[Editor's Note: Before we all complain about the inundation with all that is LeBron -- with coverage good, bad, overall, and everything in between -- consider the fact of how such a unique character provides an opportunity to relish in how influential sports figures have become. That is to say, at least all of this is not boring. Ben Standig (Twitter: @BenStandig) writes about DMV sports all over the web, CSNWashington.com amongst them. In a TAI guess piece below, Ben breaks down a commonality between LeBron and Mike Tyson, who, by chance, is being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame today. -Kyle W.]
Once upon a time, Mike Tyson was legitimately the baddest man on the planet and in that era he delivered one of the best quotes – both figuratively and in his case, literally – depicting the nature of intimidation in the world of sports. When told before a fight that his opponent had a plan to beat him, Tyson brashly countered that “everyone has a plan, until they get hit in the mouth.”
This quote is pertinent to the NBA Finals because up until a few days ago, most of the basketball world surely would have slotted one LeBron James into that role of baddest of the bad. Not that he would land an actual haymaker to an opponent’s cranium or was the one guy in the league you wouldn’t want to cross, but his physically imposing ways surely put fear into the hearts of opponents. That physicality certainly blinded the observing world.
As it turns out – and as I suspected – James is showing that his persona indeed resembles some aspect of that quote. But not as the harasser, rather the foe to whom Tyson was referring.
For some time I’ve felt alone in the wilderness when it came to witnessing James as a great talent, but not a player with a elite crafted set of skills. Forget that James is the next Michael Jordan talk; to my hoop-loving sensibilities, he’s not Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan, and as we can clearly see in these finals, not Dwyane Wade. Even during these Finals I’ve been scolded on Twitter for not appreciating the beauty of his game and if that were the case, clearly the issue was mine.
Let’s be clear, James is one of the best in the world, nobody is knocking him – at least not athletically. When it comes to pure speed combined with the ability to jump out of the gym, nobody’s better.
Using such simplistic terms is not meant to demean those attributes; when LeBron gets a full head of steam racing down the court, it’s like trying to stop Adrian Peterson in the open field without the ability to tackle. When a ball is above the rim and you don’t get a body him, I hope you like the taste of jam because that’s what about to go down.
But like Tyson, James’ skills are fairly rudimentary. Boxing purists didn’t go to watch a Tyson fight to see him cleverly layer combination after combination or to game plan his opponent into a winning decision. They came for the spectacle, they came for the knockout. This is why they come for LeBron. That’s fine, but it’s not Mozart either. In the case of Tyson and James, we’re talking about Fezzik from the Princess Bride, not the learned flair of Inigo Montoya exhibited by Bryant, and in these Finals, Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.
That latter is my particular brand of Vodka, because it gives you options should your first desires fail. Yet, when I’ve made that case over the last few seasons that James is simply not the best player in the planet for these reasons, many clearly thought I was drunk. Even in scenarios when I thought I was preaching to the choir, it often turned out that I was getting agreeable nods from members from the church of the we don’t like LeBron James.
For me this hasn’t been all about rooting against the so-called King – though I had DeShawn Stevenson’s back during his days with the Wizards – for emotional reasons, or simply because of “The Decision,” the party, the boasting, the witnessing. I was going beyond that, even if I too can relate to that faction’s mission statement.
After reading Bill Simmons’ Friday column at Grantland on LeBron and the NBA Finals, I’ve figured it out: even the most discerning observers still can get swept up in our highlight culture and confuse athletic prowess with high-end skill. Simmons seemed almost surprised to see that there was no “Plan B” to LeBron’s game, which surprised me to no end. He noted that James didn’t have the post game of Duncan or the one-on-one skills of Wade and Bryant. Again, how has this not been blatantly obvious?
James is Niagara Falls; he’s an unreal spectacle to watch, but once you are done looking at awesomeness of nature’s power, then what?
Since there are so many factors that go into any LeBron breakdown, let’s move away from that world for a moment and talk about the player many would say is the most exciting in the league today, Blake Griffin.
The NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year had a beastly first season, flying over players and cars alike. It’s fair to say that almost the entirety of Griffin’s game during his first pro season was based on pure athleticism which led to thunderous and soaring dunks or animalistic forays to the bucket. Rebounds and free-throw attempts came in abundance as well, but again, athleticism (he shot .642 from the free-throw line). No knock on athletic dominance, the complete opposite in fact. For now.
Barring injuries, Griffin should still be at his flying best eight years into his career, the same amount of time James has currently spent in the league. That gives Griffin ample amount time to hone his craft. It also gives opponents room to find chinks in the armor.
So if over the next seven seasons he doesn’t develop a post game, an up-and-under or a consistent 15-footer, what then? Over time, the awe and fear will dwindle, even if the highlights remain impressive. Even if we are still enthralled with the dunking, wouldn’t we be a bit disappointed by his failure to evolve as a player?
Simply maturing as a person can help, especially if over time a killer instinct is crafted, In Griffin’s case, it’s still a bit too early to tell if he has one, what with the Clippers and their losing ways. Should that mental aspect not be honed, should the expansiveness of his game grow up but not out, it still wouldn’t make Griffin a failure. It would make him LeBron James, circa games 3, 4 and 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals.
Back to Simmons. Notice that the Sports Guy – who is easily one of my favorite writers; there is no hater-ade here – mentions those other creative scorers and includes the Big Fundamental, but not the Big Aristotle, a.k.a. Shaquille. O’Neal.
I’ve always thought that if a LeBron comparison was desired, then Shaq was the way to go. Like James, O’Neal was a physical freak for his position – though in Shaq’s case, really all mankind. At their physical best, where James currently is, they could envelop their opponents simply by getting square to the basket. And since they began playing basketball they could do exactly that, their overall game never truly expanded. (Which, if you are in a hurry, never engage me in a debate where you say Shaq is better than Duncan. No matter how busy I am, I’ll make time for this.)
The difference is that by position – not to mention girth – Shaq’s game was best served within five feet from the basket, and he rarely ventured from that domain. O’Neal never turned into Ralph Sampson or Chris Webber, big men who often let the inner 6-4 guards control their thoughts.
Shaq was also the biggest man on the court. James is a freak of nature, but there are others who are bigger and stronger. He plays like he knows this which is why despite being built like Karl Malone, James rarely ventures in the post. It’s because James is not a bully, it’s just the role he’s been cast into. Put that radar the government uses to track Santa’s path on Christmas Eve on James during games and you’d see his movements are more of a perimeter shooting guard than a power forward.
When Iron Mike Tyson ruled the heavyweight ranks, his game was power, his game was intimidation and he rode that combo to the mountain top, the championship belt. But once he was knocked down by Buster Douglas and the fear factor was diminished, so was his game. Tyson won some more fights before and after jail, but was never the same.
Over the years the softer side of Mike Tyson has emerged, almost like he’s trying to show the world that he shouldn’t be feared. He was doing what he was told, he did what was needed to survive, but he can now just be… the guy who raised pigeons, perhaps.
Right now the Dallas Mavericks are Buster Douglas, not fearing the self-proclaimed Chosen One, the wanna-be bully, just like the Boston Celtics have done in the past (because the Celts had older, better bullies, and James didn’t have help… until this year).
Like Tyson, LeBron’s game is built on dread and bullying. The game has come so easy for James since his high school days that he never developed a fallback plan. Maybe the flow in games 6 and 7 will allow LeBron to produce, but you can’t conjure up post moves overnight (imagine if LeBron had a baby hook).
LeBron knows this. His fear has been that everyone would see the emperor has no secondary clothes. This is why he fled to Miami to be with Wade and Chris Bosh, to help camouflage this flaw. He’s not ready to be exposed, certainly not before he wins it all.
This is what I’ve suspected for some time. It’s now what everyone has witnessed.