After the 2012-13 season, the occasion of his fourth MVP year and second NBA title, the only real arguments about LeBron James’s game concerned his place in history. That he was the best player in the league was, somewhat disappointingly, settled. And because James is so dominant a figure in the NBA landscape, it felt like the league had reached a point of stasis, too.
Still, it seems every offseason we can trick ourselves into hyping some new fun storyline—remember the splash the Brooklyn Celtics made last summer or how the Lakers were hanging banners in August of 2012? But this summer is different. This latest tectonic personnel shift actually involves LeBron, it isn’t just a response to or an armament against LeBron. And so this year, that inevitable offseason optimism that the NBA hierarchy might change feels justified. Things are going to be different. And different is novel. And novelty is fun. And fun is the reason for the whole thing.
During his four years in Miami, James, coach Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat built something special. They constructed a system of immense intelligence, designed to optimize James’ talents. Optimize. It’s difficult to discuss James without falling into such language of technology—efficiency, precision, optimization, production. Admit that if you found out LeBron James was a cyborg you’d only kind of be surprised.
James often dominates games with a mechanical reserve and he prides himself on making the proper basketball play. Here he is not settling for the 18-footer but swinging to the open role player in the corner. Here he is sealing his man under the rim for a simple layup. Here he is making a simple hesitation and turning an inch of daylight into an old fashioned three-point play. Here he is contesting but not fouling a driving opponent. Here he is boxing out.
Whereas Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” is a drifting, double-clutch jumper, LeBron’s first iconic playoff moment is a layup off of two feet.
Who in the hell just goes and lays it in with the game on the line? Of course you want the guy who can get the layup—praise to the player who gets the easy shot in the tough moment—but sometimes it’s more fun to see the twisting fadeaway. Who wants to hear Miles Davis play the sheet music?
That’s not to say that the stunning combination of elegance and violence in James’s game does not prompt its share of blank stares and rueful chuckles. What can you do, or say, when he has the touch to flip the ball in while a 250-pound forward is trying to hug him?
But for my money, the best James moments are often the ones that run counter to the sober, measured style that is so effective. It’s when he gets hot. Like red, red hot. Like pull up from 40 feet and don’t even really follow through just give that whip-the-hand-back-because-that thing-is-pure middle finger of a follow through. Like he’s flying close to the sun and the sun says, “You need to back off because I’m sweating like Patrick Ewing in a Bombay bus station.”
It’s a moment when all the restraint and calculation is just thrown out the window and instead James is just letting it rip, as if to test the limits of what he can do when he lets go of the probabilities. It’s when James performs rather than produces.
Thrilling though these stretches may be, it’s obviously a stupid way to approach the game, and LeBron is anything but stupid. He didn’t go to four straight Finals without being a prudent player. Still, as a fan, it’s hard not to find yourself yearning for James to get weird. Remember, this is entertainment after all.
And returning to the connection between novelty or surprise and entertainment, James and the Heat had optimized their attack and there just wasn’t much to talk about last season, other than efficiency. James was insanely efficient, but his team’s defense wasn’t. Would it matter? JUST WAIT 60 MORE GAMES TO FIND OUT!
The Heat had figured out what worked by the 2013-14, and after a mid-season loss to the Nets Rashard Lewis shrugged that “getting into the playoffs, that’s when the real season starts.” The league as a whole struggled last season to figure out why it was interesting. Three of the four teams in the 2013 conference finals made it back in 2014, and it likely would have been four-for-four without Westbrook’s injury last season.
The league as a whole struggled last season to figure out why it was interesting. Three of the four teams in the 2013 conference finals made it back in 2014, and it likely would have been four-for-four without Westbrook’s injury.
The 82-game season always drags, but the 2014 season felt especially perfunctory coming off the high of the Heat’s 27-game win streak the previous season and the drama of James switching teams two seasons before that. If the first three years in Miami were gripping television seasons, the fourth year felt like watching a classic in syndication: enjoyable, but without the vitality and edge of previous years. The result was only different this year because of the San Antonio Spurs’ march to vengeance obtained through more perfect basketball.
This season James is newly wearing an old number in an old city. We can hope that of the best “performers” in the league—Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose—will be and back close to full strength. The prospect of a renewed Cavs-Bulls rivalry is rather spicy.
So too are storylines of the Mavs getting the band back together, the Wizards looking like they might be more than just a fun surprise, the inevitable rubber-necking at the Lakers’ bizarre ten-contract pileup, the Heat soldiering on, Anthony Davis’s quest to join the Kobe-LeBron-Durant lineage and another year of smoldering rivalries in the second tier of the Western Conference.
But really this season will be about James. It would have been fascinating to watch him figure it out alongside Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett; he’s already solved the puzzle of playing with tons of talent and shooting. This team won’t settle into a mid-season groove right off the bat, but there’s something almost depressing about James leaving for a new opportunity but stashing guys like Mike Miller, James Jones and possibly Ray Allen in his suitcase. He’s bringing along role players who know the old formula, not going all in on the new theory. Add those standbys with Love in the Bosh role and Irving as the Wade-replacement on the wing and LeBron’s move is as much remodeling as building from the ground up.
Even so, his return to a new-look Cleveland team makes Tuesday games in December matter, because the Cavs will need every last game to develop into a real contender by the end of the season. That’s why you can buy the hype of this offseason’s chaotic cacophony. Every good team in the West is an injury or trade away from falling or jumping three spots in the standings, and the East is unknowable.
The conversation around the NBA (among fans and media alike) has never so much resembled the scientific dissection of basketball. Knowledge calcifies into dogma and consensus. Now that LeBron’s in Cleveland, attempting something new that might disrupt an old order of playoff seeds that have become a foregone conclusion, a statistical probability. We’ll actually have to watch and see what happens next. Here’s hoping for a season of not knowing.