To put it quite simply, LeBron James’s basketball career has been a career of almost, but never meeting expectations. He has faced several obstacles in his career, and has consistently overcome these obstacles to display moments of triumph, but every time he succeeds, he exposes a new flaw. There is no question that he is the best player in the league right now, but whether you call it a curse, a lack of heart or killer instinct, a tragic flaw, or just overall incompetence, there is an inherent weakness in LeBron James, a weakness that will forever keep him from winning an NBA Championship.
Almost Defining Moment 1 – LeBron’s Rookie Season
The most heralded basketball player since Michael Jordan retired. The Chosen One. King James. After averaging an unimpressive 15.8 PPG on 36.9% shooting through his first four summer league games, 18-year-old LeBron James would drop 25 points, grab 6 rebounds, dish out 9 assists, and collect 4 steals in his NBA debut against a Webber-led Sacramento Kings team that would go on to win 55 games that season. Among those 25 points, 2 came from his trademark tomahawk dunk that would go on to grace SportsCenter highlight reels and terrorize 29 other teams in the NBA. The world was ready to welcome the single most gifted human being to ever play basketball.
LeBron would win Rookie of the Year and join the legendary Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in their rookie season. But James and the Cavaliers would begin their summer vacation early, while LeBron’s friends and fellow draft classmates Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony would lead their teams into battle during the playoffs.
After his rookie season, LeBron James was named to the U.S. National Team. The infamous 2004 team that lost to a Puerto Rican team lead by Carlos Arroyo, the first team assembled of NBA players to not win a gold medal. On a 12-man roster, LeBron was ninth on the team in scoring. The team was led by Duncan and Iverson, and James did not play a huge role on the team, but this team not meeting expectations became a foreshadowing of things in LeBron’s future.
In his sophomore season, LeBron would bump his shooting percentages and dramatically raise his scoring average to 27.2 points a contest. James began to establish his identity as one of the top players in the NBA. Along the way, LeBron would continue to compile an exhaustive list of “Youngest Player to-” honors. He was named to his first All-NBA team, first All-Star Game, he dropped 56 points, and also grabbed his first triple double. The Cavaliers finished with a winning record, but lost the tiebreaker for the 8th seed with the Nets, and again, LeBron would start his summer early. LeBron took the challenge of turning the Cavaliers into a playoff squad, and he came up just short.
His young legacy was impressive, but it had already been tarnished by the curse that would continue to haunt the rest of his career. LeBron had made a great first impression, but it was clear he wasn’t ready for the real challenges of the league. No playoffs, no gold medal. The basketball gods and the world gives LeBron James a pass. James is only human, and playoff bound or not, there was something special about this LeBron kid.
Almost Defining Moment 2 – 48 points against the Pistons
In the 2005-2006 campaign, LeBron James would break 30 PPG, but his scoring was overshadowed by Kobe’s impressive 35.6 PPG season. LeBron would continue to impress, as he started to challenge future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant for the title of the best player in the NBA. With a supporting cast headlined by Zydrunas Ilgauskas and half a season of Larry Hughes, the Cavaliers would win 50 games, and James would make his long awaited playoff debut.
And LeBron let his presence be known. LeBron played the full 48 minutes and filled the box score out with a triple double, with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, and more importantly, a win. The city of Cleveland was ready for James to lead them to the promised land. The league was ready for LeBron to take over. In the next round, the Cleveland Cavaliers would take on the reigning Eastern Conference Champion, the Detroit Pistons. The same veteran Pistons core that beat the Lakers in 2004, the team that epitomized defense and teamwork, the team that will forever be the exception to superstar ball in the NBA. The Cavaliers would drop the first two games, win the next three, and with a lead late in the fourth quarter of Game 6, were minutes away from eliminating the Pistons.
