Analyzing LeBronBy Kevin Pelton
Jan. 15, 2004
The traveling circus that is LeBron James and the 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers made its stop in Seattle earlier this week. Your humble Hoopsworld columnist not only had a front-row seat, he was part of the sideshow involving a pack of media out for blood (but willing to settle for a couple of good sound bytes). I can't really discuss the James phenomenon without separating the on-court phenomenon from the madness off the court, so I will take each separately.
On the CourtThe two plays that stand out for me in LeBron James' Seattle debut, a 104-96 victory for the Cleveland Cavaliers, were not monstrous dunks. They were not no-look passes or crossover dribbles. They were simply fundamental basketball plays, executed with the kind of skill and basketball acumen that few players, let alone 19-year-olds, possess.
The first play came inside the final minute of the first half. After Sonics forward Vladimir Radmanovic grabbed a rebound, he headed the other way on a three-on-one fast break. The lone player back, James read Radmanovic like a poker champion, following his eyes to the right and leaping into the air to easily secure the ball once it left Radmanovic's hand and turn back the Sonics.
The other play came in a more important situation. With 1:04 to play, the Sonics had closed within six points after two Brent Barry free throws. James' first attempt, a turnaround from the post, was off, but he was right there for the rebound and the putback to put essentially seal the game for the Cavs.
One play took instinct, one dedication. To me, those two attributes are as important as James' athletic ability and his unselfishness in pointing towards his future as a superstar.
Okay, there were dunks as well. Two plays after the steal, on Cleveland's final possession of the half, James freed himself (by fouling defender Antonio Daniels, though no whistle blew), and finished, as Marv Albert might say, with authority. In the fourth quarter, James' fast-break finish put the exclamation point on the Cavaliers run that blew the game wide open.
James says he's still using the same moves, the same tricks he used in high school. Imagine how good he will be when he really figures this league out, when his jumpshot goes from adequate to asset, as it did for Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and so many of the greats? Will he, like Oscar Robertson, average a triple-double? Okay, that's a little far-fetched, given he has yet to record his first career triple-double in a game, coming a rebound and an assist shy on this night.
James is so good, you don't feel bad about letting go and dreaming about him a little bit. His attitude and his unselfishness are refreshingly rare in a player of his age, as exemplified by the choice to play up his passing skills in his first major Nike commercial (the one you couldn't possibly miss on this site during the month of December).
Despite my generally pessimistic stand on players entering the NBA out of high school, I was sold on James from the first time I saw him on ESPN last winter as a high-school center. It was clear, even against other high schoolers, that this was the one in a million kid, that all an age limit would do with James was deprive us from seeing him compete against the best players in the world for a couple of seasons.
Still, I didn't anticipate James would be this good, this soon. Nearly 20 points and six rebounds per game, as well as better than six assists, are outstanding numbers even given that, as is the case for most rookies, James' field goal percentage (42.6%) is too low, his turnovers (3.9 per game, third in the NBA) too high. James' performance dwarfs that of his high-school-to-NBA cohorts. Given the importance of performance at a young age in projecting future performance, it seems reasonable to project that only injury can keep James from achieving superstardom.
James has an outstanding mentor in that pursuit in Silas, who carved out a niche career as a bruising battler in the paint for 16 NBA seasons. Silas was hand-picked by the Cavs to serve as James' mentor on the strength of four-plus outstanding seasons at the helm of the Hornets, where he helped integrate young players like Baron Davis and Jamaal Magloire into a team that made the playoffs each of the last four seasons (and was 22-13 after Silas took over during the 1998-99 season).
There is no one better to teach James about the toughness necessary to compete in the NBA, something he joked about with the Seattle media.
"No question," Silas said when asked whether he would have knocked James down when playing him for the first time. "Right away, to see if he would come back at me. If he does, then we might have a battle. If he doesn't, I've got him."
Would James come back?
"I think he would," Silas confirmed.
Silas' message for his prodigy is a simple one at the moment.
"Basically, (he's) just telling me to compete every night," James said. "If I compete every night, if I make mistakes it doesn't matter, as long as I compete the whole 48 minutes." (That whole 48 minutes bit is more true than one might like to think; James is averaging 40.1 minutes per game, which would make him the first rookie since Allen Iverson to average 40 minutes and just the third (Damon Stoudamire is the other) since 1990.)
I think a big reason Michael Jordan's impact on the NBA and its fans was so great was that no matter how huge the hype got, Jordan was always better than it. James came into a situation where, as a rookie, it would have been almost impossibly to beat the hype. That he's done it is testament to just how great he is and can be.
Off the CourtIn my year and a half covering the Sonics as a member of the working media, there have been three "must attend" media spectacles -- James, Michael Jordan's last appearance in Seattle, and Gary Payton's first as an opponent. Jordan's interview seemed the most cramped to me, if only because he spoke only postgame, in the relatively small locker room (I should note I didn't participate in Payton's postgame interview, having to settle for Phil Jackson pregame).
If you've never been part of such a scene -- and I trust that the vast majority of my readers have not -- the feeling is not easy to describe. Truly, a pack or mob mentality does take over. I listened to the Cavs' PR Director, the overworked Bill Evans, say that James' press availability would come in the room that connects the visitor's locker room to the Sonics'. Not ten minutes later, when James walked off the court, having concluded his pregame shooting, did I go where I had been directed? No, instead I followed the horde of media heading for the opposite side of the locker room. Why? Even now, I couldn't tell you.
While I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to interview LeBron for the world, these kinds of interviews aren't particularly enjoyable. You find yourself wedged between two or three other people, having to thrust your recorder over the shoulder of the person in front of you (or, alternatively, having a recorder thrust over your shoulder). Things started out particularly poorly for me. I was initially stuck behind 6-8 Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel, but I worked my way to a better location and settled in for the show.
The appearance of James himself was actually fairly anti-climactic. The chosen one has been well-schooled in the use of clichés and avoiding saying anything potentially controversial. That's good news for the Cavs and for the NBA, but bad news for a columnist.
The most interesting thing that James revealed during the interview was that he behaves the way he does because he feels a responsibility to his family name, not to his position, his team, or the league.
"I've got a responsibility to live up to my family name," James said. "I don't worry about living up to the league's name, or to the Cavs' name. I've got a responsibility to live up to the James name, and I don't want to disappoint my family in any way."
Of course, the media weren't the only ones turning out to see James. KeyArena was sold out for just the fourth time this season and, they weren't there to see Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
I think I detected a handful of boos when James was introduced with the Cleveland starting lineups, but the Seattle fans generally sounded like a home crowd with regards to the rookie. They looked like one too, with dozens of James' Cavaliers jerseys in full force. I also saw a McDonald's High School All-America James replica.
This fan attention, however, comes with a price. Early-arriving fans lined the tunnel to the Cleveland locker room, hoping to get James' autograph. Because of the time constraints on him, James was only able to sign for a couple of fans. Will those other kids forever believe that James was too big to take time for them? Can they understand the pressure James is under to deliver for fans, the league, and the media -- let alone play basketball?
Still, let's not feel sorry for the kid. He doesn't.
"My life is great," James said. "I'm thankful to wake up every morning."
Everyone else is thankful too.
Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.