Star Among Stars (LeBron's Performance For The Ages)
With Team USA’s 107-100 victory over Spain on Sunday, LeBron James became only the second player in history to win a gold medal, NBA championship, NBA Finals MVP and NBA regular season MVP in the same year. You can probably guess who the first was.
In 1992, Michael Jordan averaged 30.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists on 50% shooting. The Chicago Bulls, who surrounded the best player in the world with two All-Star caliber players (Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant), won their second consecutive championship, as Jordan dominated the NBA’s second-best shooting guard (Clyde Drexler) in the Finals. Barcelona was icing on the cake.
In 2012, LeBron James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists on 53% shooting. The Miami Heat, who surrounded the best player in the world with two All-Stars (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) won their first championship, as LeBron outplayed the NBA’s second-best small forward (Kevin Durant) in the Finals. London, too, was icing.
Despite winning an NBA scoring title earlier in his career, LeBron has always been more comfortable playing an all-around game. In London, playing against the deepest field of international teams in Olympic history, he got the chance to display his unparalleled versatility on the world stage. The result was a performance for the ages from a player at the peak of his abilities.
In eight games in London, LeBron averaged 13.3 points (third on Team USA), 5.6 rebounds (third), 5.6 assists (first) and 1.4 steals (third) on 60% shooting (fourth). Now that he has embraced playing out of the post, the only slight hole in his game is his three-point shooting. But LeBron was so comfortable setting up the shooters surrounding him that it was never really an issue.
More impressive than even his stats was his command of the game. While his teammates restricted their game and played more as specialists, LeBron expanded his. Whatever Team USA needed -- scoring, playmaking, rebounding, perimeter or interior defense -- he provided.
The key to individual defense is being longer, faster and stronger than your opponent; there isn’t a player in the world who can handle LeBron’s combination of size and athleticism at 6’9, 270. On the other end of the floor, there isn’t a player in the world he can’t match up with physically. In the Olympics, he spent time defending Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol.
With injuries sidelining Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge, Team USA was severely undersized. Tyson Chandler, their starting center, couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, while individual defense will never be the strength of Kevin Love, the only other traditional big man in their rotation. As a result, Coach K often went with a small front-line of LeBron, Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Durant and Carmelo were Team USA’s two leading scorers, and they thrived next to LeBron. He was the center who had their back on defense and the point guard setting them up on offense. Basketball will never be easy as it was for those two over the last two weeks, when they were teamed up with a do-everything PG/C hybrid.
Like Jordan 20 years ago, there was never any dispute as to who was the star among stars on Team USA. Not when team’s best athlete doubled as its best scorer and could pass as well as the point guards, rebound as well as the big men and defend as well as anyone on the roster. Without Howard, the 2012 version probably doesn’t have enough size upfront to defeat the Dream Team, but LeBron would give them a chance.
LeBron’s size would give him the edge in an individual matchup with Jordan, but that’s somewhat besides the point. They are products of different eras, in the same way that Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt are. Athletes get bigger and faster every four years; the future should improve on the past, that’s called progress.
It certainly won’t be easy for LeBron to match Jordan’s accomplishments. He returns to an NBA more competitive than the one 20 years ago. Charles Barkley didn’t have any other Olympians on his team; Kevin Durant has two. In 1992, Hakeem Olajuwon, the best 7’0 in the world, did not play with another future Hall of Famer. After last week’s blockbuster four-team trade, Dwight Howard is playing with three.
Two months ago, the Miami Heat won the Finals by playing like Team USA, with an ultra small front-court of Bosh, LeBron and Shane Battier. When they control the flow of the game, they can look like the future of basketball. The only way to beat them is to take the game back to the past and force them to play a more conventional lineup.
The Lakers, with their super-sized frontcourt of Howard and Pau Gasol, could make the Heat keep a center on the floor, which would hurt their floor spacing and change the tempo. That was Spain’s plan, but Coach K stuck to his guns, gambling that LeBron could handle either Gasol defensively. If Miami played the Lakers in the Finals, Bosh could match up with Pau, but he doesn’t have the strength to bang with Howard. Could LeBron be a dominant PG/C in a 2013 Finals against Howard and Steve Nash? He may not have a choice.
In 1993, Jordan retired for the first time, becoming bored with a league that could no longer challenge him. In 2013, LeBron will be pushed as hard as he has ever been before. It’s an exciting time to be a basketball fan.