Friday, June 10, 2011

Prince James


To the young and largely uninitiated, or the people who believe that objectivity is “hate,” this El Hombre masterpiece is an anti-LeBron James screed. Those who think cheerleading is journalism and encouragement is analysis can’t stand reading the truth about their heroes. That’s why teams are devoting so many resources to their web sites – the better to provide positive propaganda to the willing masses – and content providers like SBNation are taking off. They feed the demand for fans’ “voices” to be heard.

So, after a big swig of “Haterade,” it’s time to get rolling on James and his Heat, who are on the precipice of a second-place NBA finish that won’t lead to another celebration like the ridiculous spectacle we endured (and espn gleefully broadcast) last summer. It’s entirely possible Miami could win games six and seven and capture the championship. Until the Mavericks took game two, the Heat was 8-0 in front of its front-running fans and should be favored in both remaining games. All is not lost, by any stretch.

The bigger issue is whether James can lay claim to the best player on the planet any longer. (Since the NBA is all about its personalities, team glory is secondary.) His performance in the Finals has proven that he absolutely cannot. On the biggest stage of his career, far bigger than his championship round appearance with Cleveland back in ’07, James has been anything but the best. His play has been so far from the top strata that it is left to his network cheerleaders to dredge the boxscore for positives, the better to avoid having to confront the truth: James isn’t made for the Alpha role.

James has managed a mere 11 points during the five fourth quarters of the series, and Thursday night’s two points came on a meaningless layup with less than a minute left. Compounding his weak offensive efforts in the final 12 minutes of Finals’ games has been shoddy defensive work, as evidenced by the eight points his man – 6-foot, 2-inch (maybe) Jason Terry – has scored in the fourth quarters of each of the last two games. James finished Game Five with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, a very Scottie Pippen-like performance, which is fitting, since the former Michael Jordan lieutenant has said James is better than Pippen’s meal ticket. (It could be time to check whether that Central Arkansas degree he received is worth anything.) Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward James “impacted the game.” That’s nice.

But it isn’t what the best player does. He doesn’t “impact” the game with a strong stat line in a loss. The best dominates. He wills a team to victory. He takes over. He doesn’t defer, clank jumpers or get toasted by a man six inches shorter than him during money time. He doesn’t tweet “Now or never” before the game and then choose “never” during it. James has done that throughout the Finals, and though espn and other NBA propagandists are hoping he rises to greatness in the last two games, it won’t matter. He isn’t the best. And he never will be.

You can’t deny his physical tools. He’s 6-8, 270, for crying out loud. He’d be big for a tight end. Or a defensive end. James can move like someone a foot smaller, is strong enough to overpower just about anybody in the league and has the ability to translate those generic physical tools into basketball production. When people talk about him as the best player in the game, they do so in terms of his skills.

The problem is that being the best requires more than just physical excellence. You must have the ability to dominate and the mentality to do so at the most crucial moments. From the moment James decided to join Dwyane Wade and the Heat, it has been obvious he is not made to handle the toughest assignments. There is nothing wrong with that – unless you want to lay claim to topping the list. Then it becomes a problem.

Everybody knows the story of how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He responded by working harder and improving his game but also by conjuring a string of perceived slights and grudges that served him throughout his career. He fueled his competitive fire with anything he could find or manufacture. It didn’t matter how real it was; to Jordan, it was enough to make him want to rip out opponents’ organs and stomp them. The bigger the game, the bigger the challenge. And Jordan responded.

James, on the other hand, was anointed king practically from the moment he picked up a ball. It wasn’t necessary for him to create hurdles to clear, because he had no real competition. He was “King James” before he entered the NBA, despite winning nothing but a high school state championship. Even with the Cavaliers, he had little to overcome, because his hometown fans and media were so enthralled with his presence that they couldn’t bring themselves to criticize. His decision to play in Miami allowed him to join Wade, a proven winner, and avoid the hard work of lifting a team on his own. Since there cannot be two leaders on a team, James has slid comfortably into the number-two chair. His play during the finals, particularly during the fourth quarter, proves he belongs there.