The Cavaliers would lose the series in 7, but it was only LeBron’s first playoff run, and when a starting line up is rounded out by Eric Snow, Flip Murray, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, people were willing to give James another pass. The Pistons were a tough opponent, and LeBron was that close to beating them. Later that postseason, Dwyane Wade became the first person from the highly touted 2003 draft class to lead a team to an NBA Championship. Something was wrong with this sentence. It was supposed to be the Chosen One. It was supposed to be LeBron James.
Later that year, LeBron James would compete in a USA basketball uniform again, this time as one of the key players of the team. Team USA would again finish in third place, and combined with the result at the 2004 Olympic Games, the nickname ‘LeBronze’ began its formation.
LeBron James would return to the playoffs the next season with a vengeance, without fully understanding what vengeance in the league meant. James tore through the Wizards in the first round, finished the Nets in 6, and would meet the Pistons again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Many years ago, a certain basketball player named Michael Jordan faced the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs. Jordan and the Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs by the Pistons three consecutive times. They were the team that the Jordan just could not defeat. But the year that he finally did, it was his defining moment. Jordan went on to beat the Lakers in 5, begin the first of his two three-peats, and rightfully claim the league as his.
In a similar fashion as the year before, the Cavaliers dropped the first two games, but stormed right back and won two games in a row. With Game 5 back at the Palace of Auburn Hills, LeBron James walks in the building with the series tied 2-2, and walks out with a performance for the ages.
With the series momentum fully in their favor, the Cavaliers close out the Pistons at home, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are off to the NBA Finals. When LeBron James held the Eastern Conference Champion trophy, he was happy. Basketball was not a business. It was a game. It was a game that he enjoyed playing, and he was loving every minute of it. This was the time that Nike started rolling out the “We Are All Witnesses” campaign, and as an audience, we were witnessing something special.
Heading into the Finals, the Spurs were the favorite, but people were afraid of what LeBron was capable of. They were still overwhelmed by LeBron’s Game 5 performance. It was flat out dominance, and LeBron James had arrived. At least, it certainly did seem like it. The Spurs swept the Cavaliers en route to their fourth title under Duncan, and they held LeBron James to a dismal 35.6% shooting percentage and forced him to commit 5.75 turnovers a game.
LeBron James had arrived, but he left as soon as he stepped past the doorway. Still, people were not forgetting that legendary performance, and people were starting to accept the reality that LeBron may be the best player in the league.
Almost Defining Moment 3 – Gamewinner against Magic
The summer of 2007 was the summer of my first kiss, and also the summer of the Big 3 in Boston. LeBron James wins his first scoring title, and starts to move away from LeBron the basketball player to LeBron the personality. Poster dunks, chalk tossing, wreaking havoc at Madison Square Garden, and having an affiliation with Jay-Z was just the beginning of it. People knew who LeBron was. The Cavaliers finished with 45 wins, but the focus of the season was on the Celtics and their new superteam. In the postseason, the Cavaliers would again defeat the Wizards in the opening round, then play the Big 3 Celtics in the second round. The series would go to 7, and the Game 7 duel between James and Pierce drew comparisons to the Bird/Wilkins duel in 1988 and Jordan’s 63 point game against the Celtics.
However epic the battle was, LeBron was not going back to the Finals. Later that offseason, LeBron James would return to the Olympic Games, and this time, had Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd as his running mates. It was clear to any observer what a different player LeBron was when paired with a distributor like Kidd, someone who could take pressure off of James. Another thing that became evident throughout the course of the tournament was that Kobe Bryant had something that LeBron did not have. A killer instinct. A thirst to win. Always willing to take over. Not willing to settle for any less. Kobe was the go to guy down the stretch, and Kobe was the leader of that team.
At this point, the Cavaliers saw how different a player LeBron is with good teammates, and finally figure out that LeBron was going to need a lot more help than a washed-up Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace to return to the Finals. Cavaliers management would try to answer, and LeBron would receive his first semblance of a teammate in Mo Williams.
