By Michael Pina
"Michael Jordan is the best I've ever seen, but in my 30 years with the NBA I've never seen a star have to do as much as LeBron James. We've never had a player in the NBA who was under that much pressure."
-- Inside the NBA's Charles Barkley
Superstars deserve to be measured by the various responsibilities they hold, the expectations they carry and the amount of on-court help that reinforces their greatness. None are equal, and it's worthless comparing them out of context.
Basketball is a team sport. No single player can win it all without sustainable contributions from an able and willing supporting cast. The NBA's best and brightest go through slumps and bad shooting nights. They sometimes even go through consecutive days of ordinary play before rocketing back into the game's stratosphere. They need rest and encouragement. They need the opportunity to be human.
LeBron James is not allowed any of these things. The NBA has a handful of franchise-altering players, but none are obligated to be the best all the time quite like James is right now. None truly carry the "championship or bust" burden, either. It's this marriage of intense responsibility and relentless culpability that makes James' job so grueling. He's better than everybody else, and consistently proves it, but what sometimes gets lost in his narrative is how necessary all those Herculean efforts are.
Compare the Heat to some of the league's other contenders. The San Antonio Spurs don't crumble when any one piece goes down. Tony Parker is their best, sure, but someone else (almost always more than one teammate) steps up whenever he can't buy a basket. That team isn't built as a support system for Parker so much as Parker is a (considerable) cog in a system built to maximize every talent involved.
International superhero Kevin Durant went 5-for-21 in a do-or-die Game 4 against the Memphis Grizzlies, finishing with 15 points and five turnovers, but Reggie Jackson's 32-point explosion saved Oklahoma City's season. Two weeks later, he went 6-for-22 in a pivotal Game 5 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Again, the Thunder won, thanks to Russell Westbrook doing things only a handful of players can do. This is just a two-game sample size, and the Thunder would surely collapse without Durant on the roster. But the team has more than enough talent to tread water when their best isn't at his best.
James did not win the MVP this season, but he remains the best basketball player in the world. As Miami tries for a fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals, he's also its most leaned-on by a wide margin. Nobody does more for his team with less wiggle room for error.
LeBron's productivity in these playoffs is, of course, absurd, and it goes without saying that he's leading Miami in just about every traditional statistical category (you know, boring stuff like points, rebounds, assists and steals) while, likewise, holding down the fort with advanced metrics. Heading into the Conference Finals his playoff PER, True Shooting percentage -- an ungodly 67.8 percent -- and Win Share tally lead every player in the league.
Always the consummate team player, James has tip-toed between play-maker and brutally efficient scoring machine, with the latter role gaining an upper hand. In these playoffs, James has shot below 50 percent one time: Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets. He finished with 29 points on 14 shots, and willed his way to 17 free-throw attempts.
The Heat asked James to do just about everything in the second round: score, draw fouls, create open shots for teammates, put out Joe Johnson's firenado, crash the offensive glass and so, so much more. According to NBA.com/Stats, whenever he's on the court, James accounts for 35.3 percent of Miami's points, 45.0 percent of their drawn fouls, 48.3 percent of their free-throw attempts, 29.0 percent of their assists, 30 percent of their steals and 26.8 percent of their rebounds. These are the numbers of a single-minded wrecking ball.
Forget about his role as a scorer for a second. In Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers, James hounded Paul George on the perimeter, glued himself to David West on pick-and-rolls -- hedging and recovering like a smaller Joakim Noah -- and roamed off Luis Scola to act as Miami's last line of defense on Pacer drives to the hoop. This wasn't the best defensive performance of James's life, but given the overflowing workload, it wasn't too shabby either. What the game most did was serve as a brutal reminder that Miami's roster has deep, gnawing flaws.
Chris Bosh is as talented and selfless as any forward in the league -- this generation's most dependable role player, which is really saying something nice -- but that's not how you describe someone who can put a team on his back if James isn't his normal self for four quarters. Dwyane Wade's ability to score 30 points survives with a respirator, and his persona as a trustworthy sidekick is more degraded than the cartilage in his knee. Despite scoring 27 points in Game 1 against Indiana, Wade was torched over and over against by George and Lance Stephenson.
From there, things get much uglier. Miami's point guards are Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Toney Douglas. Their wings are 35-year-old Shane Battier, 38-year-old Ray Allen and 33-year-old James Jones. All three must be accounted for beyond the arc, but they're useless if James isn't attracting the defense and generating open looks off the dribble. Thirty-four-year-old Rashard Lewis isn't just still in the league, he actually spent time in the Heat's rotation this season; 35-year-old Chris Andersen may be their most constant energy outside of James. Greg Oden and Michael Beasley once symbolized a rejuvenated defending champion, but creaky knees and general awfulness has reduced the pair to sideline cheerleading in roomy suits.
Miami's success and failure hinges entirely on James. This dichotomy hints at just how great he is -- how someone can take this aging, exhausted and cramped roster and turn it into a sturdy title contender.
If James raises a third Finals MVP over his head in a few weeks, it'll be far and away his most impressive accomplishment to date. If he fails? Well, there's your proof that he might be human after all.
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