With the start of the NBA Finals some critics of LeBron James are inevitably going to send the same old digs his way. Should the Cavs lose a game to the Warriors, we will no doubt hear this tired refrain, “LeBron just doesn’t want it as much as Michael, Kobe or Larry did.”
While the catcall is ridiculous, at least it will immediately render the person (fan or media) a dope, a Scarlet letter of ignorance. We can discard that opinion with speed and force. Because frankly, how would any of us ever possibly gauge who of these guys “wants it more?”
There are always going to be athletes who give off a slacker’s vibe or apathetic attitude who can be easy to identify. Jay Cutler, Jamarcus Russell and Johnny Manziel usually land on the lists of players who don’t care. These are fair critiques, for the most part. Cutler alienated his coaches, coordinators and teammates constantly, most of them suggesting he was a prima donna and difficult to get along with. Russell and Manziel smoke, drank and/or ate their way out of the league, suggesting they had other priorities than football.
Joe Barry Carroll was labeled, “Joe Barely Cares.” Nearly the entire 1986 NBA Draft class knocked themselves out of the league with drug problems. It would be okay to dismiss any of these busts for not caring enough. But once you get into categories where Hall-of-Famers and immortals roam, questioning their desire seems like a Fool’s Errand.
You could argue Charles Barkley didn’t care as much as Michael, and at least there’s evidence. He warred with the Sixers organization and essentially chose to get fat and lazy to force a trade out of spite, eventually to the Suns. He also admits he ate his way out of Houston late in his career because he was so angry at the front office. Shaq’s an all-time great who could get the moniker of not caring enough. While in Orlando, the centerpiece of a budding dynasty, he was constantly distracted by marketing opportunities and his own celebrity, then driven to find a destination where he would get more attention (and money) than Penny Hardaway. These are not the motivations of a win-at-all-cost player.
But LeBron’s career has been defined by the exact opposite. His most unpopular decision was “The Decision,” which was tone-deaf and crass. But it was also a way to leave an organization he felt couldn’t win for a first-class one that could. LeBron didn’t leave Cleveland for a loser. He didn’t drop the Cavs for a mediocre team. He didn’t walk out of his hometown to chase money or for more attention. He left for a better chance at winning, because he felt the crush of pressure not winning had created.
LeBron’s Cavaliers career 1.0 never brought a championship, but the only time his effort could have been questioned was in the 2010 East Semis. In the loss to the Celtics he played lifeless basketball, no more so than in Game 5, a dreadful 3-14, 15-point effort in a 32-point loss. This was also the playoffs where Delonte West and LeBron’s family had salacious rumors spread about them. In a deciding Game 6, LeBron’s 27 points were not enough to avoid elimination.
LeBron’s effort in Cleveland was nearly impeccable, even if his team’s supporting cast was D-League caliber. He ripped apart the Pistons in the East Finals in ’07 in a breathtaking performance. He was often the only member of the team doing enough to win at the highest level. In the ’11 Finals, the Heat lost to the Mavs. A bad, bitter defeat for a Super Team. But he also had 21 and 6 in the deciding Game 6, and went for a triple-double in a Game 5 loss. Not exactly atrocious stat lines. The Heat hadn’t won, didn’t realize what the recipe together was yet, and it showed.
Essentially, since then LeBron has been perfect. He has made 7 straight NBA Finals, which is a totally absurd streak. He has had pantheon great performances in clutch moments, all of them since June ’11. Game 6 at Boston in ’12. Game 7 vs. Boston in ’12. Game 6 to eliminate the Pacers in ’14. Game 6 vs. the Spurs in ’13. Game 7 vs. the Spurs in ’13. Games 1-6 vs. the Warriors in ’15. The entire 7-game series vs. Golden State in his crowning achievement in ’16.
These are all massive, huge moments for LeBron when it mattered most. So what’s the evidence he doesn’t care as much as Michael, Kobe or Larry? Because those guys visibly sweat more? They snapped at the media? They are known for berating their teammates instead of building them up? Each of them had coaches fired under their watch. Each of them lost playoff series. Kobe and Larry lost NBA Finals to arch-rivals. But somehow the snarling critics want to portray “cared more” than LeBron. Well, here’s a news bulletin: There’s no reason to care at all about such an ill-informed opinion.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.