What Makes LeBron James So Good?

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes under pressure from Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors during the NBA Finals on June 7, 2015, in Oakland, California. 

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Jonathan Brill, NBA fan:

If you were going to design the world’s best basketball player, you might do something like this:

Make him big enough so that he can play either wing spot and even climb into power forward should the need arise. Magic Johnson was 6-feet-9 and famously played center for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 finals. Ben Wallace was only 6-feet-9, and he was the most dominant defensive center in the game for a few years. Larry Bird was 6-feet-9 and he was the most dynamic forward in history. You don’t want to go much shorter than that because you start to give up size, and if you want to play inside out, size is critical. Not just height, but having the kind of frame that will support the weight needed to bang inside. Guys like Ron Artest and Shawn Marion are good modern-day equivalents. LeBron James is like Magic Johnson, only with 20 pounds more muscle, better conditioning and diet (in Magic’s defense he came up in an era where it was still OK to go out drinking and do a nontrivial amount of drugs the night before a game), and a football wide receiver’s hands.

This perfect player will need to be a student of the game and understand it from a coach’s perspective. He’ll need to know how to assess other players and motivate them, how to game plan and how to build a plan for skills improvement. When LeBron James was 9 years old, he was sent to live with a youth football coach. This coach taught him the game of basketball, and with no father in his life, LeBron became a student of the game from the various local coaches he had until he graduated high school. LeBron didn’t come into the league as a starry-eyed kid thinking about earning a few bucks, but a student of basketball for 10 years.

You’d want him to be able to score at will but also understand how to feed his teammates. It turns out that in basketball, five people take the court at the same time, and effort and energy seem to be among the primary indicators of success. One way to motivate a team and get the best effort out of it is to feed its members precise passes in places where they’re likely to score. Get them a few buckets early and they’ll kill themselves for you all game. When LeBron was in high school, he played for a team coached by Dru Joyce II. LeBron’s teammate was Dru Joyce III, who got most of the good touches. LeBron’s first taste at organized ball was keeping the coach’s son happy so he could get more playing time and more coaching attention. LeBron’s basketball genesis wasn’t about how to score; it was about how to win with four overmatched teammates against the toughest teams in the country. LeBron’s job was to equalize as distributor, and then eventually as lead scorer and left right up down left left right right God Mode.

At some point, you need to introduce pain. And not just the pain associated with being born of a single teenage parent who had to give him up when he was 9 to family and friends who could afford to take care of him. No, I’m talking about the kind of pain and humiliation that happens to an adult, the kind that makes you question reality. Not the kind that can be forgotten, but the kind that introduces a fight-or-flight mechanism that makes you rethink your whole life and that maybe everybody who ever believed in you was just making a horrible mistake. The kind of pain that Jordan felt when the Pistons shut him down over and over again and Isaiah shut him out at the all-star game. The kind of pain that makes you hate. LeBron hates the Celtics. And Tyson Chandler. And Derrick Rose. And probably Michael Jordan, at least a little bit. LeBron was reading everything anybody said about him in the media, and a handful of guys were saying stuff on the court. And then they’d beat him. This of course culminated in the most un-self-aware series of PR events in recent memory, something that resulted in him and his team getting boo’d in every arena they played in for a solid year.

No hero narrative is complete without a fall into the depths of despair. James’ fall resulted in him spending two weeks at his house in drawn-shades, beard-growing, isolation. Brian Windorst of ESPN writes:

After James left the arena that night, he said he immediately went into a two-week depression, walling himself off from everyone. He didn’t play basketball, he didn’t talk basketball to pretty much anyone. He didn’t even shave. Looking in the mirror after days of not shaving and daring himself to watch a few minutes of that hideous Finals game film – especially Game 4 – can apparently cause a man to admit it was time for some changes. 

The season after that he won the championship. Then he did it again. Then he got back for two more tries. LeBron James is, right now, the most dominant player in the NBA, having an effect on the game through his own play but also making everybody around him 30 percent better.

Where he ends up on the all-time list is still in dispute, but there’s no dispute now that he is firmly entrenched near the top. LeBron James is almost the perfect definition of what a basketball player should be, from his psychological makeup to his now famous ability to adapt his game quickly for any situation. He’s one of the best ever, and those don’t come around very often.

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