Savoring the King
LeBron's 38-8-7 opening line against Pistons shows greatness becoming greater
CLEVELAND -- The voice on the radio was booming, coming at its listening audience with full force, imploring fans to enjoy this. To cast aside all fears of the dreaded 2010, to put aside all doubt that the locals can go all the way, and to simply enjoy what they are witnessing at this very moment.
The voice belonged to a Cleveland broadcaster, and he was addressing fans of the Cavaliers. But as I watched LeBron James rip the not-so-Bad Boys of Detroit to shreds, 102-84, on Saturday afternoon, I realized that the words I heard on my drive from the airport to "The Q" apply to all us basketball fans:
Let's do ourselves a favor and enjoy this.
What we are watching is historic. This is not just a perennial All-Star, not merely the greatest player of his era, not even the next Kobe.
LeBron James is better than all that.
Once he starts winning rings -- which could be in two months or so -- he'll replace Bird as the best small forward ever. If he and Kobe meet in the dream Finals and the Cavaliers win, he'll forever be listed ahead of Mamba in the rankings of all-time greats. (Why? Because Kobe has the much better supporting cast, what with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and history's winningest coach not named Red Auerbach.)
And for as much as we hear about the great Oscar Robertson's triple-double season of 1961-62, LeBron's current numbers dwarf the Big O's when adjusted for pace of play. Back when Oscar got his 3D, teams averaged 118 points and 71 rebounds per game. Today, they average just 99 points and 41 boards.
Back in March, when ESPN's brainiacs in the Stats & Information department compared LeBron's stats to Oscar's, they told me LeBron would average 40 points, nearly 15 rebounds and 9.6 assists in the up-tempo, shot-happy game of 1961-62. Oscar, on the other hand, would average 21.7 points, 8.4 assists and 6 rebounds today.
But that's not the scary thing. This is: LeBron's getting better.
We've all seen several LeBron masterpieces. And while his 48-point performance against these same (well, sort of) Detroit Pistons in the 2007 playoffs has to go down as his all-time tour de force, what he did Saturday in Game 1 of this first-round series was about as good as it gets.
Still just 24 years old, he was so poised, so cool, so collected in dismantling Rasheed and Rip and Tay that it was ridiculous. He played 40 minutes, 52 seconds, scored 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, handled the ball enough to give out a game-high seven assists, and never committed a turnover. Not one.
He let the Pistons know from jump street that their dreams of pulling off a Buster Douglas-type upset were folly by scoring 12 points in the first quarter, including a couple of dunks that had Sheed all but cowering beneath the basket.
In the second quarter, he pulled down a defensive rebound, pushed the ball up court (you know he plays point about 60 percent of the time), and threw a left-handed, Stockton-esque pass off the bounce that found a streaking Joe Smith for an easy dunk.
Seven minutes later, he hit Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the post, cut toward the basket and caught Z's alley-oop pass at the rim for a sweet finger roll. Then on the very next possession, he hit a 41-footer off the glass to beat the buzzer to end the half.
He had 22 points, more than any other player scored the entire game, after the first two quarters.
"It's kind of scary to say this when talking about LeBron," teammate Daniel Gibson said. "But this is the time of year when the best players take it to another level."
Another level? You mean there's one beyond what we've been seeing?
Actually, we witnessed some next-level stuff Saturday. In the past, critics wondered when LeBron would start playing the type of defense we all knew he was capable of. Of course, he's done it this season and garnered some Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Now, some are saying LeBron should post up more. At 6-foot-8, 270 pounds, with the quickness and speed of a point guard, he'd be unstoppable. Last week, I asked LeBron about his becoming a beast on the block one day.
"Sometimes being in the post gets boring," he said with a laugh. "I know it can be easy, but it gets boring down there. I like being on the perimeter shaking and baking it, getting to the cup. It gets boring down there in the post sometimes. That's why sometimes I don't go down there, but every now and then, you'll see me down there."
We saw him down there a few times Saturday and it did indeed look boring, as in, "This is so easy, it's boring me to death." Heck, it looked like LeBron was playing against his 4-year-old son, Lil' LeBron.
Once, he posted up poor Arron Afflalo, who actually looks burly next to most players, backed him down into the paint, and scored on a short jumper. Another time, he posted Walter Herrmann, who also cuts an imposing figure next to most hoopers, on the opposite block before sinking a turnaround J. Whenever the Pistons sent double-teams, LeBron picked them apart with passes that led to buckets.
But most of the time, he was out there "shaking and baking it." Obviously, that worked too.
But what's going to happen when he finds just the right mix of perimeter and post? I mean, he's already on the cusp of winning a title without another elite star by his side. Even though he's neck-and-neck with Kobe for the best player in the game, I'd say he's only about 85-90 percent of the player he can be.
That's why all of us, not just Cavaliers fans, need to heed the words of the voice on the radio in Cleveland and watch closely and enjoy every time LeBron steps on the court. Because we may soon see something we've never seen before -- or at least not before or since the 1990s.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.