James will get a ring. Maybe he’ll win two or three. But right now, he’s not the best player on his team, much less in the NBA. Until he proves he can consistently shine in big situations, James will be known for his substantial physical abilities alone. That’s not bad at all.

But it’s not best.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops says his school won’t be “claiming any championships,” now that USC’s 2004-05 national title has been stripped by the BCS, and that’s a good thing. Usually, teams have to show up at least to get championship consideration. A look at the record book reveals the Trojans administered a 55-19 beatdown to the Sooners, a decision that would render any claim hysterical…Now that he has left THE Reprobate University, Terrell Pryor can get on with his life’s goal of becoming a third-string NFL quarterback. Nice job by Sen. Coverup and his staff teaching Pryor the position. At least he learned how to sign an autograph…Now that NASCAR has decided to merge auto racing with roller derby and pro wrestling, it’s time to do the right thing and name Jerry Springer as the commissioner. That way, throwdowns in the pits will get the treatment they deserve…After winning the first two games by the narrowest of margins, the Canucks have been outscored 12-1 in the last two. Worse, still, thanks to Alex Burrows mastication of Patrice Bergeron’s hand in Game One, the NHL has mandated that chicken fingers be removed from Vancouver’s post-game food spread…Sepp Blatter was reelected head of FIFA, ensuring another term of honest, high-integrity dealings in the soccer world. Congratulations, FIFA, you have just passed cycling as the planet’s grimiest sport. Some reports had Blatter celebrating by bathing in a tub filled with money left over from the Qatar World Cup bid…Hats off to the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros for selecting outfielder Johnathan Taylor and reliever Buddy Lamothe in the recent MLB Draft. Both were paralyzed in accidents during the past few months but had demonstrated talent before their injuries. Guess things really are bigger in Texas – including the hearts.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Sixers fans had better hold off on their celebrations if the franchise is sold to a group headed by Wharton grads Joshua Harris and David Blitzer. Yes, it will be a relief to have the franchise released from the clutches of Ed Snider, whose love of hockey and relative disdain for the NBA created the illusion that the Sixers were a second priority in relation to the Flyers. But Harris and Blitzer aren’t necessarily riding to the team’s rescue. At their core, these guys specialize in acquiring distressed assets, stripping them down and flipping them for a quick profit. They will likely pay close to $40 million below market value (as established by Forbes Magazine) for the club and might be more interested in propping it up for sale than in building a champion. We’ll learn pretty quickly whether the new owners are interested in investing for a winning future or just cutting costs. The Sixers have good basketball people in place and made progress this season. Now, they have to make the moves necessary to become contenders, not just first-round playoff losers. That requires commitment from the top. It’s encouraging the Sixers will be freed from Snider’s influence, but prosperity is hardly guaranteed in the hands of Harris and Blitzer. Let’s see if they know what to do with the ball, or if they just care about the bottom line.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Bryce Harper should have a giant welt on his right biceps right now. It should include the imprint of a baseball’s seams and remind him of his arrogance every time he lifts the arm to reach for a bag of money from his closet or wrap his arm around a young lovely on the road. He should have one on his right thigh, too, one that affects him when he tries to climb into his expensive car. Harper, the high-priced rookie outfielder in the Nationals’ system, decided to admire a homer he hit Monday off of Greensboro pitcher Zachary Neal, rather than circle the bases in a timely manner. When Neal expressed his displeasure at Harper’s behavior, Harper blew a kiss at Neal. The next time up, Harper was brushed back. He should have been drilled. Harper has plenty of talent. He could well be a big leaguer by next season. (Washington GM Mike Rizzo has said he won’t bring Harper to the big club in 2011.) But his attitude on that play was decidedly little league. If you don’t know about Harper, he was the kid who left high school a year early, in order to get to professional baseball ahead of schedule. It’s his prerogative to speed up the process, but you can see his maturity doesn’t quite match his skills. Harper has time to grow up, but if he continues to act like a buffoon after a class A homer in June, he could have a rough road in the majors, where behavior like he displayed earlier this week isn’t received too well and could lead to some hurt feelings – and body parts.


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