I don’t want to be put in the position of defending LeBron James, but I can’t help but notice some unfair attacks.
Most of these deal with claims about LeBron’s personality. Hahahahaha! Fans have a tendency to do this a lot: they project personality traits and character flaws onto athletes based on no real knowledge of the players as individuals. If a player strikes out in a key situation, he must be unable to handle pressure. If a basketball player misses the open man, he must be a selfish person. If a football player happens to be the quarterback of a team that loses, he must not be a motivated individual. In a few instances, there is some merit to this — sports would not be nearly as special if it didn’t give us insights into the human psyche.
Far more often, though, it is utter schlock. Most of the time these conclusions are based on such a tenuous sliver of something far more complex than one moment can show. Basically, a player may force a shot with an open teammate because he was selfish. . . or because he just didn’t see the player, or because he didn’t have an angle for the pass, or because the open player was having an off night. Drawing a conclusion from one simple fact is like dismissing someone’s entire personality because you don’t like his shirt.
Since LeBron’s Decision, though, there have been a lot of people drawing conclusions about LeBon’s intensity and his competitive spirit. True NBA greats are too intense to join forces with rivals. They would rather beat them. As Ian Thomsen wrote in Sports Illustrated:
“Think back to the NBA’s golden era when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were winning a combined 10 championships from 1979 to ’90. Would those three rivals ever have wanted to join forces? They were more interested in beating each other than in deferring to one another.”
Variations of this sentiment have been echoed by Bill Simmons, Rick Reilly and the rest of the ESPN talking heads: Michael Jordan wouldn’t have wanted to play with Charles Barkley, Bill Russell wouldn’t have wanted to play with Wilt, etc. LeBron James must not be a “killer” like those guys were. But if we apply even a tidbit of rationality to this line of thinking, we see that it doesn’t really hold water.
After all, we don’t say that Magic Johnson would never have wanted to play with Kareem, or that Jordan would never have wanted to play with Pippen, or that Russell would never have wanted to play with Bob Cousy. We don’t say that, of course, because they did play with those guys. And it’s not like those sidekicks were NBA also-rans — they were legitimate stars in their own right, just like Wade and Bosh. But did Jordan demand Phil Jackson cut Pippen because he wanted to beat him? Even Jordan wasn’t that crazy.
The difference, of course, is that the stars we remember so fondly ended up with their great teammates through little more than dumb luck, while LeBron chose to join Wade. But this shouldn’t make such a difference. After all, if LeBron had lucked into the situation Magic Johnson did or been paired with two Hall of Famers in his second season like Larry Bird was, then he probably would never have left Cleveland. As it was, though, LeBron needed to seek great teammates elsewhere.
Even the idea that Wade and LeBron were rivals is more wishful thinking on the part of fans than anything else. After all, LeBron and Wade have never met in the playoffs, and they have only faced each other in the regular season twenty-five times over seven seasons. They’ve combined for one championship — one fewer than Kobe has since losing Shaq, and one fewer than Tim Duncan has since the two entered the league. In other words, it’s not like these two were the poles of the NBA that Magic and Bird were in their heyday.
Basically, joining forces with Wade and Bosh doesn’t necessarily mean LeBron lacks a “killer instinct” that great players have. He surely wants to beat Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose and Kevin Garnett and John Wall and Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the stars of the NBA. The Decision is not about a lack of a killer instinct. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to be happy about LeBron’s Decision. There are plenty of reasons to hate it, but let’s just make sure we pick the right ones.