The Perfect Imperfection that is LeBron James
Basketball is a beautiful game, played by humans of vastly different sizes and abilities, doing different tasks on the court with seemingly divergent goals, yet with the symmetry and coordination of a ballet. Both pleasing to the eye and thought-provoking to the brain.
But the real complexity of basketball isn’t in how the play is drawn up, or how one uses the pivot foot to step through and past a defender, essentially creating a one man pick’n’pop. The system draws us in because it takes a symphony of various skill-sets performing in unison to complete the simple task of putting the ball through a metal rim, 10’ above the ground.
The game needs both tall and small, but strong & wide and thin & nibble bodied souls. It isn’t because basketball is an equal opportunity employer, it’s because certain frames are able to accomplish certain tasks that others simply and physically can not.
The game needs 7’0” ferocious monsters in the paint, gobbling up rebounds and vaporizing weak shot attempts with the palm of their hands. Breaking the will of opponents with thunderous dunks and punishing post moves. yet these men couldn’t dribble a ball if it had a string attached to it.
We leave the dribbling, driving and dishing to the little guys. Let them do their thing on the perimeter, rarely asking them to spend time camping in the forest filled with big men.
We even have a Power Forward position to be as menacing as a Center yet a touch more nimble so they can score with a bit of class and flare.
Then we have the Shooting Guard sized somewhere between the point and the center, operating somewhere between the point and the center on the court.
And somewhere between all of that, we squeeze in the Small Forwards and the Swingmen.
We haven’t even gotten into the varying abilities that exist within the varying positions of basketball. Shoot first point guards. Slashing shooting guards. Defensive centers. Low posts. High posts. Three point specialists. The list goes on as far as the imagination can stretch it.
For the longest time, the idea of the perfect basketball player didn’t exist due to the nature of the sport. The game had so many variables, so many different shots and requirements that no one man had been able to do it all and no one expected them too. Even the great Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double for an entire season, had his short comings.
Other greats that had incredible all-around games also couldn’t ‘do it all’ per se. Magic, the 6’9” point guard who forcibly played center in the NBA Finals and helped the Lakers take home the championship, had glaring flaws in his game. His defense was suspect and his 3-point shot was malnourished. Despite Magic’s success, he was more of the exception than the rule. He didn’t reshape the mold of the point guard, he only temporarily shattered it. While points did grow in size over the years, no one set out to find the next 6’9” point guard.
It took Michael Jordan nearly ruining our concept of basketball for us to mold an archetype of the perfect non-center super star, non-center being the keyword. 6’6”, 200 lbs became the perfect dimensions of a franchise player that wasn’t a center. We figured that at 6’6”, Jordan had the ability to score and rebound and defend nearly every position. He could still dribble with ease, yet overpower smaller defenders and use his agility and quickness on larger, clumsier players. Michael could attack the rim, slash to the basket, hit the mid range, and sometimes, and I stress ‘sometimes’, knock down the 3-ball. Jordan was as near-perfect as any non-center player was going to get.
There’s that term again, ‘non-center’. And that’s because even the great demi-god Michael Jordan couldn’t really do it all. The show he put on was epic in proportions and delivery, yet if you took a peek behind the curtain, you’d see that the 3-point shot wasn’t his only short coming. We like to pretend there was nothing that wasn’t within Jordan’s ability, but there were a lot of things.
To put it simply, Jordan could never play center.
‘Well, duh, he’s not a center.’
I know, and neither is LeBron James, yet he could, conceivably play center and have some success. In fact, I don’t think we’ve seen a single player before LeBron that we could create four clones of and have all five of them play basketball together successfully. LeBron has all the tools, we’ve seen them. Not just in individual spurts of action, but all of them working together in games for stretches long enough to single handedly shift the outcome in favor of his team. As Shoals says, we’ve witnessed LeBron transcend the complexity of basketball. We’ve seen him solve the puzzle. He’s not the orchestra, he’s the one-man band that sounds as glorious as the orchestra. With his size and skill set, there isn’t a single thing LeBron can’t do on the court. Pass, shoot, jump, rebound, defend. The man can defend any position at anytime. He almost sees like a figment of Naismith’s imagination or at least Pat Riley’s.
Bethelehem Shoals wrote some thoughts on the burden of being LeBron, how he spoils us, why we hate him for it and how the only way for LeBron to be deemed a success would be for him to destroy the concept of basketball all together. Sort of. From the Classical:
LeBron James disappears and wilts under pressure, but is very rarely seen as having been defeated. If James were simply being himself, much of his game would be a no-brainer. That’s why LeBron provokes such broad, and nasty, emotions, longing and desperation cloaked in hate. James isn’t the guy who comes up short. He’s the guy who has no right to come up short and does anyway.
Against the Clippers, his hopeless moves to the basket bore some resemblance to this game-winner against the Wizards in the 2006 playoffs. Eric Freeman pointed to that bucket as a turning point, the moment when everyone realized that, in theory, there were no limits to what LeBron James could do on a basketball court. Games are closed out with jumpers, not by exploding past three defenders in traffic for an uncontested lay-in. While he showed up in the league fully-formed and better than advertised, it took a few seasons for us to truly realize what we were watching. At his best, LeBron causes one to reconsider the structure of the sport. Maybe it’s too easy. Maybe they should raise the hoop. It’s maddening that James can’t live up to his calling, but also a little comforting. We hate him for what he can do; we also hate him for not doing it.
Shoals is spot on, LeBron has gifted us with the idea of a perfect basketball player. As much as I hate to reaffirm the statements of such an inflated ego, LeBron was right when he said he’s “spoiled us”. He has. He’s shown us things that we once thought impossible. LeBron’s arrival seemed to have solved the Grand Unifying Theory of Basketball. He showed us the formula but then he quickly wiped the chalk board clean. Instead of us being left in awe that the formula exists or that someone has the ability to solve it, we’re upset that it was solved yet the books which contain them were lost.
It’s both captivating and puzzling that the sole reason that we spend countless hours deconstructing LeBron’s game is because he handed us the blueprints in the first place. Without him showing us exactly what he was capable of, things no one else has ever been capable of, we wouldn’t even know what we were missing out on when he failed to deliver. As if James pulled off the greatest magic trick the world had ever seen, yet was never able to duplicate it again. People would start to wonder if he truly knew how to conjure up such magic or was it only a fluke.
This mess that LeBron finds him self in today, it’s his own fault. LeBron has no one else to blame but himself. He’s responsible for his own burden and he must shoulder the blame until he can once again deliver to the masses what he once promised. He once showed us perfection or at least a glimpse of it and yet we sit here, now impatiently, starving for more.
Or is this our fault? We don’t appreciate the glorious acts that we once saw; we only demand to see them again. And again. And again. With no interruptions and no imperfections.
We’re waiting, LeBron.