You didn't have to be Nostradamus to predict this one.
LeBron James, NBA Most Valuable Player.
The most gifted player of his generation picked up the MVP award for the fourth time, joining Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russel and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players who have won the award at least four times. That is some elite company James has now surrounded himself with, and he is more than worthy of being compared to the very best to have ever played the game. The most frightening thing for everybody is James is only 28 years old and is just entering the prime of his physical prowess so there is a real possibility he could get even better.
A man destined for greatness from the very outset of his journey.
He was once a boy who dawned the Sports Illustrated cover when he was just 16 with the title 'The Chosen One' and would have been the number one pick in the NBA Draft if the rules allowed him to declare as a high school junior. To quote Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge at the time 'There are only five players in the league i wouldn't trade to get LeBron right now'. That's when he was 16 years old. He was lined up for a rookie record sponsorship deal with Nike at $90 million over four seasons, he had been introduced to the great and the good of the Basketball and showbiz world and had even been invited for a private workout by Jordan himself. All this following impressive statistics of 29.6 points per game, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Those stats he had as a Junior at St. Vincent/St. Mary's high school in Ohio haven't altered throughout his time in the NBA. LeBron is still a dominant scorer and a willing passer, something that wowed scouts during his Junior season. When most kids are learning how to play the game, LeBron had seemed to have mastered it entirely and all before his 17th Birthday.
After his senior season in High School, which he stayed for despite threatening to challenge the NBA's ruling on Draft entries, the hype surrounding James was unprecedented. He averaged 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.4 steals a game, was a first team All-American and the consensus Number One prospect in the Country. St. Vincent/St. Mary's had to move their games to Akron University's arena, such was the demand for tickets. They would constantly sell-out the 5100 seat arena and they could have sold it out three times over on occasions. Everybody was making an effort to come and see the next Basketball phenom. From rapper Jay-Z to Basketball royalty Shaquille O'Neal, everybody wanted to get a glimpse first hand of just what this kid from Akron could do. Despite visits to Duke, Ohio State, Akron and Florida it was going to be nearly impossible for James to enter College given all the hype surrounding him. He subsequently declared for the 2003 NBA Draft.
The 2003 Draft will be forever known as 'The LeBron James Sweepstakes', some even speculating that teams were deliberately throwing games as they looked for better odds in the lottery to secure James with the first pick. As it turned out, LeBron didn't have to move far to play in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the joint-worst record in the league, won the lottery and almost immediately announced they were taking James with the first pick. It was a fairytale for James, who had the chance to turn around the fortunes of a franchise very close to his heart. There was a monumental amount of pressure on the young man's shoulders but judging by the way he had dealt with everything that he had experienced up to now, there was no doubting he would be able to handle it. He was the resounding favourite for Rookie of the Year in a draft that featured Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Marquette's Dwayne Wade and Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh. Ironically, three out of the four would eventually join forces to create the superpower that we now call the NBA Champion Miami Heat.
LeBron's rookie season was everything we hoped it would be and more. He mesmerized fans with his highlight reel dunks and transformed the Cavaliers from a laughing stock to a Playoff contender in his first season in the league. He was named the 2004 Rookie of the Year with averages of 20.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals and he played in all but three games. There was now no doubt that we were witnessing true greatness develop in-front of our very eyes. There were some questions surrounding James' ability to adjust to the rigors of a grueling NBA season but he answered his critics with a series of dominant displays that had every Cleveland fan dreaming of a Championship under James' leadership.
It wasn't until his third season in the league that LeBron got a taste of the Playoffs, eventually losing in seven games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. LeBron posted staggering numbers during that season, averaging 31.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists over 92 games and was deemed very unfortunate not to gain his first MVP award, narrowly losing out to Steve Nash. However, the Cavaliers were now a legitimate title contender due to LeBron's exceptional play and a first MVP award wouldn't be long coming if he continued to develop. He was a worldwide superstar and a media -darling who conducted himself as well off the court as he did on. He was viewed by many as the most complete player in the league after only three seasons and there were few, if any, players in the league comfortable guarding him one-on-one throughout the game. He seemed to be able to score at will on anybody brave enough to guard him while also giving the ball up to someone in a better position should the opportunity present itself. This is an trait missing in most elite scorers in the league but ever since High School LeBron has had the ability to make everybody around him better. His on-court vision and timing is extraordinary and the comparisons with Magic Johnson were with good reason. It was now the job of the Cavaliers front office to get LeBron the complimentary pieces around him so that he could provide his hometown state with a championship.