The Cavaliers win a league best 66 games that year, and only lost two games at home, one of them a game they threw away at the end of the regular season. These Cavs did not have a championship supporting cast, but the sheer dominance of LeBron certainly made them look like a championship contender. Even President Barack Obama had the Cavaliers in the Finals. LeBron wins his first MVP, finishes second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Cleveland would cruise through the first two round of the playoffs, then lose a home game for the second time that season (not counting their last regular season loss). In case you were wondering, the team that beat the Cavaliers at home that year was none else than Kobe Bryant.
With 1 second left at the end of Game 2 and the Cavaliers down two points, Cavalier fans and NBA fans were starting to question the player known as LeBron James. Was he really the MVP? Could he lead this team in crunchtime?
Then with a catch and shoot, the questions were answered. LeBron drains a 3 over Hedo Turkoglu as time expired. LeBron turns around, raises his arm, and celebrates with the rest of his team.
Right after that shot went in, I remember telling my friend that if Cavaliers were to win the championship this year, that shot would be replayed over and over, and be one of LeBron’s defining moments, a moment we can compare to Jordan over Ehlo.
But that was the problem. The Cavaliers did not win. Not even the series. LeBron James dominated the regular season. LeBron James dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs, and most of the Magic series. LeBron James averaged 35.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG, and 7.3 APG on 51.0% shooting in his 2009 playoff run. But what happened when it mattered? Bad supporting cast or not, that supporting cast was ‘bad’ enough to win 66 games, and 8 more in the postseason.
People could sense the frustration in LeBron. They speculated about LeBron’s future in Cleveland. At times we have seen LeBron look like Jordan, Magic, and Bird on the court, but the last shot we see of LeBron every season is him with his head bowed down, walking off the court in disappointment.
Almost Defining Moment 4 – Cleveland Massacre
In what would be his final season in Cleveland, the 2009-2010 NBA season gave LeBron James a sense of urgency. Through the whole preseason and much of the regular season, LeBron James was questioned over and over about his future in Cleveland. LeBron responded with answers reassuring the people of Cleveland that he was here to stay, but as the season went on, his responses became more and more ambiguous, and LeBron leaving Cleveland was starting to look like a possibility.
LeBron put the distractions aside, and joined by a worn out Shaquille O’Neal, the Cavaliers concluded the season with 61 wins, good enough for the best record in the league. In the first game of the regular season, LeBron James scored 38 points in a loss against the Celtics. His season would end in a similar fashion, as the Celtics eliminate the Cavaliers, and I shave my eyebrows because of a stupid bet.
At this point in time, LeBron was still a good guy. People gossiped about him possibly joining Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh, people were convinced he would be headed to New York, but it did not seem like a reality. Even when he announced The Decision, there was still a group of people convinced that he would not break the hearts of Cleveland on national television.
But he did. Over night, LeBron James became the world’s most hated athlete, and LeBron James’s career became scrutinized more than ever. All eyes were on LeBron and the Heat. People talked about how James and Wade would be sharing the spotlight, but it was always clear that the Heat were about LeBron.
In all his years of coming up short in Cleveland, LeBron shouldered the blame. But people were sympathetic. LeBron did not have the supporting cast that Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant did in their title runs. LeBron’s best teammates were pseudo-All-Stars Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams. But now, LeBron had no excuse. Dwyane Wade is an MVP candidate year in and year out. Chris Bosh is a perennial All-Star. At the Big 3’s rockstar reception in Miami, LeBron knew this team was title bound.
Things were a little different in Cleveland. LeBron was supposed to save the city of Cleveland, one of the least fortunate sports cities in the United States. LeBron was supposed to bring the city of Cleveland a championship, but he did nothing but leave another sour mark on the city. Fans burned his jersey. When their supposed savior made his return to Cleveland, they let it be known that were not welcoming back the ‘hometown hero’ with open arms. In one of the most hostile basketball environments, LeBron cooly dropped 38 points in only 30 minutes of play. In the post game interview with Craig Sager, LeBron carried himself in a way that showed he was ready to move on, ready to put his Cleveland days behind him, ready to end the name-calling, and ready to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. He was mentally stronger. The new chapter of LeBron’s career was about to unfold, or at least, it was supposed to.
