It’s Time For LeBreakdown

It’s better for the NBA that LeBron James melted down in Dallas, disappeared and extended his “Wait a second, what the hell just happened???” streak to two straight years. Now it’s threatening to become a June tradition along the lines of Father’s Day, weddings, and MTV cutting a “Real World” trailer that ends with someone about to be punched in the face. Why isn’t LeBron shooting? Why isn’t he driving to the basket? Why does his face look like the face of a little kid who just got called in front of the entire class? Does he realize this game is being televised? You can’t call it a meltdown; that would belittle what happened. Call it a LeBreakdown

When LeBreakdown first happened against the 2010 Celtics (Game 5), we were so perplexed that conspiracy theories started flying within 12 hours. The most popular (never proven): that a teammate slept with his mother. True or untrue, the real reason felt like it had to be THAT crazy. Wednesday morning, we learned that you could explain what happened in that Game 5 only if it happened again. Because it did.

It’s been an unequivocal godsend for the NBA; no other league ebbs and flows with its stars so clearly that TV ratings can definitively track it. Since they stopped tape-delaying Finals games, in 1982, the league has spiked during the Finals four times:

1987: A 15.9 rating for Bird-Magic III, a number that jumped almost 30 percent from their first battle three years earlier (12.3).

1991-93: 15.8, 14.2,and 17.9 for MJ’s first three Finals, with that last number jumping 47 percent from the 1990 Finals (12.3).

1996-98: 16.7, 16.8, and 18.7 for MJ’s second three Finals, with that last number jumping 35 percent from the 1995 Finals (13.9).

2010-11: 10.6 and 11.0 (estimated) for the pre-Decision and post-Decision (LeBron jumping boat from Cleveland to Miami) seasons, a 32 percent jump from the 2009 Finals (8.4) and a 75 percent jump from the 2007 Finals (6.2).

Numbers don’t lie. LeBron got his wish: The summer of 2010 made him a bigger brand, even if it could have been executed in a smarter way, even if it’s been difficult to remain objective about him. Even if you block out the callousness of The Decision itself, forgive him for wanting to play with Wade (instead of kicking Wade’s ass), and stop dwelling on everything he should be doing, you still feel you have to have an opinion on him. If only because you never know the next time someone will say to you, “So whaddya think about LeBron James?”

Here’s my opinion in four parts:

1. I think he’s one of the greatest athletes who ever lived. I will never forget watching him on TV with a full head of steam, blowing through opponents like a football running back who’s 30 pounds heavier and three seconds faster than everyone else. I am glad he passed through my life. I will tell my grandkids that I saw him play.

2. From game to game, I think the ceiling for his performance surpasses any other basketball player ever except for Michael Jordan.

3. As a basketball junkie, I will never totally forgive him for spending his first eight years in the NBA without ever learning a single post-up move. That weapon would make him immortal. He doesn’t care. It’s maddening.

4. In pressure moments, he comes and goes…and when it goes, it’s gone. He starts throwing hot-potato passes, stops driving to the basket, shies away from open 3s, stands in the corner, hides as much as someone that gifted can hide on a basketball court. It started happening in Game 3, then fully manifested itself in Game 4’s stunning collapse, when he wouldn’t even consider beating DeShawn Stevenson off the dribble. Afterward, one of my closest basketball friends—someone who has been defending LeBron for years—finally threw up his hands and gave up. “It’s over,” he said. “Jordan never would have done THAT.”

If you want to defend LeBron’s Game 4, start here: That was his 99th game for Miami, each doubling as a playoff game for the other team.4 Because the Heat realized in training camp that their defense would determine their title hopes, LeBron reinvented himself as Pippen 2.0 on that end—defending four positions, covering more of the court than anyone since Scottie, roaming much like an All-Pro safety would. He did it with a bull’s-eye on his back, with every opposing crowd killing him, with a slew of new teammates and a depleted roster for much of the season. During Rounds 2 and 3, he did things that frankly, I’ve never seen on a basketball court before. His last two Chicago games rank among the greatest two-way games ever played: He did anything he wanted offensively and destroyed the league’s MVP defensively.5 Including these first four Finals games, he’s missed 49 minutes total in the past 13 games (including two overtimes), playing 587 of a possible 634 minutes at warp speed. Maybe he’s just wearing down. From everything. That would be the defense.

The counter: Pre-baseball Jordan thrived with that same bull’s-eye, logged those same minutes, and never wore down. He also made us feel like he would commit multiple murders—not one murder, multiple murders—just to win an important game. On Miami’s team, only Wade makes you feel like that. It’s true.

A sneering Wade came out firing in Game 3, undaunted by a frenzied Dallas crowd, as if he were saying, “This is MY game tonight, assholes.” Everyone else fell behind him, including LeBron, who threw on a Pippen costume and deferred his butt off. Technically, it was the right move: Wade could score on Jason Kidd anytime he wanted, so that’s where they went offensively. But LeBron seemed a little too eager to take a backseat. There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant. The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem…name a great player other than Wilt Chamberlain, it just wouldn’t have happened.

Look, anyone who ever played basketball knows that teammates can get testy from time to time. It’s rarely, if ever, personal. There are three types of teammate-to-teammate screaming: Either you’re expressing displeasure at a specific decision (“I was open, how could you miss me?”), you’re trying to fire someone else up (“Come on, we need you, let’s go!”), or you’re challenging someone’s manhood. Wade was doing the third. He was clearly telling LeBron (I’m paraphrasing while removing all the swear words), “I CANNOT DO THIS BY MYSELF! YOU ARE THE MOST TALENTED PLAYER ALIVE! STEP IT UP! I NEED YOU!!!”)

