Monday, June 13, 2011

The Michael Jordan Problem

Sporting immortality, greatness and a positive answer to the ‘Michael Jordan question’ will have to wait at least another season for LeBron James. This was supposed to be his year. The year when having moved from the Cleveland Cavaliers – in hugely controversial circumstances – to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a triumvirate talented enough to win him the NBA title, James would fulfil his destiny with the Miami Heat.

Having charged into the Final to meet the Dallas Mavericks – themselves a motley group of talented yet seemingly unfulfilled basketball players including the thirty-eight-year-old Jason Kidd and the thirty-two-year-old Dirk Nowitzki – the Miami Heat were the overwhelming favourites. And after game one, in which the Heat cruised to a 92-84 win, one thought the series was all but sealed – a run to victory that wouldn’t need James to parade his dazzling array of skills. The Jordan question would have been left unanswered, but for different reasons. The victory for Heat would have been simple. There would have been no need for fourth-quarter-seventh-game heroics from James.

As it has turned out, though, it is Nowitzki who has left an indelible mark on the game. Consistent, searing displays of excellence, in spite of nursing an injured left thumb and suffering from bouts of high fever, saw the gangly German secure the Ring that his talents have undoubtedly deserved. Every question asked of him he answered with glorious certainty. Whenever the Mavs were in need of a big play, Nowitzki demanded the ball and made things happen, either by driving to the basket or fading away and shooting with unerring accuracy from the paint. After game three, he lashed out at Jason Terry for failing to step up to the occasion. Since then Terry has been electric, scoring 17 points in game four, 21 in game five and 27 in the series-sealing game six. Not only did Nowitzki elevate himself – rising way above his seven-foot frame – but in the manner of a true champion he inspired those around him to greater deeds.

Curiously, though, in spite of Nowitzki’s heroics – which won him the Final’s Most Valuable Player award – the focus will remain squarely on LeBron James, the ‘anointed’ successor to Michael Jordan. This of course has little to do with James himself as Josh Levin argues in this piece for Slate. It isn’t James’s fault that Jordan was so unquestionably great, that his aura continues to haunt every player with palpably rich skills who has graced a basketball court since. Jordan was one of a kind – a player possessed of supreme talent and the ability to perform under the severest of pressure.

In the 1998 final, when Jordan put the Chicago Bulls in the lead with 5 seconds to play of their deciding game seven against Utah Jazz, he transcended all boundaries of greatness. It was not merely a great play, but a legend-defining one, a play that elevated Jordan to the very top of the pantheon. (The moment is described beautifully in this piece by David Halberstam in the New Yorker) Since then, Kobe Bryant has won five titles with the L.A. Lakers, the first three in the company of Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant, no doubt, possesses his own claims to greatness, but unhappily for him he doesn’t quite possess a Jordan-esque moment, again due to no fault of his own. But trailing Jordan by only one ring, Bryant has time to raise himself even further, maybe reach echelons of greatness that will make him and not Jordan the standard. It will certainly put an end to the dreary Michael Jordan problem and create a new Kobe Bryant problem that may fascinate briefly even if proving to be ultimately monotonous – a bit like this piece.

Anyway, coming back to James, when he was questioned after game three for ‘shrinking’ in the fourth quarter, he said: “I think you’re concentrating on one side of the floor. All you’re looking at is the stat sheet…. You should watch the film again and see what I did defensively.” This represents the prime concern with judging a basketball player. American sport has always relied heavily on statistics. The number of points, the assists, the rebounds, the steals, and the blocks that a player makes is what he is judged on. James even while ticking many of these boxes, failed to score heavily enough in the fourth quarter – often it was Wade who was making the play in crunch situations. But, what about the intangibles? His movement, his presence and his ability to use the ball intelligently even if not resulting in a direct assist or a direct point goes virtually unnoticed. No doubt, in the ultimate analysis, James’s failure to make himself counted in the fourth quarter played a huge role in the Mavs victory. But the sad irony is that even if the Heat had won, perhaps, due to a combination of excellence from James, Wade and Bosh, James may still have faced criticism for a lack of fourth-quarter brilliance. After all, he is always going to be judged by the exalted standards set by Jordan.

This brings us back to James’s move to Miami. At Cleveland, he was clearly the top dog. Success for the Cavaliers depended solely on James. Reaching the final, which he did in 2007 with the Cavs was by itself a great achievement. That the San Antonio Spurs swept them away with nonchalance was not James’s fault. He hadn’t the support that Jordan had with the Bulls or Bryant had with the Lakers. This is the reason why he left Cleveland for Miami, a quest for titles. At the Heat, though, he doesn’t merely have a support cast, but in Wade a competitor for the main-man status. As a result, any title won is unlikely to go down as his own. In other words, the Michael Jordan problem will never be resolved. He’d rather have remained at Cleveland, soldiered on for glory, heroically even if ultimately a failure. This would have provided James with his own clutch over greatness – even if of a different kind from the one that Jordan imperiously owns.

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