When Magic Johnson rips into LeBron James for his failure to come up big moments, the legend conveniently forgets his own early-career struggles in crunch time.
ESPN.com finished its #NBArank series yesterday, coming to the same conclusion that Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe and CBS Sports' Matt Moore did this summer: LeBron James is the best player in the NBA.
For many, that's about as unassailable a truth about the league as there is, but by no means is it a unanimous sentiment. In response, the opposition, not for the first time, has chosen to aggressively brandish its twin cudgels in generalization, rings and clutch.
Among the most notable of these critics has been Magic Johnson, whose comment -- "There's going to always be guys who win championships in the NBA ... except LeBron" -- was tweeted and retweeted into oblivion. If it feels strange to hear a largely unextreme, moderately inclined analyst jokingly submit such an evisceration, there are good reasons for it, not the least of which is his target coming within two games of accomplishing the very same "impossible" feat merely a few months prior.
The sketch of LeBron as weak-minded, anti-clutch, and inevitably doomed to failure has rapidly matured towards a fuller and more definite portrait, one that the likes of Scott Raab have hawked for upwards of a year, and one that ignores the countless moments of absolute brilliance that dwarf the lapses in frequency, if not relative import. That teams win titles is often troublingly forgotten as is, in the case of the 2011 Miami Heat, the fact that a team consists of 12 players and not three.
No doubt further fueled by Magic's comments yesterday, it's a narrative that will persist until LeBron breaks through on the biggest stage. Concurrently, the timing and intimation of Magic's comments are rather fascinating.
Many words have been written about LeBron's ornamental deficiencies; this passage from Sports Illustrated does as reasonable a job as any of capturing the general sentiment:
Give [him] the ball, a few fleet teammates, a little adrenaline, and he's off, running. He "just wants to have fun." That's all well and good, and for most of the NBA season it's a productive attitude, one that pleases fans. He has his fun and seems to run the break and run up his statistical totals almost effortlessly. He has bushels of "triple doubles"-games in which he reaches double figures in points, rebounds and assists.
Presumably, the bigger the game, the bigger the production. But you can't have fun in the clutch; [you] can't crack a smile in the clutch. The clutch is a crucible.
Late in games during the championship series... announcing [teams] would make the obligatory comments about how players like [him] love such moments. Yet, time and time again, we saw evidence of [his] distaste for them.
Except: hold on. None of those sentences were written about LeBron James. They derive, instead, from an August 1984 column on Magic Johnson.
Magic, you'll remember, was subjected to a nearly identical line of examination, this despite winning two titles in his first three years. The similarities between '11 LeBron and '84 Magic are astounding.
Both players had broken through in grand fashion in their early years, Magic with his mind-bending 1980 Finals as a sophomore, LeBron with an all-time great series against an elite Detroit defense in 2006 as a third-year player. Both had, to hear sections of the media tell it, slipped back into empty, "statistics"-fueled greatness since then. Magic's reputation even earned him the denigrating "Tragic Johnson" moniker from Kevin McHale and his greatest rivals; the thought of Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki indulging in today's analogue seems unthinkable.
Magic was 25 when that article was published, the high point of a tide that had, in various circles, slowly, steadily turned against him in a span of a half-decade. Make no mistake: until the Lakers' 1985 breakthrough against Boston, Magic's failures were no less extensively highlighted than LeBron's. In '84, the Los Angeles Times published a story entitled, "Earvin, What Happened to Magic?" The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, not to be outdone, referred to Johnson as the "tarnished superstar" and "the goat of the series." Public opinion has swung as quickly and forcefully against the 26-year-old James, who like Magic in '84, has a ways to go before his "legacy" or all-time standing can seriously be considered.
There's no question that from a team perspective, Magic had accomplished more than LeBron has at the same age, and equally importantly, that if LeBron's career does indeed end up without a ring, he'll be judged extremely harshly for it. Magic was considered a "champion," feckless as the term can be, by the time the media questioned his character, a description LeBron's lack of rings has obviously kept him from.
