 3 played together. And all of that could be absolutely awesome to watch, even if you’re not a Heat fan.

But as someone who constantly ponders players maximizing their potential, and who laments those who don’t (pours one out for Andray Blatche), turning Lebron into LEBRON could be the greatest achievement ever. Talent wise, this is a kid – still a kid – who can be the best ever. He can. Jordan was Jordan, and we all appreciate him for that, but he was not a faster Karl Malone with the court vision of John Stockton. Nobody was ever born with this raw talent, save for maybe Wilt. By villanizing James, Miami owes us this much. Make him all that he can be, because we’ve never seen anything like it before, and we deserve it.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.