Almost Defining Moment 5 – Closing out the Celtics and Bulls
It never helped that LeBron’s career in Miami coincided with the rapid growth of social media. Internet forums, YouTube, Twitter, and terrible sports blogs. Every time LeBron made a human mistake, it was blown out of proportion. The Miami Heat struggled in the regular season closing out games. LeBron James was often criticized for shying away in late-game situations. Although the Heat lost a fair share of games during the season, they were still composed. Having lead his team to two league-best records, LeBron knew finishing on top during the regular season meant little in the postseason. The Heat would defeat an inexperienced Philadelphia 76ers team in the first round, then play an opponent that was all too familiar: The Boston Celtics. The Heat were in control for much of the series, but people still doubted the Heat and LeBron. Late in Game 5, with the score tied 87-87, and the Celtics minutes away from being eliminated or forcing a Game 6, something clicked in LeBron’s mind. James finished the Celtics in a 10-0 run by himself, and he would finally beat the team that had given him so much trouble in the past. The Big 3 Celtics were truly to LeBron what the Bad Boy Pistons were to Jordan.
LeBron would ride that momentum for the next series, locking down the ‘MVP’ Derrick Rose and closing out games against the 1-seeded Chicago Bulls. If you were not a believer of the Miami Heat, you were now. Except this was LeBron James we were talking about. The one that has had so many defining moments, moments you can look back on and say that “the rest was history,” then never being able to follow through.
In the NBA Finals, Miami had a convincing win in Game 1, and had all but Game 2 wrapped up. LeBron struggled against an older Shawn Marion and the Mavs defense, and averaged 17.8 points per game in the Finals, almost 9 points down from his regular season scoring clip. LeBron was running out of excuses. The world was losing patience. There was no shortage of bad jokes and bad memes, but these bad jokes presented the painful truth. LeBron James was by far the best player in the NBA, but LeBron James choked when it really mattered, and LeBron James still has yet to win an NBA Championship.
Defining Moment 1(?)
LeBron has been here before. Another season of not meeting expectations. Teammate Dwyane Wade boldly claimed that the season would be a failure if the Heat do not win the Championship. LeBron James was quick to take a step back on this statement, already presenting himself the option of coming up short yet again.
But LeBron James knows what is at stake here. He has a mouthguard that says “XVI,” a constant reminder of what the ultimate goal was. Basketball was no longer just a game that he loved playing. Basketball became a mission. The Heat may lose games in the playoffs, but as long as they finish with 16 wins, it did not matter how many games it took to take them there. The Heat pummeled through the Knicks in the first round. Against the Pacers in the crucial Game 5, LeBron James put up a dominating 40-18-9 performance to take the series lead, and Miami would close the Pacers out in the next game.
LeBron James now faces the Celtics once again in the playoffs. After a commanding 2-0 lead, the Heat found themselves down 2-3, and on the brink of elimination. A night after Boston took Game 5, Kevin Durant secured his first trip to the NBA Finals as the Thunder took down the Spurs. Fans and analysts started to wonder if Kevin Durant might become a better player than LeBron James, but LeBron answered, as he always does. In his first game facing elimination, LeBron puts up the best performance of the playoffs and arguably his greatest game with a 45 point, 15 rebound, and 5 assist showing to force a Game 7. James may have dominated Game 6, but for now, it is just another game in the line of LeBron’s almost defining moments, and LeBron knows this. No euphoria, it was all business from here on out. He knows that there is still a Game 7, and if the Heat make it through to the Finals, a whole new series with a dangerous Thunder team.
A night from tonight, LeBron James plays the biggest game of his life. He can continue the trend he has been following his whole career, breaking out when it kind of mattered, then disappearing when he is needed most, or finally break through, have his true defining moment, and then deservedly claim the league as his. Will tomorrow night be the moment where we can all look back and say that “the rest is history”? or will the Chosen One come short yet again?
Only one person can make that decision.