Several years ago, before he fled the great North for the sunny climes of South Beach, Nike ran an advertising campaign that featured simple, black and white clips of LeBron James doing LeBron James sorts of things. The tagline was inspired heresy, “We are All Witnesses.”
Hewn by God to play the best game ever invented, LeBron James is a wonder, likely the most talented human ever to lace up the sneakers. He can defend every position, four of them at an elite level. He can run, fly, dribble, rebound and he passes better than any forward not named Larry Bird. He shoots well enough to be a threat, and his drives are like an armored column in search of a target. And, of course, he is massive by any normal metric.
His talent has always been undeniable, even when he was in high school. He has struggled, at times, with how to fit into a team. He can do everything, but he doesn’t want to. He recognizes that basketball, at its most beautiful, is not about the physical dominance of a single player, but about how five people work together to score and prevent the other team from scoring. The best players not only reign, but they inspire a royal court to follow. Secondary players, with leadership, can be better.
During this finals run so far, James’ leadership has been the difference. Jordan won with Pippen, Grant, Kerr, Paxson, Hodges, Harper, and Cartwright. Bird won with McHale, Parrish, Johnson, Ainge, Maxwell, and Carr. Magic won with Jabbar, Scott, Cooper, Rambis, Nixon, and Worthy. Duncan won with Parker, Ginnobli, Robinson, and Johnson. James’s supporting cast would not start on any of those teams. If he manages, somehow, to drag this group to a championship, it could be the most impressive individual accomplishment in a team sport. Minus the second and third most talented players on the roster, LeBron has found a way so far.
Why? I think he knows that individual dominance that inspires, as opposed to humiliates, that cajoles instead of degrades, is the only way forward. He will do everything, but he will do it selflessly. And Dellavedova, Mozgov, Shumpert, Jones, and Thompson will put their egos aside, acknowledge James’ brilliance, and seek to achieve something together, with him, they could never do without him.
I am not sure what will happen throughout the rest of the NBA Finals. Perhaps Golden State will recapture its shooting touch and steam through the undermanned Cavaliers. Perhaps James turns an ankle. Maybe Dellavedova loses his grip on Curry. Regardless, James’ performance so far confirms his greatness, even if he comes up a little short. It will be thrilling to witness.