James wouldn't have to wait much longer for his first NBA Finals appearance, which came the following season. He once again missed out on the MVP Award, this time to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, but his statistics were once again off-the-charts. He averaged 26.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 98 games in a staggering 41.6 minutes on the court. However, a 4-0 finals loss at the hands of the Spurs had people questioning James for perhaps the first time in his career. He was criticised for not taking over close games in the fourth quarter the way the greats throughout the years have done. He seemed too willing to pass the ball when there was a good opportunity to shoot or go to the basket to draw contact. How ironic, given it was James' unselfish play that had drawn widespread praise throughout his playing career. The pressure did seem to get to James during his first finals appearance and he was put off his rhythm by a veteran Spurs team who had an All-NBA Defender in Bruce Bowen, who was making things very uncomfortable. This was the first time James had come under any sort of criticism in his career and some would wonder just how he would react to it, given that everything had come so easy to him due to his God-Given talent. James is a renowned student of the game and isn't afraid to seek counsel from NBA greats on how to improve his game. Case-in-point, the time he spend with NBA Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon during the 2011 off-season improving his post game. James worked hard during the time they spent together to improve every aspect of his game in the hope of getting a championship to Cleveland. As it would turn out, this would be the only NBA finals appearance James would make for his hometown team. There was also speculation regarding LeBron's contract situation that was starting to gather momentum. It was common knowledge that teams were preparing to create salary-cap space to make a run at signing the league's most gifted player and even though James' contract didn't expire until the end of the 2009-2010 season, it wouldn't stop people from discussing where James would be likely to go should he choose to depart Cleveland.
A disappointing season by James' standards followed and Cleveland were eliminated in the Conference Semi-Finals to the Boston Celtics. James was once again harshly treated by the media for his performances in the post-season and his behaviour off-the-court. James, blaming frustration, didn't wait to congratulate the Celtics on their achievement and stormed down the tunnel and refused to speak with reporters after the season had concluded. Was the pressure of trying to get the elusive first championship finally getting to him? After all, most thought that he would have had a couple of rings to show for his efforts by now, such were the expectations surrounding James when he was drafted. Every man has his breaking point and some had come to the conclusion that James could have found his. His numbers were still at a supremely high level (29.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists) but now there was a real lack of belief that James could close out games sufficiently to get over the hump and to his first championship.
As he has done for the majority of his career, James ignored his critics and let his Basketball do the talking. He was nothing short of phenomenal during the 2008/09 season which saw LeBron crowned MVP for the first time in his career. He averaged 29.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists and led the Cavaliers to an NBA best 66-16 record. This was the crowning glory for LeBron and the pinnacle of all the accolades he had received throughout his career. It was just the NBA championship that was missing and there would have be no better opportunity than this year for James to achieve his dream. It was not to be, the Cavaliers once again flattered to deceive in the Playoffs and they were upset by the Orlando Magic 4-2 in the conference finals. LeBron was visibly deflated following this loss, perhaps more so than he had been during his entire career. Were the doubts everybody had about his ability to win a title now creeping into his mind? Was the contract situation now beginning to take it's toll? LeBron had one more year to run on his contract before he became an unrestricted free agent and have ninety percent of NBA teams vying for his services. One thing was for sure, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert did not hesitate in making sure James was surrounded by a premiere supporting cast to ensure another title challenge was assured which would give James more reason to keep his gifts in Ohio.
