The unmatched brilliance of LeBron James

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> is using a period in his career when most great ones make their fans wince to instead give them more reasons to be mesmerized. (AP Photo)
LeBron James is using a period in his career when most great ones make their fans wince to instead give them more reasons to be mesmerized. (AP Photo)

Stop for a moment to just appreciate LeBron James.

In this era of talking heads and social media experts, hardly anything can just be. It has to viewed in context to something else. It has to be the best or the worst or the whatever. But comparisons and rankings often taint what really should be happening. So, take some time to admire what James has done, and what he continues to do, without getting distracted by what has become an unnecessary debate about whether he’s the greatest ever or how he compares to Michael Jordan.

This is his time, his era, and James continues to amaze while his peers have declined or disappeared. He’s spooked his challengers to gang up to beat him or retreat from him altogether. Arguing about the merit of his accomplishments through the prism of other periods in basketball history — either through slanted internet memes, statistical gymnastics or superficial ring counts — can be kind of funny but is mostly exhaustive. For the most part, it’s subjective, and most are dug into positions from which they’ll never be moved. So what do we have left? We have time.

We have time to marvel when James dunks on Ersan Ilyasova with so much force that the impact is felt 22 feet away, where Kevin Love starts dodging the reverberations at the three-point line, arms flailing like Neo in “The Matrix.” We have time to laugh when James then gives Ilyasova an angry “How dare you?” death stare that serves as a message to any player insane enough to challenge him, but also to anyone else who either hasn’t been paying attention or continues to ignore the memo to get out of the way this season. We have time to warn guys that jumping with James still isn’t advised. Mostly, we have time to watch.

How much longer James can play at this level is uncertain, but it doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. James, 33, is using a period in his career when most great ones make their fans wince to instead give them more reasons to be mesmerized. The playoffs begin this weekend and as James puts the finishing touches on one of the best seasons of his career — a season in which he played more minutes and scored more points than anyone else, and handed out more assists than all but one player — Cleveland Cavaliers coaches and teammates swear that he hasn’t exhausted himself because more remains in reserve.

He can go higher. He can find the attic when everyone else thinks they’ve seen the ceiling.

I don’t know what other level he can do but if he just stays the way he is now, we’ll be in great shape,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue told Yahoo Sports. “Usually, in the playoffs, he takes it to another level, but the way he’s been playing this year has been unbelievable.”

In his 15th season, LeBron James is on pace to play in all 82 games for the first time in his career. (AP Photo)
In his 15th season, LeBron James is on pace to play in all 82 games for the first time in his career. (AP Photo)

The NBA will one day need to change the Player of the Week honors in his name because he made winning that award a common occurrence. And, given how he has garnered a reputation as a player who places more emphasis on the postseason than the regular season, this campaign is different because he’s trying to play all 82 games and show no worries for the wear. James has been incredibly durable throughout his career but, like Rakim, he is getting stronger as he gets older.

James understands how to pace himself but hasn’t had the luxury during a season of constant disruption and change. His play dipped in January, when it became obvious that the roster featuring his good friend Dwyane Wade and a banged-up Isaiah Thomas simply wasn’t good enough. That stretch — and the consistency of James Harden — cost him a possible fifth MVP. But he’s been recharged ever since general manager Koby Altman reconfigured the roster with younger legs. The Cavaliers continue to be snakebitten with injuries and even Lue was forced to take a leave of absence to address some health concerns, leaving James with an obligation to stay on the floor more than usual.

“I want to go into the postseason healthy, that’s the only thing that matters to me,” James said recently. “That’s been my concern all season. It’s not been about me.”

That comment was dropped without even the slightest grin or sarcasm but James knows that it really is all about him. While the hashtag that pushes him continues to be #StriveForGreatness, James was given a heaping helping of motivation before this season. He wanted to show that the Golden State Warriors didn’t bury him during a lopsided NBA Finals. He wanted to let Kyrie Irving see the folly in abandoning him. He would also like to set himself up for a contract that will dwarf some small nation’s GDP until he’s 38. Free agency will be a must-watch event for the third time in eight years. James is already toying with fan bases in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and recruiting billboards are popping up in different parts of the country. But again, this moment is enough.

The game has always evolved and James reflects where it has gone, with his commitment to sports science, embrace of analytics and an insatiable desire to know every meticulous detail about his predecessors and contemporaries. He’s not leading the league in total minutes and points just because he’s big and powerful enough to attack the rim like a blunt object. Those qualities help but don’t tell the whole story about the work he puts in to maintain that physical edge.

He takes care of his body, that’s plain and simple,” teammate Jeff Green told Yahoo Sports. “He does the right things to be ready for the next game. That’s the thing that I’ve learned and taken from him, and that’s getting stronger.”

James will only have home-court advantage for one round for the first time in 10 years — before he won any MVPs and championships, before most of the players who will join him on the All-NBA team and those he’s trying to fend off for an eighth straight Finals appearance, or fourth championship, even entered the league.

But as John Wall said, James remains the guy “nobody wants to play.” He is determined, teammates and staff will concede, regardless of whether the work, the body maintenance, the film study and everything else, will inevitably prove to be futile as it relates to his ultimate goals. James is also aware that preparation, not just dumb luck, put him in position to snatch a championship from a 73-win team two years ago.

No attempt to diminish what Jordan accomplished — or what James is accomplishing — will make what James is achieving any more — or less — special. It just is. And that really should be enough. By now, most NBA fans know that this is James’ 15th season, because it’s mentioned every time he laughs off gravity and Father Time with one of those dunks that make you hit the curved replay arrow over and over again or stunts on the record book with a steady climb up the all-time scoring list. 

While we marvel at the nightly spectacle, while we continue to get blown away by his sustained consistency, by speed and power no man his age should possess, remember that James really can have some respect put on his name without mentioning what’s-his-name. Maybe once we start doing that, we can simply enjoy the show. Because it really is quite remarkable.

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