By Bomani Jones
Special to Page 2

LeBron James confessed to ESPN The Magazine that he doesn't think he's as good as Kobe Bryant. In fact, he said no one is as good as Kobe Bean because "The Mamba" has a killer instinct no one else has. When comparing himself with Bryant, LeBron said he doesn't have the desire to "just kill everybody."

Too bad LeBron -- and a handful of pundits -- don't realize that's a good thing.

After Cleveland's two-point loss to Portland Sunday, ESPN's B.J. Armstrong went so far as to say that LeBron might become a star, but not a superstar, based upon this revelation.

Kobe Bryant
AP
You know that Kobe is always putting it up with the game on the line.

Riiiiiight.

Anyone who doesn't think LeBron James is already a superstar doesn't have NBA League Pass. The opportunity to watch him play on a nightly basis is easily worth 200 bucks. There has never been anyone as good at his age and experience level. The nearest combination of youth, talent and performance to LeBron's in any sport is Doc Gooden from 1984 to '86, and LeBron does it all without a drippy, messy Jheri curl.

But there are people, including King James himself, who want him to be like Kobe. At this point, why in Hades would he want to be like that? Is he looking for tense relations with his teammates? Would he like to play on a team with talent comparable to the Cavaliers' but with a worse record, even though Cleveland has been without Larry Hughes for 20 percent of its games? Really, is the killer instinct that important?

For Kobe, it is. His killer instinct comes from his unshakable confidence. Few players have believed in their talent as much as Bryant, and he felt that way as a teenage rookie. He's as close as anyone could imagine to being unguardable, largely because he believes that to be the case. And considering how often he insists upon shooting through people instead of going around them -- and how effective he is when doing so -- he'd better walk around with brass in his tights.

But Kobe's problem is just what LeBron loves so much about Kobe -- the need to kill everybody. There's no one that wants the last shot of a game as much as Bryant, and there might not be anyone more likely to scare the bejeezus out of the opposition with the clock winding down.

Unfortunately, he wants the first shot as much as he wants the last. He's pretty enamored with the 28th shot, too, whether he's all alone or with a hand, or seven, in his face. But when you want to kill everybody, it's going to be that way.

And look what that way has gotten Kobe Bean. Remember that Shaq, not his attitude, got him those rings.

Talking about the killer instinct LeBron does or does not have obscures what makes him so great -- his understanding of the game. There's no question LeBron wants the last shot in games, and there's no question he is the man the Cavs look to for that shot. But the reason LeBron is who he is, a star so big I can hardly recall anyone referring to him by his last name, is that he's more concerned with the Cavs' taking the best shot, even if it doesn't roll off his fingers.

Just look at the game against the Trail Blazers. Down 88-87, LeBron drove to the right, drew a crowd and found Donyell Marshall wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer. That he saw the open man on the opposite side of the court was amazing, and no one would want to leave Marshall open in that situation. At this point, Marshall is in the league for no other reason than to make shots like those.

Passing to Marshall didn't show a lack of killer instinct. It made sense.

The idea of a killer instinct is tough to embrace because that quality is so hard to identify, and it is most frequently discussed by people who don't have it. We think Kobe has it. We know Chris Webber does not. Many said Karl Malone didn't have it, but the huge scar over one of Isiah Thomas' eyes says otherwise.

Where does that killer instinct come from? Malone's came from a dark place, one that made him the dirtiest player in the game this side of Ric Flair. Michael Jordan and Jerry West got theirs from an unhealthy hate for losing. Kobe's seems to originate from a palpable self-absorption, a trait that also happens to be the root of many of his professional and personal problems.

LeBron James
AP
LeBron will dish it to the open man if that's the best play.

So where does -- or will -- LeBron's killer instinct come from? The man said it himself in ESPN The Mag.

"It's all about competing, about trying to be the best," he told Chris Broussard. "It's also important to me to make the team I'm on now the best."

Sometimes that means giving Donyell Marshall the chance to win the game with a 3, just like it meant Jordan had to give Bill Wennington the winning shot that night in 1995 when he dropped a double-nickel on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Or giving Steve Kerr the clinching shot in the '96 NBA Finals.

Those moves didn't make MJ a shrinking violet, nor could anyone say the same about Bron Bron. He's not running from the ball in the clutch, no matter what he plans to do with the orange. Although he has made some poor decisions in the clutch -- like passing to Eric Snow on the final possession of the Portland game -- he never looks afraid. LeBron seems perpetually concerned with giving Cleveland its best chance to win. It just so happens that the Cavs' best chance at victory doesn't always mean his taking a shot.

If the path to superstardom is so narrow no one else on the floor is worth considering, then LeBron is doomed. And superstardom ain't all it's cracked up to be.

When Jordan looked to do nothing but attack, he couldn't get past the conference finals. Using MJ's trials and errors -- and probably Kobe's -- as a reference, LeBron has been precocious in his ability to both score and help others score. Observers should be happy with that and watch as it translates into more victories.

And so should he.

Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at bomani@bomanijones.com.




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