On the John
The First LeBron: more than just a puppet
Originally completed June 1, 2009
I found it interesting that Nike chose to present LeBron and Kobe as puppets. They could have just as easily been traditional animated figures, or Pixar people, or claymation, or CGI. Even Lil’ Penny possessed free range of motion. But LeBron and Kobe are puppets, those delightfully entertaining creations that seem real enough, except you are never allowed to forget that a third party is quite literally pulling the strings.
Or maybe not.
Because while Kobe and the Lakers conquered the Western Conference gauntlet, the LeBrons had their strings cut by Dwight Howard’s Magical band of three-point artists.
And now LeBron is going home.
Perhaps it’s all for the best. In a league suffering from accusations of athletic forgery via calculated officiating, having Howard’s ratings-lowering Magic ascend to the Finals may remove some of the questions concerning the NBA’s legitimacy within the star system. Still, I would have loved to see LeBron…
“The Shot” is two weeks old, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Who else but a six foot eight (some say nine), 260 pound (some say 270) “small” forward could possibly possess the physicality, athleticism, and skill to—with one second remaining—secure a lazerbeam of a pass from 25 feet away, rise up to create the vision and spacing needed for a three-point shot over a dude an inch or two taller, and then bury that jumper while his momentum carried him away from the basket? Bird was 6’9, 220, but hardly the athlete. Magic was 6’9, 215, but hardly the shooter. Michael was the athlete and the shooter, but giving up four inches to Turkoglu may have been an issue even for His Airness.
Remember, Craig Ehlo was as tall as Mike, with maybe twenty fewer pounds and half the hops.
Ah yes…that first “The Shot.” Still love it. Still love it. But with all of the LeBron vs. Kobe talk these past few months, and all of the Kobe vs. Michael talk and the Michael vs. LeBron talk, it was impossible not to watch LeBron’s game winner in Cleveland without thinking of another game winner in Cleveland 20 years prior.
First, let me get one thing out of the way: I love Mike. And LeBron will be better. He has two to three inches on our man Jordan and between thirty and eighty pounds, depending on the source. What Michael has on LeBron should be made up in time: Michael the clutch shooter, Michael the at-will scorer, Michael the basketball brain. Jordan was never known for his intelligence or gamesmanship early in his career. Those traits developed as he did. They have developed in Kobe. Stands to reason they will develop in LeBron.
Apart from the difference in body-type and approach to the game (LeBron is a more active passer than was Jordan), the trait that leaps out is LeBron’s connection with his teammates. Jordan was always a great teammate in that he made them better players. He was always a bad teammate in that he was known to punch some of them in the face. Is Kobe a “good teammate?” What is a good teammate? Does it depend more on the player or the mates?
What is telling, I thought, was the difference in reactions between Jordan’s Shot and LeBron’s Shot. Jordan hit his and then famously leaped into the air and fist pumped, then proceeded to stand and fire off three more first pumps before Brad Sellers finally reached him in celebration. It was another full two seconds before his teammates finally ambled over.
Meanwhile, upon seeing his shot drop through, LeBron immediately swung towards the Cleveland bench with his fist extended in celebration, and then—and here’s the part I love most—his eyes lock with his teammates and he goes charging after them. One of his teammates (Sasha Pavlovic) latches onto Bron’s back for a hug, and number 23 drags Pavlovic all the way to the Cavs’ benchmen, who have met him halfway, LeBron leaping into the arms of Anderson Varejao as Pavlovic and the rest of the Cavaliers ignite the merriest and best-attended leap-and-hug fest professional basketball has ever seen.
Maybe that means nothing. Jordan won six titles with two sets of teammates. He always seemed to enjoy a few of them (after all, you can’t play poker by yourself) and basketball-appreciate/tolerate the rest. Kobe has always seemed ultra-mindful of his image. Is he the buddy-buddy guy with these Lakers that he appears to be? And does it really matter when he has led them to back-to-back Finals appearances while Bron and the new Fun Bunch stay home? I’m not sure.
But there is something special about the pure instinct that leads the NBA’s biggest star to bolt towards his teammates so that he can participate in a shared moment of triumph following his greatest postseason moment, and I can only wonder how that instinct will manifest itself over the coming years.
For now, though, it doesn’t matter. The Lakers are still playing, the Cavaliers are not. LeBron v. Kobe ’09 does not need to be settled head-to-head…it has been settled by the team results.
It has also been settled overall, more or less, and we didn’t need some puppets or a Finals matchup to get us there.
Today, Kobe is the better player. Hands down. No doubt. He is 30 with 13 seasons logged. LeBron is 24 and has played 6. Kobe is in complete mastery of his physical gifts. A brilliant scorer and defender, a terrific passer, able to will a game’s outcome better than any player currently in the L. You want polish and refinement? Look no further than the man’s percentages: his 2009 FG% was the highest it’s been in his post-Shaq era, his 3P% in these past five seasons is .349 on 411 attempts per year compared to .329 on 203 attempts from 2000 to 2004, and here at the age of 30 he posted his career-high in free-throw percentage. Dude is fantastic.
But five years from now, when LeBron is 29 and in the early stages of his prime, doing things with the basketball Michael and Kobe could only fantasize about…
Where does it go from here? Maybe Mo Williams becomes a true complimentary scorer while Varejao’s boards spike into Rodman territory. Or maybe, like Michael, Kobe, and Dwight Howard, LeBron will be handed a fellow all-star who can ease the burden of carrying a franchise, a city, a league.
Until then, LeBron sits at home, getting hungrier, angrier, better. He’ll be back, with thoughts of Michael, Magic, Larry, Kobe, Wade, Paul Pierce, and perhaps even Dwight Howard providing the fuel. Strings or no, this ain’t over.
Copyright 2009, jm silverstein
MORE NBA COLUMNS AND ESSAYS from readjack.com:
Learning the Hard Way: Jordan’s Bulls vs. the Bad Boy Pistons
Determined to win: The Tale of the 1993 Bulls
Moving On: The Tale of Scottie Pippen’s 1994 Bulls
April 30, 2009: The Joakim Noah steal game
ON DERRICK ROSE: Appreciating Clark Kent
May 4, 2005: The Jannero Pargo game