- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The outrage is mere hours away. LeBron James is going to be handed the Rookie of the Year trophy Tuesday night, after which the anti-LeBron venom will undoubtedly be boiling again.
Thing is, I understand completely.
Really. Everyone in the Carmelo Camp, I think I know how you feel.
I know because I had the same aversion to the 24-7-365 worship of Michael Jordan that many of you harbor toward LeBron now. I had it in high school. Had it in college. Felt smothered by it from the moment I was blessed to start covering this league halfway through the 1993-94 season. I didn't understand why everything had to be about Mike, just as Carmelo Anthony's legions of fans complain that their guy is unfairly overshadowed by the unending attention showered on LeBron.
Some in the audience might recall a column I wrote for ESPN.com in September 2001. It was my plea to MJ to stay retired, because I found the notion of a comeback with the Wizards -- which was going to overshadow anything else happening in the league for months -- so utterly boring. Annoying, even. I simply couldn't understand why the first Jordan comeback, after which he won three more NBA titles, wasn't enough for people. I was perfectly content to watch everyone else who MJ left behind in 1998.
Until this month, no column in my three years writing for this website generated more e-mail vitriol from the people than that MJ view. That changed when I offered two explanations in the past couple weeks to break down why I was voting for LeBron over Carmelo for Rookie of the Year. Those explanations generated as much 'Melo passion and LeBron-bashing as my Inbox withstood back in '01, when it was flooded by streams of MJ-backing. Only this time I didn't see it coming. I didn't expect LeBron vs. Carmelo to be the hot-button issue on the same level with All Things Mike.
It is not without sympathy to the Carmelo Camp -- and Kiki Vandeweghe, one of the general managers I most respect -- that I bestowed my ROY vote on LBJ. But, again, the rules say you can only vote for one guy, and I stand by what I said in the last two columns: Good as 'Melo's first season was, LeBron was an irresistible choice. I covered one of Kevin Garnett's first pro games, and I remember how Titan legend Cedric Ceballos dunked on KG and mouthed "Not ready, not ready" to the courtside fans after punking the kid out of high school. I was a Laker beat writer for Kobe Bryant's rookie season and saw the degree of difficulty of the preps-to-pros jump on a daily basis. 'Melo, true, is not much older than LeBron, but there has never been a high schooler who has made the jump the way James did. Compare his rookie-year numbers to KG, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, you name it. Even without the playoff berth that Cleveland missed by one game, James had a historic season.
Some of the venom pitched our way so far has been rather humorous. I love getting hit with the East Coast Bias accusations, even though I've lived in a Western Conference city for all but 13 months of my nearly 11 seasons covering the NBA. Even better are the accusations that I'm being paid by Nike or Coca-Cola to stump for LBJ. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that the money I've spent on glass bottles of Coke alone has probably generated more revenue for that company than James' work as a pitchman. Coke should be paying me, but because I'm their Consumer of the Year. Every year.
Sorry to disappoint, but I voted for LeBron simply because he was the right choice. The most popular protest we've received is the one that contends that LeBron's ability to live up to the hype has nothing to do with what actually happens on the court. Excuse me? The never-before-seen expectations placed on LeBron create the kind of pressure that can ruin a guy's game. LeBron faced an ungodly amount of nightly scrutiny and pressure to avoid failure. You don't think that could have affected his on-court performance? The fact that it didn't definitely does have to factor into the ROY voting.
Anthony was undeniably special, especially at the end of the regular season when he helped shove the Nuggets into the playoffs for the first time since 1995. 'Melo, though, mostly had to worry about himself this season, because Vandeweghe put a nice (and underrated) mix of pressure-deflectors around him. And last season's Nuggets, don't forget, were not a 17-win team like the Cavs, even though the teams had the same win total. Denver might have been the most celebrated 17-win team of all time, having won admirers all over the league for playing hard and playing resolute defense. 'Melo stepped into a positive atmosphere.
In Cleveland, LeBron had to overcome a sickly, losing culture before the Cavs could even think about making a playoff push. He had to do more leading than a kid out of high school should. Failing to secure the No. 8 spot in the East is surely the one major strike against his campaign, but there is fresh numerical support for his case as well: If you want to talk about statistics, please note that James averaged more Birdies than Anthony, 16.96 to 14.21.
Birdies, for the uninitiated, are the end product of a formula Larry Bird devised long ago to quantify a player's contribution to overall team success. Bird likes to add a player's points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots ... and then subtract his missed shots, missed free throws, personal fouls and turnovers ... and then divide the total by the number of games played. Using that formula, James' Bird rating approached the 18.31 registered by Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, who's widely considered the MVP of the East.
"All anyone talks about with this guy is how much talent he has -- what you don't see is how much work LeBron puts in," said Cavaliers assistant Bob Donewald, who James likes to call "my assistant head coach" and a member of Paul Silas' staff in New Orleans before Cleveland.
"From Minute 1, all he has done is work. He's one of the most coachable kids I've ever seen. Paul gives him something to work on and LeBron will just turn to me and say, 'Let's get it done.' It started back in July when Paul told him he had too much movement in his shot. (James) wanted to watch tape after tape after tape until he corrected it. We won't go three games now without sitting down and breaking down film of (something) he wants to improve. His jumper, his ball-handling, his low-post game -- everything."
OK, OK, OK. We hear you. We've broken down the 'Bron-over-'Melo voting process three times -- twice more than originally planned -- and it's just whipping some of you into a frenzy all over again. So this is really it.
Besides, I wouldn't be surprised if LeBron says something at his press conference about how he'd gladly hand the trophy over to Anthony if it meant the Cavs could be playing a playoff game Tuesday night. It's also time to stress that both of these 19-year-olds should be considered for a spot on the Olympic squad if roster slots keep opening up as expected. No, they're not veterans yet, so neither one has a seniority in. Yet both deserve immense credit for what they've added to the league.
One thing we can all agree on: These two have restored some faith in American hoops, with the sting of Indianapolis 2002 still fresh. Globalization might be the rage in David Stern's office, but one of the most reassuring developments of the season has to be knowing that this country can still churn out two teenagers so good that there's 24-7-365 arguing about who's better.
It's easy to sympathize with the vocal fans who think Carmelo Anthony should be Rookie of the Year.