This column on NBA star LeBron James appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in December 2004.
Thanks to James, NBA still lots of fun
By Ed Odeven
It’s easy to dislike the NBA. There are too many spoiled, uncoachable players, too much reliance on one-on-one play and too many 82-76 games. And the recent mayhem in Motown did nothing to enhance the league’s image.
Don’t put LeBron James into the what-is-wrong-with-the-NBA file.
James is a joy to watch on the basketball court, exciting crowds with a mesmerizing blend of Michael Jordan’s love for the game, Dominique Wilkins’ showmanship and Julius Erving’s penchant for making plays you have to watch 10 times in slow-mo to fully grasp what he just did.
James dunks a basketball with as much creativity and authority as any player in the game. He exhibits an ever-expanding repertoire of shots from all spots of the floor. He crashes the boards with a Charles Oakley-like sense of urgency. He plays suffocating, pressure defense every possession.
Those are among the reasons to watch James play.
But my favorite reason is this: James understands the true recipe for success goes beyond himself. He realizes becoming a great passer could, eventually, make his team great the way Magic Johnson and the Lakers were for all those years.
On Wednesday, the red-hot Phoenix Suns won their ninth straight game, topping James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 120-101, with the Suns scoring 72 second-half points — and making it look ridiculously easy in the process. It was an off-night for the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year — 6-for-19 shooting, 15 points, six assists, three rebounds, two steals, six turnovers and one blocked shot — and he wasn’t too shy to give credit where credit is due.
“They made me work tonight,” James said of the Suns, especially Joe Johnson, who was his primary defender. “They played great defensively. They made me force some turnovers and at times I was just indecisive about what I wanted to do.
“It wasn’t one of my best ones, but that’s the good thing about the NBA, there’s another one tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, as in Thursday, was indeed a better day for the Cavs. James had 17 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in a 92-73 road victory over the Denver Nuggets.
After the Suns game, James was asked if facing Carmelo Anthony, another heralded rookie last year, held any special significance for him. He responded by saying, “I’m just going out to play, man. I don’t look at matchups. This is the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Denver Nuggets. That’s how I look at it.”
Every game is just another day at the office for the 19-year-old LeBron, another day to get better at the game he’ll one day dominate like only a handful of players ever did.
In a preseason interview with NBA.com, Charles Barkley said: “I think (James) understands the game and now we just need to watch him grow.”
Which is what he’s doing, especially on defense.
“He’s playing much better defense, because he had to on the Olympic team just to play,” Cleveland coach Paul Silas said Wednesday. “I think that helped him.”
James’ most spectacular play against the Suns started on the defensive end in the second quarter. He anticipated where a pass was going to go, stepped in front of it before it got there and took off for the races, going coast to coast and ending the play with an uncontested, rim-rattling jam to tie it at 39-all.
On the Suns’ next possession, James got another steal and dished the ball off to teammate Jeff McInnis, who scored a layup. That was, perhaps, the Cavs’ best sequence of the game.
The night belonged to the Suns, though. They controlled the game’s tempo — a fast, methodical pace on offense and a deny-the-fastbreak mentality on D — and in doing so, they denied the Cavs the opportunity to let James dictate the game.
Smart move, Suns.
“When he’s zooming and we’re getting the ball to him on the wing and converting, we’re a much better ballclub,” Silas said. “They (the Suns) just got back better into transition tonight than most teams do.”
As for LeBron, he already does things on the basketball court better than most players do. Earlier this week, USA Today noted that James and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant are the league’s only players averaging more than 25 points, six rebounds and six assists a game (James’ numbers: 25 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg). And, oh yeah, he’s fourth in the league in steals (2.4 spg).
The true measure of a player’s worth generally occurs when the player reaches his prime in his late 20s. It won’t take that long with LeBron. He’s going to become a great playmaker in this league, causing fits for other teams. Their dilemma: double team James, the man Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince already calls “the hardest guy in the league to guard,” or let him beat you by getting his teammates involved.
That riddle will have to be solved for the next 15 years.
“(This year) he’s 10 times better,” McInnis said. “Every phase of his game has changed. He can pass, he can score, he can do it all. But the most important thing is he’s a competitor.”
A competitor destined for greatness.