October 18, 2018

Fans do and say weird things, especially come playoff time. With emotions flowing like the Egyptian rivers of old, invalidated criticism or undeserving praise unveils a person’s true colors, which can have some benefits, but certainly also some downsides.

While the vast majority of fans around the globe understood and appreciated the predicament LeBron James found himself in during the 2015 NBA Playoffs, fingers remain pointed at him for reasons outside of his control. Headliners focused on the loss of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but eased over on the fact that Anderson Varejao also sat out for the entirety of the playoffs, as well as a large chunk of the season.

To put it mildly, when Irving went down, Cleveland’s options were down to a point where none of them were favorable. Stretching LeBron’s minutes, especially with his career minutes played mark now over 43,000, was never preferred as much as it was necessary for survival. Everyone knew it, even those still pointing the finger.

In his best Allen Iverson impression, James had to take not just a lot of shots, but basically handle the ball and make every decision out there on the court. His production increased significantly through that, as BBALLBREAKDOWN.com colleague Kelly Scaletta talked about here, while his percentages, expectedly, hit the floor.

By doing so, LeBron’s situation created two camps. One praising him for perseverance and overcoming impossible odds, the other ridiculing his efficiency and calling him out for his lack of defensive impact.

This is the crux of NBA fandom. Emotional investment. Twisting logic and reason, all to fit a narrative, is almost a right of passage. Especially if the surrounding fan base has an ongoing rivalry with a player or team, which of course many seem to have with James.

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Let’s enter the time machine and go back to 2003. It’s draft night, and LeBron is universally projected to be the number one pick. He’s already graced the covers of several magazines, signed with Nike and accepted the responsibility of being the next big superstar, all by the age of 18, all before even being selected. At the time the notion was too much was put on the young man’s shoulders, and some people preached patience. A sympathetic view very few have today, 12 years later. After going off for 25 points and nine assists in Sacramento for his debut, however, patience was dropped from the equation and people began gushing about his abilities.

Fast forward four years to the 2007 NBA Finals. LeBron had created his first sighs by signing an extension for only three years the previous July, foregoing long-term security for a chance to earn more money in 2010. It was a perfectly valid business decision by an NBA superstar earning less than his market value, and yet it rubbed people the wrong way. The positioning for a higher salary, compared with his “Chosen 1” tattoo, saw LeBron slowly begin to develop a reputation for arrogance, with people pointing towards his potential doom if he didn’t set himself straight. And for that reason, matching up against the San Antonio Spurs – a team that personified team work and unselfishness – couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Spurs spanked Cleveland 4-0, further fuelling the fire of public outcry of “yet another wannabe superstar”.

Even despite LeBron’s vast improvements in the years following the loss, a stamp had been placed on him. Doubts about his character had begun sneaking in through the cracks of his image, making public perception a ticking timebomb just waiting to explode.

In 2010, the blast arrived. It was bigger than anyone could have ever imagined, and LeBron’s road to villainy was cemented. Not only did he have the audacity to switch teams on national television, but going to Miami where Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were waiting? It was viewed as LeBron taking a personal monopoly of the league, injecting fear and worry to the millions upon millions of fans for the other 29 franchises. For them, it was no longer just a side-story about LeBron’s ego or him failing to win a championship, but rather a fundamental change to the NBA infrastructure as they knew it.

Now, five years later, the residue of that still lingers. Some will never regain their respect for LeBron regardless of what he might do, which the 2015 NBA Finals became the perfect example of. Others have forgiven and forgotten. Some found solace in the fact that he won just two out of four championships in Miami, thus never making true of his promise of “not four, not five, not six”, and others viewed his stint in Miami as a tool for development.

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Compared to other full-blown superstars who at one point in their time held the league in the palm of their hand, LeBron’s journey is the most controversial. He walked off the path that others walked before him, and created his own, bringing with him uninvited scrutiny and irrational hate, often the mark of the burden a pioneer has to carry. With millions of judging eyes turned his way, LeBron finally decided to unburden himself.

The headband, the chase for efficiency, the chase for statistical goals, the analytical approach to the game he holds dear, were left at the door. What remained was a naked, pure, vindicated version of LeBron James. With every conceivable odds against him, he fought like there was no tomorrow, one by one deleting whatever criticism had been added to the burden he carried for so long.

Passiveness, lack of aggression, a need for superstar teammates, beating good teams by himself, it was all proven to be theories that no longer could be applied.

And yet, here we are. LeBron isn’t efficient enough. LeBron may have won two games singlehandedly against the best team in the league, but he lost the series. LeBron didn’t play defense. LeBron played selfishly.

This will be the next step in his journey that is becoming more and more challenging by the day. The realization that regardless of what you do, regardless of what you achieve, regardless of utterly insanely you chase a goal, people will forever and always find a way to pick you apart.

To LeBron’s comfort, he’s not the first victim. Every major superstar has gone through periods of criticism that were unjust and emotionally driven. And to his credit, he is doing the exact same as they all did, using it as motivation. Michael Jordan couldn’t shoot or defend, people said. Larry Bird was too slow to win, they uttered. Magic Johnson was too nice to win on his own merit, they cried.

Emotional response is exactly that. Emotional and non-logical. With today’s social media and blog-driven society, these emotional people have just grown louder through technology, even if their voices remain the same. They’re exactly the same as when the holy trio played, and for the first time, LeBron was able to rise up above them. But instead of pointing his finger, he unchained himself of the voices and turned them into nothing but whistles in the wind.

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Morten Stig Jensen

Danish hillbilly, and proud father, who's been around the web a few times. Owned and operated the largest basketball-site in Denmark, was an NBA on-air color analyst for a brief time, now a frequent podcaster. Academy Profession Degree in Multimedia Design and Communication from the Copenhagen School of Design & Technology, currently studying Media Production & Management at the Danish School of Media & Journalism.

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