It was the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal from the Phoenix Suns that was thought to be the missing piece of the puzzle. O'Neal is one of the most dominant players to ever play the Center position and he has helped mercurial talents such as Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade get their rings. A dominant scoring presence on the interior could be just what James has needed as he looked to achieve his goal. The 2009/10 season was another stellar one for LeBron. He won his second consecutive MVP award, averaging 29.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.4 assists, with the Cavaliers once again holding the Eastern Conference's best regular season record at 61-21. They were once again primed to get out of the East and into the NBA finals and once again they were a massive disappointment when it came down to the intensity of the post-season. They were unceremoniously dumped out of the Playoffs by the Boston Celtics in the Conference Semi-Finals and many thought by James' body language that this series would be the last time you would see him in a Cavaliers uniform. It was thought that a big market team were ready to lure LeBron to their city with the promise to propel his image to levels only seen by Jordan himself. The New York Knicks were seen as the most likely destination, they had cleared cap space for the specific reason of landing James and another one of the free agent class to pair him with. The Knicks had underachieved for a number of years but the marketing prospects in the city would be astonishing and it would be an offer James would find very hard to turn down. He would be playing Basketball in the media capital of the world and also in the most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. All this would make it very difficult for James to resist the temptation of the Knicks.
James himself gave no clear indication as to what he was going to do. He had heard the pitches from a number of teams. He had been romanced by Jay-Z and the Brooklyn Nets, enticed by the promises of riches with the Knicks and intrigued by the history of the Chicago Bulls. However, James had always said that he wanted to go to the place that gave him the best chance of winning. The rumours surrounding a 'Super-team' in Miami with Dwayne Wade had gathered momentum throughout free agency. Wade had met with James during their visit with General Manager Pat Riley to discuss terms and it was Miami where James would eventually choose. Not only would he be teaming up with Wade, but also Chris Bosh, who had departed Toronto in search of a contender. It wasn't about the money, James could have made double what he was making in Miami in New York. It was the best way to get a chance to win a Championship. Miami now had three All-Stars and three of the top six picks in the 2003 draft. James handled the situation terribly, something that he acknowledges now. He made a spectacle of himself on ESPN as they devoted a SportsCenter special on 'The Decision'. He showed a complete disregard for his hometown team and their fans by choosing this path and there were ugly scenes of fans burning James merchandise and reports of minor rioting throughout the Ohio area. They felt that James had turned his back on them without so much as a 'thank you' and given them false hope of him resigning when it was clear that this had been in the pipeline for some time. James, Wade and Bosh were all part of Team USA and were all represented by the same agency which was sure to smooth negotiations. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was apoplectic and demanded action be taken for what he saw as a clear rule violation. Nothing was proved to back up this fact and the term 'free agency' took on a whole new meaning after this scenario came to light. LeBron was no longer a media darling, he was vilified by most in the game and went from hero to a hate-figure with the signing of one contract. Many thought James had lost his chance of establishing himself as one of the all-time greats by aligning himself with two all-stars to gain a ring.
Things went to script early on and the Heat ended up with a 58-24 record and sat atop the Eastern Conference. There were a few chemistry problems along the way but it was going to take a huge effort to beat this group of individuals four games out of seven in a series. LeBron's numbers were once again MVP worthy (26.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.8 assists) but he was overlooked for the award, which was given to Chicago's Derrick Rose. Many thought James' attitude throughout the season towards the media was a key contributing factor in James not receiving the award. He was aloof, sulky and remorseless with reporters for the best part of the season and you got the impression that James now thought the whole world was against him. Unlike in Cleveland, James was dominant in the Playoffs as Miami breezed through to the NBA Finals with relative ease. The first ring for LeBron seemed a formality at this point. The Heat didn't count on the resilience of the Dallas Mavericks, who had shocked everyone by winning the Western Conference and would eventually beat the Heat 4-2 in a stunning upset. James' old frailties resurfaced in the Finals. He appeared tentative down the stretch and the lack of cohesion with his new teammates was evident. He was once again so near, yet so far and there would have been alot of people that would have taken great pleasure in LeBron's failure. What's more he knew it too. This was a crossroads in the career of LeBron without question. With the off-season set to be extended due to the impending lockout James would have more time to stew on this disappointment and how he would react was going to tell us a great deal about where his career would go from here.
