Joining the NBA’s Mount Rushmore

LeBron James

Human beings in a mob.
 What’s a mob to a king? 
 What’s a king to a god?
 What’s a god to a nonbeliever, who don’t believe in… anything?
 — 
Frank Ocean, No Church in the Wild

In the good 2016th year of our Lord, precious few things have lived up to universal hype since the first hype originator, Jesus Christ himself, drew throngs of people two millennia ago. Everything is a let-down because there are too many voices from too many extremes given too many platforms to shout their opinions at you. Mayweather and Pacquiao were supposed to brawl as two hated rivals. The beach wasn’t supposed to be so sandy and the water wasn’t supposed to be so cold. If you’re lucky, a few things matched expectations. Maybe you got lucky and the first time you had sex was mind-blowing. Maybe you sat behind the wheel of a Lamborghini while the engine pulsed under your seat, air clapped against the sides, and ocean breeze wafted through the open window. Maybe you escaped your best friend’s bachelor party in Vegas up $3,000, or maybe you saw Kanye live tearing down the Garden. Hearing about something great, building excitement, and then experiencing greatness doesn’t occur much, is my point.

Now think about things that have exceeded the hype in your life. Times where you expected magic and found impossibility. To borrow a Norman Chad phase: some wonders go beyond fairytale — they’re inconceivable. Each experience is fleeting, unique, and superlative, but at a few points in our lives, we are fortunate enough to Witness.

Due to circumstance, luck, and cosmic alignment[3], LeBron James would have to move mountains and mingle with the stars. A movie about his high school life finished shooting just three years after he graduated. The publicity piled up — LeBron felt the pressure, under more scrutiny — so what’d he do? Act more stupidly. Couldn’t get jewelry, nor Louie V, his momma only got through to De[4]. He got on T.V. talking with Jim to flee from Cle[5].

So yes, there were moments along the way that opened LeBron up to criticism. While #rings can be a poor argument without proper context, championships are the end measure of a given season — especially in the NBA, where the best player must always sit down at the podium and answer why his team failed to advance. Some peer inwards and gain strength from defeat. Others only find despair. After 2010, LeBron ran from his demons.[6] He compounded the error not once, not twice, not thrice, not four times, not five times…and built up the hype. Then the 2011 finals[7] happened, LeBron Ames (no J) and three-quarters happened (blown leads every game, poor offensive execution down the stretch), and LBJ failed every eye test and had the worst statistical performance of his career. This is the nadir, the vertex of LeBron’s career parabola, and the first point at which LeBron truly understood what it takes to become a champion.

LeBron with Hakeem

The King responded how legendary players do. He worked tirelessly to cut the hitch in his shooting motion and secured gym time with Hakeem. In 2012, he posted the best year of his career: highest high-post[8]%, mid-range[9] %, 3P% and FT%.

He put in effort on little things, locking down opponents’ best players and snatching loose balls (highest REB% of his career). He barreled his way to the rim and got buckets — 2nd-lowest average shot distance behind his rookie year, highest % of shots that were 2PTs, highest % of shots that were dunks.

LeBron’s streamlined efficiency culminated during an incredible series to watch as a neutral: Boston-Cleveland 2012.[10] LeBron averaged 34/11 on 46MPG and 53% FG. In game 6 with his back against the wall on the road he said, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Watch the video; Paul Pierce plays Arjuna witnessing the transformation of a God. And to his credit, LeBron plays the part of unrelenting celestial ass-whooper. He purged the ghosts of 2010 from TD Garden and dropped 45/15/5 on 73% FG while holding Pierce to nine points on 4–18 shooting.

The big three took care of an inexperienced OKC team in the finals, and by 2013 they were on track to become the unstoppable juggernaut everyone expected. Ray Allen hit the greatest shot of all time[11] to save LeBron (who had a great game six otherwise) and the Heat. LeBron solidified his place at SF in the all-time starting five after one-man performances in 2014 and 2015.

His career could have been great. He could have retired among the ten best players to ever play basketball, won two championships, and retired alongside his friends in South Beach. He would have lived up to the fifteen-plus years of constant exposure while overcoming critics’ projections of their own insecurities and failures onto him. Yet the King saved a wondrous twist for the end of his story. After years of retreating to make progress on the peripheries of greatness, LeBron confronted head-on the roadblock that haunted his legacy and checked off the last item on his career bucket list. Against all odds, he spurned both his best friend and the Godfather in his pursuit to bring one home to the land. And in 2016, during his seventh finals, LeBron James finally exceeded the hype.

There will always be something for the haters and the losers to latch onto. Dray got suspended in game five (probably for his zealous assault on opposing players’ nuts more than organized NBA conspiracy), Curry was hot garbage for all but one game, Klay reverted to inconsistency, Steve Kerr got outcoached by first-year Lue, and both Kyrie and Tristan Thompson had monster series. Similarly, we can explain World War II as such: Germany wasted much of their army invading Siberia during the winter, Italy’s soft defense failed to hold the North African front, Japan made the mistake of preemptively attacking Pearl Harbor, and the Brits defended their territory resolutely. But both explanations fail to address the elephant in the room charging toward the rim at sixty miles/hour.

