Friday, May 9, 2008

What to make of LeBron's meltdown

We told a friend yesterday that LeBron's Game 1 showing just verifies the feeling we've had for a long time--that LeBron is not a naturally gifted scorer. Then we reflected on this, and we realized we'd just essentially peed on the carpet of sports knowledge. We still contend that never has a dominant player been left to essentially figure out NBA offensive basketball on his own like LeBron, but we had a revelation that may just be trite.

As is well known, one star isn't enough to win much in the NBA (to scale for you Denver fans, we thnk the math is that five stars is enough to win a playoff game), and Cleveland's inability to win a championship will be a foregone conclusion until they surround Bron with a legitimate star-caliber player. But we still think LeBron's game is lacking, and we're going to go ahead an attribute that to the reason why a) the Cavs can't get through the East and b) why they won't win until he improves it.

First, it should be noted that, for his combination of quickness and strength, LeBron is a horrid defender. About the only thing he does well is play the passing lanes. He can't guard penetration because he doesn't try to beat his man to the spot, and he doesn't play underneath his opponent; he essentially just likes to flare out his chest, shuffle his feet and use his arms.

Fine. Who needs defense, anyway, when you are a triple-double threat every night and your points will be up around 30? The problem, we think, is with just how one-dimensional Bron's game is for a superstar offensive player. This is known: Bron's drive is unstoppable (anyone who wants to make a fuss over a few blown layups has to realize that, well, even Bron's not Tony Parker!). His shot? It's streaky but pretty damn solid when he plays off the dribble (which is always, because Mike Brown just sucks.)

But we watch Kobe, just like we watched MJ, and there's something missing in Bron's offensive arsenal compared to these two, and it's not his shot. Bron doesn't really play off the ball ever, which means he never, ever plays with his back to the basket. Drawing a double-team in the post is about the best thing a player can do to find his teammates open looks, especially a perimeter-oriented team, because when the guard sags off his man to reach his hands in on the post player, he needs to make a lot of ground to defend that three, and becomes very easy to drive by. It's plain basketball. MJ and Kobe both do/did a brilliant job of finding the cutter off their post games, and Bron's much stronger than either of these two, but he seems to never want to go baseline and never really do anything other than dribble the ball from 25-feet out, smack in the middle of the court, and either go right or kick the ball out for a three.

And that's fine: a scorer this physically gifted will, adjust to to the defense and get his baskets. But so far, it's taken LeBron two games to do that, and with jump shots not falling, Paul Pierce, a really average defender who LeBron's dominates in both size and quickness, has been able to predict LeBron's iso move to the right, and even if he can't stop LeBron, he gets to the spot fast enough to cut off his angle, bump LeBron a bit, and make his layup that much tougher. With Michael, as with Kobe, there's no predicting which move will come. Maybe it's still owed to the fact that Bron doesn't have anything but three-point shooters around him, but we'd say Bron's offense lacks originality right now. He either gets going from three or the drive is all he has. And he dominated the Pistons with that alone a season ago, but now the Celtics are showing they can disrupt him around the basket. Time for Bron to try out a different angle offensively.

Note: we wrote this before game three, and then our laptop died, and then we spent the weekend studying for finals. We think it's still relevant, considering Bron still, well, kinda sucked in game three. We'll readily admit his passing was big in the win, but West/Wally/Wallace/(W)Zyrdunas shot a collective 67%, and that won't recur.

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