It is a great testament to the man himself that he responded in the correct way. When the season finally resumed he seemed to be playing with a smile on his face again. When James is enjoying his Basketball, there is nobody better to watch. One season of developing his chemistry with his new teammates was also a considerable help to James. The Heat's fast break basketball produced some of the best plays we have ever seen from a team perspective. They were a threat all over the court and could crush you just as easily with their defense as their offense. James was crowned MVP once again, averaging 28 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists. More importantly for the Heat, he had his swagger back. They were once again the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and looking for a second consecutive trip to the finals. This time, there was virtually no doubt. They had their struggles in the Playoffs, in particular against the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics, who took the Heat to the brink of elimination in the Conference finals.There was no doubting that their failure last season had made this team more resilient and James had now emerged as the undisputed leader of this team. His determination was a sight to behold as he showed the spirit and skill that was sorely missing in last years finals. The finals themselves were a procession. The Heat destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 and James finally had what he had longed for his whole life, an NBA Championship. LeBron had the look of a man who had the weight of the World lifted from his shoulders and who could blame him? He is one of the most scrutinized sportsmen on planet and it is bound to take it's toll. I'm sure as he sat in the locker room after the game cradling the Larry O'Brien trophy as if it was an infant it was all worth it in the end. The prophecy had finally been fulfilled.
Where would LeBron go from here? Would he be content with what he has, or strive for more? The greats throughout history are generally compared and measured by the amount of rings they have. If he wants to be taken seriously as the greatest player to ever play the game then he has to get his ring's tally up. There is no doubt he has to potential to match Jordan's total. His play this season has demonstrated that. James has been playing with a freedom we have not seen for some time. The talk of 'will James ever win a ring?' has long since subsided and it seem to has relaxed him tremendously. The Heat, and James, have been as dominant as any team in recent memory this season. They had the NBA's best record at 66-16, had the second longest winning streak of All-Time with 27, and are the red-hot favourites to make it back-to-back championships with every bookmaker in the country. James has been on another planet at times this season and was a worthy winner of his fourth MVP award. It was almost unanimous too, with James getting all but one first place vote, which went to Carmelo Anthony. He averaged 26.7 points per game, 8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and was also second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, which tells you something about his intensity on both ends of the floor. He leads by example, always has done and this season was no different. We sometimes take James' greatness for granted. We have seen it for so long now that has almost become normal. That couldn't be further from the truth, everything James does is the height of excellence and he shows no signs of slowing down. The Heat have done a fantastic job of putting the right pieces around James to ensure his skills are fully maximised. Not that James needs any help in his current form. Given the level at which James is playing it could be argued he would make even the lowly Charlotte Bobcats a Playoff contender. How that would please Jordan, who seems to be running out of ideas fast with his beleaguered franchise. Alas, this is not the case and LeBron and the Heat looked poised to go close once more.
They did hit a little bit of a stumbling block last night in the first game of their Conference semi-final against the injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls. Playing without Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, the Bulls mustered a performance that few thought they were capable of against a full-strength Heat team. Led by the rejuvenated Nate Robinson, who seems to be growing with every critical game in the Playoffs, the Bulls pulled off a 93-86 victory over the rusty Heat in Miami to gain an advantage in the series right from the outset. The Heat hadn't played since April 28th and after 8 days off the timing issues were evident from the outset. James also fell victim to some early mishaps as he had to endure a 2 point first half before finishing with 24 points off 8-17 shooting. The Bulls have now snapped two winning streaks the Heat have strung together, having broken the Heat's 27 game winning streak on March 27th. Many are now wondering whether or not the Bulls have the tools to do what has looked impossible over the course of the season, beating the Heat four times out of the allocated seven in a series. It is sure to be a tight affair but you can't envisage LeBron and company having another off-night like this collectively. One of the star players can be counted on more often than not for a big performance to guide his team to victory. It will most probably be James, who has had to work for everything that has been given to him over the last 24 months and it is doubtful he will let that good work slip away. The Heat have work to do and they can't be relying on their talisman to get it done all by himself. That didn't work in Cleveland and it won't work here against an airtight Bulls defense, but if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it's that James is now at the forefront of this team's drive and will not rest until he is mentioned as the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. It's what has driven him since we first came across the kid from Ohio who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the tender age of 16.
After all he has been through i can only end with a quote from John Keats:
“I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
That just about sums it up. Get used to King James being on top of the mountain, you may be seeing it for a good while yet.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_