LeBron may have a larger hole to climb out of to preserve his -- here's that word again -- "legacy," but it doesn't change the fact that Magic experienced a very similar media backlash (from national and local outlets) about the exact same phenomenon (clutch play, "wanting" to win, and subsequent derivatives) and at about the same age as LeBron. Magic's eventual success in winning over his doubters is what ultimately makes his glib dismissal of LeBron's long term chances so jarring.
Even if we accept that Magic's comment was laced more with humor than antipathy, there's a larger lesson to take away here. It's a short-sighted and exceedingly generalized viewpoint, but if a title must stand as a boolean demarcation between No. 1 worthy and not, is it really so ridiculous to think LeBron will win an NBA title in the next three, four, five years? It's an especially apt question in the shadow of the 2011 NBA Finals, won by a player, Dirk Nowitzki, who has undoubtedly had multiple better seasons than his title-winning one, on a team that, in sum, supported him with better defending, rebounding and bench play than he's ever had.
The Mavericks didn't break through in 2011 because Dirk Nowitzki suddenly improved or wanted it more or willed himself into a "champion." Those things simply fit with the ceaseless pursuit of sharp, nifty little storylines. The quick, dogged little guard emerging from under the shadow of greatness of his own franchise's history -- headline! The free-styling, defensively mediocre forwards being toppled because, heh, defense -- headline! The long under-appreciated international gunner finally willing his team to a title -- schlagzeile!
It makes it all so easy, but to embrace simplicity is to overlook nuance. If Derrick Rose brought Chicago back to prominence more or less on his own, there's no need to delve into Tom Thibodeau's phenomenal defense or how well their bigs rebounded. If Dirk just "wouldn't be stopped," there's no reason to explain Jason Kidd's role in Rick Carlisle's defensive setup or why J.J. Barea played so well in the postseason. If Carmelo and Amar'e were truly just awful at defense ... well, perhaps, there's not too much nuance we're missing on this one, but the point still stands.
Championships are the ultimate goal, but they're binary in the extreme. By definition, framing an argument in terms of titles eliminates nuance, and it's why judging individual players through the myopic lens they represent is always a misleading endeavor. The subtlety exists on the individual leve,l too. Explore the Dirk archives, and you'll find failure, opportunities spurned, possessions, quarters, games wasted, juxtaposed with brilliance, clutch play, possessions, quarters and games won.
Now that he's a "champion"? He'll still come up short in some big moments for seasons to come. Back when he "choked" in the playoffs? He still delivered then, in no short supply, the same killer blows he imparted in the 2011 playoffs. Dirk's game has evolved over the years, no doubt, but he's been a phenomenally great basketball player for many, many years now.
And so it is with LeBron James.
He's been dominant for the majority of his career, in ways we haven't seen since Jordan; he's also struggled in a pair of supremely visible situations. If an analyst -- whether it's Magic or anyone else -- really believes two sub-LeBron-standard playoff series should define the narrative of his career, it's the allure of simplicity once again at work.
He unequivocally needs to address what happened to him mentally in his last two playoff exits, but at this stage in his career and with the collection of outstanding playoff series he's put together, it doesn't define him. LeBron, the player, has far more depth than his ostensible caricature; he is the most efficient scorer, accounting for volume, the league has today, improves his teammates' play more effectively than anyone this side of Chris Paul and Steve Nash, plays genuinely outstanding individual defense, flies around the floor on help D, both initiates and finishes the league's most devastating transition game, and on many, many occasions in both regular and postseasons has come up huge in late-game situations.
A single yes or no question -- even if, on a team level, it is the most important question in sports -- simply can't take that away.
Ultimately, if there's one thing narratives conform to with absolute rigidity, it's championships. But more importantly, even the most inflexible narrative can change. LeBron knows this. Magic lived it. And deep down, the headline writers, the trope aficionados, the preeminent taste makers of today -- they all know it too.