I recently read a fantastic Grantland.com article by Zach Lowe on the Toronto Raptors use of computer technology and analytics to recreate videos with “ghost” defenders that demonstrate where the actual player should have been at any moment during the evolving play. The “ghost” defenders are almost without fail quicker and more aggressive in their help and rotations. This type of ultra-aggressive help defense is brutal, hard work. For just about every team it is impossible, and even if possible, unsustainable. The closest team to sustaining this level of defense is the Heat, who have three of the best wing defenders in the league in Shane Battier, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, and the latter two are among the NBA’s most gifted pure athletes. In particular the Heat have Lebron James, who does what no other player can. “LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts,” Rucker says. “He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.”
The essence of James’ greatness is the physical and mental focus he applies to every possession on both ends of the floor, night in and night out. Miami’s 27 game winning streak fell Wednesday night against the Bulls. Two nights later, the Heat were in New Orleans playing the Hornets. James was nursing an injury, and could have taken a night off. He didn’t. He hit his first six three-pointers on his way to 28 first half points. There is within him an irrespressible desire to play, and to improve. He has developed a post game, improved his shooting and is the best defensive player in basketball by any measure. He can guard all five positions on the ball, wreak havoc as an off ball defender, and in successive play-offs has absolutely shut down then reigning MVP Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant to the extent that I felt bad for both players.
I distinctly remember James guarding Durant in the fourth quarter of a finals game last year and holding Durant scoreless. Lebron cramped late in the quarter and left the game for four possessions. Durant scored his only points of the quarter on the Thunder’s two possessions with James on the bench. Durant is that good at exploiting advantage, and James that much better at….everything.
I believe there are three cycles to a superstar’s athletic career. The wonder years when the emerging talent captivates with his precocious gifts and the possibilities are limitless. The middle years when the superstar is taken for granted and often resented for his dominance. Any shortcoming is hyper-analyzed and deconstructed. This is a tragic loss of time as for reasons rooted in our own insecurities we root against players that literally embody the best of the sports we love. Finally, the golden years where through sustaining greatness over such a prolonged period of time, we have no choice by to respect it. Often this comes about too late when the superstar in question is but a shadow of his former self and we cling to the sporadic flashes that remind us of what we once saw, but didn’t always appreciate regularly.
We are in the presence of Lebron James apex. If you love the game of basketball, as I do, drop your reservations petty they undoubtedly are, and embrace his greatness. He is playing at a level few, if any, have ever reached, and as those of us who watched Jordan speak with reverence now, you will speak of James later.