LeBron James Has No Clothes

The "king" was exposed in the NBA Finals—and so were the legions who insist on calling him the best

Can we finally stop the nonsense?

LeBron James isn’t a “king” or “chosen.” He isn’t a champion, and he certainly isn’t the best player in the NBA, now or of all time. He is a supremely talented, physically gifted athlete who has yet to understand how to win on the biggest stage. He may well discover that formula in the next five years, but for now, it eludes him. And so does any claim to his sport’s top spot.

James’ performance in Miami’s six-game Finals exit demonstrates the glaring shortcoming in his game: the obvious lack of the killer instinct necessary to win it all. He may have an unprecedented collection of skills and can compile prodigious statistical totals, but he hasn’t yet learned that the final score is what matters most in any competitive pursuit.

That’s why the LeBron-is-best crowd needs to shut its collective trap. James proved definitively in the Finals series against Dallas that he is not ready for the “best ever” mantle and may never be. He was small in the fourth quarter of nearly every Finals game and was unable to sustain excellence the rest of the time, either. His apologists pointed to the “impact” he made in Game Five, when he posted a triple double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), but The Best doesn’t do impact. The Best dominates. The Best leads. James played like a lieutenant in the Finals, and by doing so abdicated any claim to the top of the mountain. You don’t gain “Global Icon” status by winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. That designation is reserved for the best of the best: Ali. Pele. Jordan.

During his eight years in the league, James has accomplished an awful lot. He has scored more than 17,000 points, captured two MVP awards, played in seven All-Star games and reached the Finals twice. He is well on his way to the Hall of Fame and will absolutely be listed among the greatest ever when he finally hangs up his signature Nikes. Being the best, however, takes more than that. Unfortunately, the bulk of today’s media and most fans don’t understand that.

James was anointed “King” and “The Chosen One” while still in high school, a reflection of our growing inability to define success accurately. Today, greatness is bestowed based on individual accomplishment or a successful marketing campaign. The hype machine needs constant feeding, so new “stars” must emerge on a regular basis. James was perfect for that climate. His fabulous skill set and hometown storyline were like crack to eager hero-makers, and the NBA willingly provided a breathless soundtrack to the first part of his career.

For seven seasons, James’ quest for a title was viewed favorably. He was doing it close to his Akron birthplace in a noble fashion, trying to lift a previously inept franchise to heights it had never achieved before. He said the right things. He didn’t pout. And had he won in Cleveland, James could indeed have been one of the legendary figures in NBA history. He would have been beloved, even. And if he hadn’t, there was a damn good chance he would have been lauded for sticking it out and fighting the good fight.

Once he went to Miami, it all changed. James had taken the easier path, choosing to chase a title as wingman to established winner Dwyane Wade. That might have been fine, had his sycophants not insisted on maintaining “the best” discussion. By running from the responsibility of being the headliner to join an ensemble cast in South Beach, “the King” abdicated his throne. You can’t be the best if you don’t do everything better than the others. James couldn’t lead. He couldn’t close.

Worse, in the Finals, James was small. His fourth-quarter tribulations were well documented. And even though he scored seven in the final 12 minutes in the deciding game, he was never really in charge. Contrast James’ ordeal with Dirk Nowitzki’s performance in the Finals. The Mavs’ star scored 62 points during the fourth quarter of the six games, matching the total posted by James and Wade. The funny thing about that is that five years ago, Nowitzki was viewed as soft and incomplete. His game, though great, had holes, and his personality was viewed as incompatible with big-game leadership. Look at him now. He’s a champion, the Finals MVP and a made man among the NBA legends.

That’s the good news for James. There is still time. He’s only 26 years old, so he has 10 more years (at least) to change his tune. He can still learn to play in the post. To capture the elusive formula for late-game heroics. He can figure out how to blend better with Wade. Jerry West waited 12 seasons to win a championship. Jason Kidd just got his first, after a 17-year wait. It isn’t over for James, and his legacy is not complete. That’s why all this king talk and “global icon” prattle needs to stop. If you’re one of those strident James supporters, it’s time to change the subject. Talk about baseball. Or -– if it ever returns –- the NFL. But stay away from the round ball for a while. You need some perspective. A new outlook. People aren’t the best just because a TV commercial or breathless announcer says so. They’re the best because everybody knows it.

After this year’s Finals, we know what we need to know about LeBron James. It’s up to him to change that. Let’s see if he can.


* Anybody watching the Stanley Cup Finals has learned that great goaltending is paramount. It doesn’t matter what it takes to sign Ilya Bryzgalov; the Flyers must get it done.

* The Phillies have won 40 games and have the best record in the majors. If you can explain it, get to Washington immediately and solve the debt crisis.

* Good luck at Penn State, Pat Chambers. Convincing top hoops players to spend quality time in State College will require a sales job for the ages.