There were a few Game 7 fourth quarter plays where LeBron James was matched up against Brandon Bass. Now, it’s remembered as LeBron torching Bass, or Doc making the mistake of putting Bass on James. And yes, LeBron dunked on poor Brandon in semi-transition. It was a stunning crossover that morphed into a tomahawk in a way that made it all look like part of the same movement.
But, what followed did not reflect so poorly on Bass. An exhausted James had difficulty beating him off the dribble, which resulted in a lucky dagger of a deep three. In the subsequent possessions, a flagging LeBron settled for two bricked jumpers. He was tired, the victory was largely in hand, but I couldn’t help but think:
Cleveland LeBron would make a planted windmill out of Brandon Bass.
Cleveland LeBron thrice averaged over 10 free throw attempts per game. Cleveland LeBron beat the entire Detroit Pistons team off the dribble en route to a Game 5 victory that felt like history’s closest trouncing. He was a brilliant passer and an inexorable force when driving. To call LeBron “just that” would be reductive, but those qualities defined him.
It did not look as though he needed much else, well, maybe apart from a slightly improved jumper. In 2008-2009 LeBron posted 31.7 PER and .318 win shares mark. He was dominant in the 2009 playoffs, though his team failed him against Orlando. James was nearly as good the next season, but in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron was memorably mortal in that Game 5 versus the Celtics, for reasons that still aren’t clear. Still, it was only a game. His playoffs were altogether brilliant, and his supporting cast was altogether mediocre.
Cut to last year with the Heat, when Dallas cut off his driving lanes. The Finals were like a protracted Boston, Game 5. James appeared stripped of his powers, the basketball version of shorn Sampson. Unable to drive, he was left to pass the ball and watch like the role players he so often created threes for. Perhaps his still-wondrous athleticism had eroded just enough to make this possible, and perhaps Dallas had just the right means to make a spectator out of LeBron.
It was not unlike what once happened to the guy on the other side of the ball. Dirk Nowitzki had entered the 2007 playoffs at the peak of his productivity. He had posted a career high in win shares, and his second highest PER (his highest mark came the year before). In many ways, 2007 Dirk was superior to 2011 Dirk. The more athletic 2007 version certainly rebounded better, which is a large part of a power forward’s supposed role. But that Nowitzki had vulnerabilities. He could be flummoxed by the right double team, or the especially pesky defender. The Warriors exploited his flaws, and Dallas flamed out before the feet of a wonderfully insane 8th seed.
2011 Nowitzki was less athletic, but quite invulnerable. He was aware enough to pass out of any double, from any angle, so there was no real plan for quelling him. 2011 Dirk might not have been a superhero like Achilles, but his heels were sturdy and shielded.
2012 LeBron might not be quite the superhero that 2009 LeBron was, but his heels are sturdy and shielded. If he can’t drive, he goes to the post and bludgeons opponents with wrecking ball shoulders. James has a dropstep now. And a floater. And a shot fake for when he wants to draw fouls without having to drive for them. LeBron James might be less productive than his old self, but there’s no stopping the current version. That’s what makes him better than before.