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Is LeBron James a coward?
Is LeBron James a coward? Does he quit? Is it fair to call him a quitter? These are some of the questions that have been raised about him in recent years. Even when his teams are winning games at a blistering rate, it seems that LeBron just can't win. LeBron is undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA. Now in his ninth year in the NBA, the star forward has taken on the role of villain, and is now being labeled a coward by some. James, also known as "King James", has unbelievable talent and has produced very impressive stats over his career, but until he wins a championship, it appears the critics and detractors will continue to pile it on. Amazingly, LeBron is even being criticized for his play in the NBA all-star game, which is traditionally nothing more than an exhibition game.
Is there really something to this? Is there something about the mindset and personality that indicates that maybe LeBron James really is a coward? It seems there is a pattern of performances and actions that warrant these questions.
Setting the stage
It took LeBron James a few years to take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs. LeBron and the Cavs survived the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in 2006. In 2007, the Cavs earned the second seed in the NBA Eastern Conference. They swept Orlando in the first round, and beat both New Jersey and Detroit 4-2 before facing the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The championship run did not end so well for LeBron. The Cavs were swept by Tim Duncan and the Spurs. To LeBron's defense, the Cavs were greatly overmatched and had almost rely solely on James.
The Cavs met Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics in round two of the 2008 playoffs. Boston won the first two games at home before dropping three straight to Cleveland. Boston took game six and forced a game seven. LeBron James erupted for 45 points and Pierce traded shots in a shootout, ending up with 41 points. The Celtics beat the Cavs 97-92 and went on to eventually win the NBA championship.
The Cavs bounced back in 2008-2009 with a league-best 66 win regular season and number one seed. Cleveland roared through the first two rounds, sweeping the Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. Adversity struck in the Eastern Conference FInals when the Cavs faced Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Orlando was too deep and too explosive offensively for the Cavs. LeBron played well, but was unable to carry the Cavs by himself. The Magic went on to win the series 4-2.
Did LeBron quit on his team?
In 2009-2010, the Cavs again hit the 60-win mark, finishing with 61. This gave them the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and the the entire league. The Cavs eliminated the Bulls in a total of five games and prepared to meet the Boston Celtics, the Eastern Conference number four seed, in round two.
The series opened in Cleveland, and LeBron scored 35 points and dished seven assists in an eight point win. The Celtics struck back in game two and beat the Cavs 104-86. Game three was played in Boston and the Cavs embarrassed the Celtics by beating them 124-95. LeBron finished the game with 38 points. The Celtics bounced back in the next game, in Boston, and won 97-87. LeBron nearly registered a triple-double in the defeat, finishing with 22 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists.
With the series now tied 2-2, game five moved back to Cleveland. The Celtics thrashed the Cavs in a stunning 120-88 defeat. This was the first game of the series that LeBron James did not lead his team in scoring. Game five was perhaps a defining game for LeBron James, and not in the desirable way for him. Having suffered years of exemplary regular seasons and high expectations, the King appeared rattled in game five. Maybe all those frustrating ends to playoff runs from years past got into the head of James. Whatever the reason, LeBron managed to only score 15 points in this game.
The stats, at first glance do not look that bad, but James just did not look like he was into this game. He shot 3-14 from the floor and looked to crumble as a result of the unrelenting Boston defense. At times, he looked disinterested and looked as if he knew the outcome of the series was inevitable. Even the casual observer noted that LeBron played differently in this game. The series went back to Boston for game six and the Celtics won the contest 94-85. It should be noted that LeBron resembled more of his usual self and notched 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists. The damage was done however, and many people believed that the King had some glaring weaknesses - mainly his mental toughness and willpower.
James became a free agent on July 1, 2010. He stirred the basketball world on July 8, 2010 when he announced which team he would be playing with in the 2010-2011 season. An orchestrated hour-long ESPN special aired "The Decision" by LeBron. It was an unprecedented spectacle that quickly turned LeBron into a villain. Not only did James seemingly betray his "hometown" team, his trumped up ESPN announcement special rubbed many fans the wrong way. In Cleveland, James was instantly considered a traitor. Also, additionally irritating for basketball fans across the country, LeBron jumped ship to join two other stars in Miami - Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The fallout from the "The Decision" continued when the owner of the Cleveland Cavs, Dan Gilbert, publicly attacked James by calling him selfish and heartless. Gilbert went on to say that LeBron James quit in the previously described series against the Boston Celtics. At the time of that series, to many people, it appeared that LeBron had given up. Now, the owner of the Cavs was publicly saying so. Gilbert continued to lash out at James and called his actions disrespectful.
NBA legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson criticized LeBron for bailing out on the Cavs and joining rivals to try to win a championship. Jordan stated that he wouldn't have left his team to play with rivals in his time like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. This statement by Jordan emphasized a difference between himself and the King, by saying that he wanted defeat his rivals rather than join them.
2011 season and playoffs
James had a superb year in 2010-2011 and finished with the second highest scoring average. The Heat finished the season with 58 wins and were the number two seed in the Eastern Conference, behind the Chicago Bulls. Miami eliminated Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago in the Eastern Conference playoffs, winning each series 4-1.
The Miami Heat met the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. This series highlighted a continuous problem for James - problematic fourth quarter stretches in pressure-filled situations. In fact, by his standards, the fourth quarters in each NBA Finals game were abysmal. The Heat were eliminated 4-2 and a big part of the blame was directed at LeBron and his fourth quarter "disappering acts".
During the first three rounds of the playoffs, where Miami cruised in each series, LeBron averaged 7.6 points in the fourth quarter. In the NBA Finals, he averaged just 2.2 points per game in the fourth quarter. In crunch time, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks stepped up and scored 26 points. LeBron scored zero points when the score was within five points and there were less than five minutes left in the game. Astonishingly, LeBron didn't pull in a single rebound during crunch time in the NBA Finals.
For whatever reason, LeBron changed the way he normally plays in these high-pressure situations. His shot selection changed, and he quit taking the ball inside and didn't attack the hoop. There was an ongoing pattern for LeBron. He started off each game aggressively and then the scoring effort tapered off in the second half. So much that every player on the Heat scored at a higher rate than LeBron in the fourth quarter except for Joel Anthony. Not the stats you would expect from one of the premier players of our time. As the series came to an end and a Lebron-lead team again fell short in the playoffs, James finished with an average of 17.8 points per game for the NBA Finals. Considering that he averaged 26.7 points per game, this was a considerable (and largest ever) drop in averaged points from the regular season to the NBA Finals.
So, is the King a coward?
I think I would have to lean towards saying so. Maybe coward isn't the right word though. The amount of hype and pressure on LeBron from the time he entered the league has been off the charts. Even so, LeBron actually has strived in some playoff games when his team needed him the most, just not on the biggest stages where expectations were the highest. I understand the drive to win a championship is what factored into going to play for the Heat. But, as pointed out by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, would either of them ever have left their teams to join one of their biggest competitors and rivals? To me, this was almost a way of indicating he didn't believe that he would be able to win a championship without the help of another superstar.
Maybe the pressure and expectations have simply just been too much for James. The disappearing acts in the 2011 NBA Finals are hard to explain. All of the weaknesses in LeBron's game have been magnified because of the move to Miami and all the bitterness it caused. It has become a hot story and will continue to be a big story until the pattern ends. With all this being said, LeBron has a great chance to help bring the NBA championship to Miami. Doing so will greatly erase the past memories and may reverse the trend.