Commentary

It's way too early to write off LeBron

Updated: May 13, 2010, 12:19 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

The exact moment this national obsession with Cleveland-Boston Game 5 reached a Kardashian level of discussion-to-relevance occurred at 11:23 Wednesday morning, when I received a text message that read, "What's ur opinion on lebron?"

The text came from someone who almost never talks to me about sports, save for the occasional inquiry about how to get tickets. It just showed that everyone wanted to know what everyone else thought about LeBron James' passive performance Tuesday night, that suddenly this moment mattered more than oil spills or Supreme Court nominees. Everyone had to know if this was or was not the worst thing ever, if this was going to redefine the way we think of LeBron.

Except, how can it define a career if we don't even know that it has dictated the outcome of the series?

Unless I missed the memo that Game 6 was canceled, there's still at least 48 minutes of basketball to go. Unless I'm misreading the box score, LeBron did have 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists the last time the Cavaliers went to Boston coming off a home loss. That was Friday. That was before people had written off LeBron as a failure who can't win the big games.

This Game 5 didn't undo Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, when LeBron put together one of the greatest performances in NBA history by scoring 29 of Cleveland's final 30 points to knock off the Detroit Pistons in overtime.

You can say LeBron didn't come through this time. You can't say he never comes through.

In capitalism the definitive word is always spoken by the marketplace, and LeBron's value hasn't diminished one bit. You don't believe the Cavaliers will still offer him the maximum they're allowed to? Do you think there's a single general manager who would cite Tuesday's Game 5 as a reason not to return Danny Ferry's call if the Cavs wanted to set up a sign-and-trade?

We've become trapped in the gulf between those who write checks and those who write columns. You'd have thought LeBron had broken into the Basketball Hall of Fame and defaced the plaques of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson the way he's been shredded on the Internet following his 15-point, 3-for-14 shooting night in a 32-point loss to the Celtics.

Just keep in mind how quickly opinions change this time of year. That's what happens when you can send comments to Twitter or Daily Dime Live just as soon as a shot is missed. We make things definitive when they're actually still formative.

About three weeks ago, Kobe Bryant was sitting on the Ford Center scorer's table on an off day in Oklahoma City, fielding questions about whether he still had it. He was coming off a 10-for-29 shooting night in the Lakers' first playoff loss, and he'd made more than 40 percent of his shots only once in his previous seven games. Today he's preparing for the Western Conference finals, having scored at least 30 points in each of his past five games while shooting 51 percent, and the only thing that appears finished is the notion that he's finished.

One of the things I've always loved about the NBA playoffs is they afford an opportunity for redemption. If it doesn't happen in the next shot, there's the next game. Or the next series. Or even the next season. This isn't the Olympics with a mandatory four-year wait to make amends.

Superstars can have off games. The two finalists will play some 20-25 games each, providing plenty of time for a clunker or two somewhere along the way. The sign of a legitimate superstar is what happens after the off nights. How does he respond after the praise has turned to criticism, when the belief has turned to doubt?

Through the first three games of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, Michael Jordan was shooting 32 percent. He was coming off a 3-for-18 shooting performance in Game 3, which the Bulls somehow managed to win anyway. But they still trailed 2-1 in the series. In Game 4, despite John Starks playing some of the best defense I've ever seen against him, Jordan went for 54 points, hitting 18 of 30 shots (including 6 of 9 3-pointers).

With LeBron it wasn't just the shooting percentage that got people ready to toss him off Mount Olympus. It was his passive play, his refusal to attack the basket or post up or do anything other than shoot the occasional, wildly erratic jump shot.

That still wasn't as bad as Kobe's shutdown in the second half of a Game 7 in Phoenix three years ago, when he went into sleep mode like an unattended computer and took only three shots. And LeBron's never gone three years without winning a playoff series, as Kobe did from 2005 through 2007.

Those are now viewed as minor deviations on the upward arc of Bryant's career. Since then (or should we say, since the arrival of Pau Gasol), he has won a championship and an MVP award and is four victories away from making his third consecutive trip to the Finals. As much outcry as it caused at the time, the Game 7 in Phoenix will not dominate the career wrap-up, if it even appears at all.

Magic choked at the ends of Games 2, 4 and 7 in the 1984 Finals, yet the balance of his career is so weighted by winning that it's his auto-tuned voice you hear throughout the latest NBA commercial. When it looked as though he wouldn't be able to recover from that 1984 meltdown, he came back to win three of the next four championships.

We always think of time as the enemy of athletes, trapping them in a limited window of productivity that doesn't exist in almost any other workplace. We believe the calendar is working against them to drain a bit of their talent every day. Yet sometimes time can be an ally.

LeBron James is only 25 years old. He could be just one-third of the way through his career. Marvin Gaye made 10 albums before he recorded his masterpiece, "What's Going On."

With James it's not just about what he'll do, it's where he'll do it. The thought that Game 5 was his final hometown performance seems odorous, but again we should look to the past. Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando on the tail of a sweep, the third time he'd been broomed out of the playoffs in as many forays into the postseason.

Because James' story is taking place in Cleveland there is added melodrama. Only Cleveland has its own set of letdowns that are so notable they get single-word names. I find it funny that if you search for "The Catch" on Wikipedia looking for Dwight Clark's era-altering touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys, you'll find a multitude of choices for plays bearing the same name. But if you search for "The Shot" or "The Drive" or "The Fumble" you'll go straight to three moments that staggered Cleveland.

Yet James' personal history isn't as tortured. At every stage so far he has surpassed our expectations, starting with the most hyped debut in league history. When we wondered how he would top his 2009 MVP season of 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists, he averaged more than a point and more than an assist better this season, and made more than half of his shots for the first time in his career.

The aftermath of Game 5 has been about "How could he be so bad?" It's the wrong question. With LeBron, it's always about "What will he do next?"