LeBron was drifting toward a LeBreakdown; Wade sensed it and acted accordingly. After Miami escaped with a dramatic victory—fueled by LeBron’s pretty pass to Bosh for the deciding basket—the crisis had seemingly been averted. I hung out with a few basketball junkies later that day; we spent much of the time marveling at Wade’s brilliance, how he imposed his will and refused to let Miami lose. We wondered if an inspired LeBron would come out guns blazing in Game 4, fueled by the memory of Wade’s tirade and a postgame question about him “shrinking” at the end of Game 3. We thought Dallas would switch Shawn Marion to Wade and dare LeBron to take over offensively. We thought LeBron would make them pay. We though LeBron was headed for something like a 37-11-13. We really did.

As it turned out, Wade provided the MJ impression: doling out hard fouls, crashing the rim, fighting on every possession, and staring down fans after baskets and blocks. Meanwhile, LeBron was swinging the ball like a frightened fat guy in a pickup game, his face slowly starting to look like Vicky Belo had attacked him with a Botox needle. His insistence on being LeDecoy, or whatever he was trying to do, dwarfed a fairly incredible Dallas comeback; watching the game, I was more interested in LeBreakdown than the actual game.

There’s a curse that comes with limitless potential: Everyone judges you against only that limitless potential. We crave Game 4 and Game 5 of the Chicago series from LeBron every time. When it doesn’t happen, we feel like he failed us. This definitely isn’t fair. Once upon a time, Bill Russell couldn’t win titles unless Sam Jones took and made the biggest shots of every close game. Did that make him weaker in anyone’s eyes? Nope. They valued the things he did do. Some writers made that case for LeBron after Game 3, and it was a good one…until Game 4 ruined it.

Of course, the Celtics were always Russell’s team. They belonged to him. Everyone knew this, just like the Spurs belonged to Duncan, the Rockets belonged to Hakeem, the Bulls belonged to Jordan, and the Mavericks now belong to Nowitzki. If you watched Games 3 and 4 closely, you knew Miami belonged to Dwyane Wade. That was the hardest thing to shake. We made so much fuss about LeBron these past two years and he’s not even the most important dude on his own team.

Maybe he realized that, once and for all, during Game 3. Maybe that’s why he wanted to sign with Miami in the first place; maybe he didn’t want his own team. Maybe Wade’s Game 3 tirade affected him spiritually, broke him down, made him question himself. Maybe he’s more exhausted than he’s letting on. Maybe 13 months of intense scrutiny is finally broke him. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

One thing’s for sure: LeBron isn’t the Air Apparent. THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER JORDAN.

Here’s why: During his final championship season with the Bulls, MJ demonstrated a nearly surreal ability to take command of games in optimum moments; he had evolved from the greatest basketball player of all-time to the greatest winner of all-time.

Jordan’s collective performance against Indiana and Utah in the playoffs—when he fought the effects of a 100-game season, paced his 36-year-old body, shouldered some of Scottie Pippen’s burden (when Pip was derailed by a bad back) and still managed to carry the Bulls through the final two rounds—was simply the most extraordinary basketball achievement of my lifetime. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.

Here’s another reason: A month before the NBA draft, the brain trusts from a number of NBA teams—including the Bulls—had voyaged down to Los Angeles to watch some California area prospects work out. So the newly un-retired Jordan, fresh from his Minor League Baseball stint, was in the house. As it turns out, another NBA star was also in attendance: Gary Payton. At some point, Payton and MJ crossed paths…and Payton started talking smack to MJ, good-natured stuff:

“You better not come back.”

“This is our league now.”

“We don’t want to embarrass you.”

That kind of stuff.

And Jordan was nodding happily, finally saying, “When’s our first game against you guys? I’m going to make it a point to drop 40 on you.”

You could almost imagine Jordan pulling out a piece of paper and adding Gary Payton’s name to the list of “Guys Whose Butts Need to Be Kicked, Part One.” Of course, as the story goes, Payton’s coach caught wind of this running exchange and immediately headed over to pull his player away from Jordan. And as they walked away, the coach told Payton, “Never talk to him. You hear me? That’s the one guy you don’t talk smack to!” The coach was referring to Jordan’s near-mystical ability to take every slight personally—vengefully—in a “Clint Eastwood during the last 20 minutes of ‘Unforgiven’” kind of way.

During his playing days, MJ was always motivating himself with petty little slights, whether it was somebody writing that Clyde Drexler was his equal during the ‘92 finals, or Rick Pitino questioning his hamstring injury during the ‘89 playoffs, or Karl Malone lobbying for the MVP award after the ‘97 season.

With Jordan, it was always something. Somebody was always rubbing him the wrong way. If you looked at him cross-eyed during his reign, he torched you for 45 out of principle. And that’s how he remained on top, because he was always searching for the next challenge. Even if he had to create that challenge himself.

Eventually his opponents learned to leave him alone, and in a phenomenon unlike anything else we’ve witnessed in sports; Michael Jordan became the basketball version of a sleeping tiger. In a league full of smack-talkers, chest-thumpers and yappers, amazingly, Jordan remained completely off-limits. That hasn’t happened before or since.

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