Just as the United States took the insult of Pearl Harbor to unleash their superior war machine on the world, LeBron channeled the scorn after game four into an unstoppable series-closing juggernaut. And if you didn’t enjoy, or at least acknowledge, the atomic-bomb LeBron dropped on the Bay Area, then you’re not a blue-blooded American. Down three games to one, having to play two on the road against a solid Oracle crowd, the King gazed upon his dominion and imposed martial law over the court.

Game five: 41/16/7/3/3 on 53%/50%/63%.
Game six: 41/8/11/3/4 on 59%/50%/75%.
Game seven: 27/11/11/3/2 on 38%/20%/80% and a defensive masterpiece.

LeBron saved his final form for his finest hour and eviscerated the best regular season ever. A third title and finals MVP to put in his trophy case next to four MVPs and two gold medals. Of course he had help — it’s not possible in the 21st century to win without a concerted team effort. His shooting and ball-handling — especially in non-driving situations — remained a question mark for most of the series, but Kyrie’s excellence spacing the floor and creating isolation opportunities allowed LeBron to do everything else.[12] If you don’t like that he never developed a pure jumper, that’s fine. He never had to play the take-over ball-dominant scorer role because he could impose his own brand of basketball. A style of aggression toward the rim, primal fury on the basketball, and domination on both sides of the court. In 2016, LeBron was the strongest man in the world.

[1] Let me complain about Mount Rushmore for a second: the drive to see the thing is terrible, the actual monument itself is a trash metaphor for comparative purposes, and people who worked on it died from silicosis. Washington and Lincoln are clearly in a tier of their own, and Jefferson is far more important than Roosevelt, whose inclusion must solely be due to his affinity for nature. Imagine if my fourth pick on this NBA Mount Rushmore were Luke Walton, because he loved basketball the most. Insane.

[2] Maybe the process of judging players’ legacies is a pointless, reductionist, and thankless task, but analyzing sports takes us away from the monotony of our day jobs. So if for no one else but myself, here are my all-time player rankings.

[3] The best player on a basketball team is more important than anyone else in any team sport…the burden of growing up in poverty and his mom needing him to come through…his career coincided with the rise of Twitter/Facebook/Reddit and the echo chamber of mass opinion… the media and Nike anointed him The Chosen One, then roasted him for not winning a ring within three years…the weight of his hometown and a franchise on his shoulders…

[4] There’s no way the rumor is true, but man if it isn’t juicy enough to talk about forever.

[5] If I had to compare rappers to NBA players, Kanye would be closer to Kobe. LeBron : Drake, Iverson : Nas, Duncan : Jay-Z.

[6] The statistics show a very good series, but in the fourth quarter of the CLE/BOS deciding game six, the league’s second best player failed to score a field goal — and only shot once, but turned the ball over twice, in a poor “hot potato imitation” — for 8 minutes while a close game turned into a rout.

[7] Neither here nor there, but this series really pissed me off because both the Miami and Dallas home courts are sponsored by American Airlines — American Airlines Arena and American Airlines Center, respectively.

[8] 3–10 feet

[9] 10–16 feet

[10] Technically I wasn’t neutral, but as a Laker fan I hated both teams equally. Close enough.

[11] The greatest NBA finals shots (team must have won the game, so West/Bird are out):

1. Ray Ray’s three prevents assured elimination, his team goes on to win the title. The only thing possibly better is the same shot, except in a game seven. The side angle of the shot shows the prettiest form imaginable, right down to the recoil in his legs from using every muscle perfectly.

2. Magic’s running skyhook with two seconds left in game four at Boston. Prevents the Lakers from falling down 3–1 in the series and leads to the 65–17 Lakers going back to back, ’87 and ’88.

3. Kyrie’s isolation three against the unanimous MVP with 57 seconds to go. He sizes Curry up, goes between the legs twice, then gives him a small hesitation and jab left before fading back to his right — a brief feint that’s enough for one of the prettiest isolation players in the league, a split tenth of a second that’s enough to rise up and drill a three. Before that shot, nobody had scored since 4:39.

4. Jordan’s step-back with 5.2 left over Bryon Russell. Gives the Bulls a one point lead and prevents a game seven, while capping off Jordan’s 45pt game and sixth championship.

5. Iverson’s step-back over Tyronn Lue during OT of a 48/6/5/5, 43.6%usg game to defeat the best
 team of all time (more on this in section two). This shot’s inclusion is necessary to understand who many have called the most important cultural icon the NBA has exported.

[12] While the quantitative revolution ushered basketball into the 21st century and broken bad habits, I need to say it: nerds who don’t pair their stats with traditional basketball knowledge have gone too far. My hot basketball take is that isolation, and (relatively) iso/two-man offenses are necessary tools in an offensive playbook. Offenses that rely on it will probably collapse against well-organized defenses (see OKC/GSW G6), but whether it’s the right play by PPP or not, too many games come down to one-on-one for the win. Kyrie took a ball-screen to force a switch onto Curry, a defender he knew he could break down, and won his isolation matchup. Curry did the same with Love but failed to create a good look. The trophy went to Cleveland off those two plays. In the future, we should actually expect to see more iso-ball as defenses learn to coordinate switching off screens for any player and minimize movement. Teams are getting very close to an offensive Pareto frontier, along which it will be impossible to reduce the number of isolations without reducing efficiency in other possessions for a few reasons: teams need to exploit weak individual defenders, primary ball-handlers can rest during other players’ isos, and high-pressure situations reduce the quality of ball movement (easy to get careless with a pass, defenses are more locked in).